Twitching & Twitchers

Twitching and All That Jazz

by Simon Nichols (2005)

“What’s it all about? That’s what I keep asking me self!”

So said Michael Caine at the end of Alfie, A successful British film of the 1970’s, Many think he was talking about women, I think he was discussing the multi-faceted hobby that is Birding!

Birding.* A name that originated in the US to describe, I think, the more energetic side of Birdwatching – It conjures up the image of people actually seeking out Birds and studying them, rather than the old sit back and wait attitude.

So, I hear you asking yourselves, where is this leading, I assume that as you are reading this you are probably a birder or at least vaguely interested in Birding. So, I will not bore you with what we do or why we do it. I am here, however to discuss the (in my opinion!) next stage up from Birding – that we call Twitching… I am now imagining the shrieks of horror coming from certain parts of the Birding Community and the click clack of keyboards as they write to the webmaster demanding the immediate removal of this filth! Like I said, this is my opinion and my reasoning, I don’t ask you to agree or disagree – just to enjoy the ride!

The Word Twitching also originated from the states** – how or why I don’t know. But needless to say the name caught on and there are now more than 4000 active Twitchers in the UK alone with an estimated further 3000 who Twitch occasionally. So in one sentence you have Twitch, Twitcher, Twitching. Back to Alfie on this one – What’s it all about?

As a Twitcher you go twitching or go on a twitch, once you have been you have twitched, if unsuccessful you will have dipped (*More about that later) – Confused? Pay attention – now for the science bit!

A Twitcher is essentially a Birder who actively seeks out the rare and scarce birds that get blown off course – thus appearing far out of their normal range. Distance is no object for the Fanatical Twitcher, nor it would seem is money or Time – for those of us who are governed by these rules a less sedate attitude is assumed.

My personal involvement in twitching happened around 1986, As a young Birder I did all the usual rounds, Saturdays and Sundays at the local Gravel pits interspersed with the occasional RSPB outing meant that birding was always fun – However I was always reading reports and listening to the few members of the Group who were into Twitching, I would be captivated as they would recount tales of Little Whimbrel, Varied Thrush etc – Birds I had not even heard of or seen pictures of, let alone seen in the flesh (or should I say the feather). I was soon looking these birds up in field-guides and slowly learning more about them – hoping that one day I might be able to see them.

I finally plucked up enough courage to ask these real Birders if I would be able to tag along when they next went out – I must have annoyed them for ages before they eventually said Yes.

So it was sometime in 1986 that I was looking at my first real rarity – I say real as the bird in question was an American Wigeon at Tring Reservoirs on the Hertfordshire/Buckinghamshire borders, only 25 miles from my house. But to me it represented a break into the world of twitching. Many thanks must go, at this point, to Chris Ward and Phil Lymbry who steered me through those early years – not least because they chauffeured me about as I was too young to drive – cheers lads. Since that day I have never looked Back – twitching to me is more then just chasing rare birds around the country; it’s also a chance to see a lot of places I wouldn’t normally think of going to, as well as the chance to see other birds that would normally require a special effort to see.

By way of explanation of the last statement – I made a trip, recently, to the Isle of Lewis (in the Western Isles) to twitch A White’s Thrush (A long time favourite bird of mine!) and although we saw the bird really well – it was the Trip itself that made it special – Watching Storm Petrels, Sooty Shearwaters and Great Skuas from the 3.5 hour ferry crossing, Mealy Redpoll, Hebridean race of Song Thrush, and Wild Rock Doves and Greylags on Lewis, not to mention the Capercaillies and Crested Tits in the Highlands on the way back. So its not necessarily seeing the White`s Thrush that I will remember the most, but the people and the places.

We stayed overnight in a youth hostel, enjoyed a few beers in the local hostelry and generally had a great time, all heightened by the fact we spent over 3 hours watching an amazing bird that I am unlikely to see again in my lifetime – in a place I may very well never visit – that is the real beauty of twitching.

Those sceptics who would have us all tarnished as uncaring, only-in-it-for-the-fix, maniacs have it all wrong. I have been in the enviable position of meeting many Twitchers/ birders over the years and they all care a great deal about birds, indeed many started just as I did – working local patches – before realising that they wanted more out of their hobby.

I want to conclude by saying that Twitching should be seen as an enhancement of birding. I like local birding as much now as I did 14 years ago but the need to work for a living limits the time I spend on my local patch if I still want to chase rarities – and, dear reader, I do!

I could have called this piece: Twitching – don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it. I’ll leave that as my end-piece of advice and respond to Alfie’s question – What is it all about? by answering, Twitching is all about having fun!

Simon Nichols

*Dipped , Dipping , Dip – not something you do to guacamole with nachos – but the act of missing the bird that you set out to see , whether it be a little Stint at the local pits or Male Siberian Thrush at Burnham Overy Dunes- I`m not bitter. (Not much he isn`t – The Fat Birder)

 

*In fact to go ‘a-birding’ is older than Shakespeare and in the past referred to hunting birds for the table (Fatbirder)

*The origin of the term is the subject of much debate… most not grounded in the UK but the UK. One tells of an early lister who used to arrive at the hub of bird news on his motorbike in all weathers and was usually shivering with cold (twitching). Another tells of a chap who used to get so excited by the news of a rarity turning up that he began to twitch… truth is no-one knows for sure where or when the term was first used for birders who chase rarities. (Fatbirder)

Useful Reading
  • Arrivals and Rivals - A Birding Oddity: A Year of Competitive Twitching

    | (A Duel For the Winning Bird) | by Adrian M Riley | Brambleby Books | 2007 | Edition 2 | Paperback | 180 pages, Colour Photos | ISBN: 9780954334796 Buy this book from NHBS.com
  • How Many Birds is That?

    | (From the Forty Spotted Pardalote on Bruny Island to the White-tailed Tropicbird on Cape York | Sue Taylor | Hyland House | 2001 | paperback | 154 pages, Colour & B&W IIlustrations | ISBN: 9781864470444 Buy this book from NHBS.com
  • Rare Birds Yearbook 2009

    | Edited by Erik Hirschfeld | Rare Birds Yearbook | 2010 | Paperback | 274 pages, photos | ISBN: 9780955260759 Buy this book from NHBS.com
  • The Big Twitch

    | by Sean Dooley | Allen & Unwin [Australia] | 2006 | Paperback | 322 pages, no illustrations | ISBN: 9781741145281 Buy this book from NHBS.com
  • The Biggest Twitch

    | (Around the World in 4,000 Birds) | By Alan Davies & Ruth Miller | Christopher Helm | 2014 | paperback | 301 pages, 32 pages colour photography | ISBN: 9781472918604 Buy this book from NHBS.com
Other Links
  • 700 Club

    Website
    Twitching is increasing in popularity in Southern Africa and there is now a dedicated group of people who try to see as many birds as they can within the sub-region. It is not uncommon these days to hear of a group that travel from one end of the country to the other to chase after a rare bird and with the advent of cell phones and the SA Rare Bird Alert list server, this is becoming reasonably commonplace. Southern Africa currently has a list of just over 930 species recorded within its boundaries and the group of people listed below have all seen at least 700 of these.
  • British Birds Rarities Committee

    Website
    Hon Sec MJ Rogers, 2, Churchdown Cottages, Towednack, St Ives, Cornwall, TR26 3AZ 01736 796223The BBRC is the official adjudicator of rare bird records in Britain. Its members are democratically elected by birders` representatives in each county and serve for a fixed term…
  • Club 4500

    Website
    For world class twitchers!
  • UK400 Club

    Website
    This is the UK400 Club Rare Bird Alert highlighting all records of avian interest and published in association with Rare Bird Alert Pagers and utilising additional information gleaned from the Regional Birdlines, BirdGuides, local email groups and individual observers
  • World Twitch

    Website
    Less known parts of the world well covered.
  • Year and Life List Rankings

    Website
    Welcome to a new and fun program on Surfbirds. Enter yourself into any or all of the Year and Life List Rankings below and share your milestones with others and maybe even enjoy some friendly competition. As we add more and more regions, this will become the largest database of its kind and a great way to share your milestones with the rest of the birding world. Even if you're a casual birder who isn't that list obsessive, this is still a great way to share, with others, some of the more exciting new birds you've just seen. If you're a keen lister, get the worldwide recognition you deserve for your achievements. It only takes a minute, updating is instant, so enter yourself today and keep updating your entry as often as you want!

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