Monday, 17 February 2020

The Twitching Thing

Back in the day  I never gave much thought to twitching, I just did it. I kept a British list, and vaguely remember breaking 200, then 300, and that it seemed important somehow. I suppose the first birds I ever 'twitched' were incidental goodies which happened to be on hand during visits to Norfolk and the like. You'd bump into birders and they'd ask if you knew about the so-and-so. A negative response inevitably led to them telling you where it was, and it seemed obvious to simply follow up the tip by going to see the bird. Was that twitching? Debatable I guess. But episodes like this gave Mrs NQS and me some memorable birds, like our first Dotterel, Black Guillemot, Spotted Crake and Buff-breasted Sandpiper back in 1981/82.

Soon came friendship with other birders, membership of the telephone 'grapevine', and a mutual desire to see new birds, especially rare ones. Almost every twitch I remember was in company, when the thrill of anticipation becomes infectious and stimulating. If our dawn raid to see some feathery little waif was successful it was dead easy to gee one another into zipping across country to the next tick...

Though I do remember one vintage jaunt which had a different vibe. A November day in 1983, and I was at Staines Res. A routine visit with routine fare. Alone on the causeway I pondered the fact that I was here, seeing 'nothing', while a Pied Wheatear was in North Norfolk. Also a bonus Richard's Pipit. Both potential ticks. So I abandoned Staines and drove straight to Weybourne, arriving some time in the afternoon. I did see both birds, but my lasting impression of that trip is one of anticlimax. It felt as if I'd gone simply out of boredom, and was probably the first time I wondered if twitching was really for me. Certainly it felt very different on my own as opposed to in company.

Subsequent years saw many more twitches, some absolutely bursting with stress and anxiety, some just blah... Then there was phasing, and dusty optics. And finally a move to East Devon in December 2002, which rekindled something...

Although there have been periods of deep phase in the last 18 years, mostly I have managed to be a birder. But a twitcher??

Well, sometimes.

In fact, if you count local patch birds, there's actually been a lot of twitching! Unless I was in the middle of a phasing spell I would always go to see good patch birds if I could. One or two were lifers, many were patch ticks, but lots were neither. Which raises the question, why twitch a bird you don't in some way 'need'? Hopefully that will become clear...

So, American Herring Gull. If you read the relevant NQS post it is impossible to miss the utterly frantic nature of the 38 minutes between my learning about the bird's presence and my seeing it. They were awful! But why? I don't give a monkey's about my British or any other list. I'm not a twitcher per se. So what on earth elicited such emotional havoc?

Was it the bird? Partially, yes. I twice tried for Matt Knott's Otter bird a decade ago. I really like gulls, and for years have wanted to see AHG in the flesh, if only to find out for myself how distinctive it is, or is not. But I can say this with virtual certainty: had it been in Weymouth I would not have gone. I've nothing against Weymouth, but the place doesn't mean anything to me.

So was it the location then? Partially, yes. The Axe patch unquestionably has a place in my throbby little birder's heart. I love that estuary. It has given me so many super moments, particularly through its gulls. When Steve was describing to me exactly where the bird was, I asked 'On the gravelly strip?' 'Yes,' came the reply. I could see it like I was there. Except I wasn't! Aaggh!

So, a combination of the bird and the location. Was that it? Was that the magic mix? Again, partially, yes. But there was one more ingredient...

In my years in Seaton I was always part of a team, and those individuals - those birding friends - are inextricably tied up with my fondness for the Axe patch. As clearly as I could picture the bird on that gravelly strip in front of the tram sheds, I could picture so much more. I could see Steve, in a state of mega-excitement and stress, desperately willing others to hurry up and get there, and the bird to not fly. I could see Ian, Phil, Kev and others rushing around for their optics and keys, also willing the bird to please, please stay put. And you know what? I wanted to be part of that. Solitary creature that I generally am, I nevertheless wanted to share in that excitement, to get stuck in and be involved in this momentous event on my old patch.

One occasionally sees twitchers getting knocked, and twitching itself dismissed as some kind of less worthy activity. I think this is very unfair. In my experience at least, twitching has rarely been about a number, but rather about a bird, a location, and good company. That is the magic mix, and it can truly be enormous fun. Why knock it? If there's one thing all of us need in this world, it's a bit of light relief...


  1. Having seen the stress that it has caused some people, the manic speed driven along motorways, the lies told to family and employers when you suddenly disappear in pursuit, the loss of wages, etc., I hardly cause it light relief. I can recall watching a twitcher appear on the reserve that I look after, having run a mile along the sea wall, having the bird pointed out to him by the assembled hoard and then five minutes later, when I asked him where he was going, he said back to Birmingham where I've just driven down from!

    1. Derek, I have witnessed similar antics. Personally I don't remember ever lying to family and employers, but if somebody reminded me about an occasion when I threw a sicky in order to go and see a bird in my younger days, it wouldn't surprise me. But then I would never argue that twitching is responsible behaviour. And I realise that to a minority it is not 'light relief' but a serious obsession, with all the potential hazards that implies. But again speaking personally I have a lot of good memories as a consequence of various twitching exploits, and I suppose in a few years time I'll be able to look back on one or two more...

    2. Ditto. I remember my twitches principally because of the fun a car-load of us had, rather than the bird itself. The company, not the target. A few notable birds upstage even this though - CCC on a golf course in Wales somewhere was just sublime. Then there are of course the meaningless ticks, where the main emotion was relief followed by self-loathing. Lesser Kestrel tops this particular list.

    3. '...relief followed by self-loathing.' Ha ha! Love it!

      Because so many of my twitching recollections are 30+ years old, I suspect there's more than a touch of the rose-tinted spectacles going on. Even dipping Steller's Eider during a Highlands & Islands jaunt in '84 I've somehow managed to convert into a warm, fuzzy vision of beautiful scenery, mountain-top Dotterel and Ptarmigan, a stunning drake King Eider and dainty little Red-necked Phalarope. Priceless memories...