Torture, war, elections. Let’s talk about birdwatching for a bit.

Twitchers. The term is British. When a rare bird shows up, twitchers are people who will drop everything and rush to the scene.

They used to have phone trees, then for a while it was beepers. It’s cell-phones and e-mail now. Here is an interesting thing: if you look back to the early days of twitching, the 1960s and ’70s, you see them using an alert system that’s eerily similar to the formal regime for planespotting developed by British civil defense during WWII. Direct copy, inspiration, accident? I wonder. Does anyone here know?

Anyway. Your classic twitcher will leave job, family, or church service behind, seize camera, binoculars and notebook, jump in the car, and roar off to the copse where the black-bellied whistling duck has appeared for only the third time in Britain since 1937.

Twitching is found in several European countries, including Ireland, Sweden and the Netherlands. But it’s better developed in England than anywhere else. This is because

1) England is small, with a well-developed road network that allows twitchers quick access to most of the country; and

2) England gets odd migrants and occasionals from both Eurasia and North America; and

3) Mostly, it’s because the English are insane.

Twitching also exists in North America, but they don’t call it that. Americans only say “twitching” when they’re trying to be cool and impress the British. Among themselves they’re more likely to say “chase”.

Twitching is mildly controversial, since everyone wants to do it, but is likely to get annoyed when everyone else does it. Also because locals — even in Britain — may not always be delighted when several hundred manic-obsessives show up at the front gate. Go to any bird forum and you can find at least one recent “Twitching: Threat or Menace?” thread.

The act of twitching is a twitch. “Reverend Bigglesworth won’t be at the service today — he’s off on a twitch.” Also, the gathering of twitchers. The largest twitch to date was several thousand people, watching a single bird in Kent. (A Golden-Throated Warbler. Hung around for days, attracting up to 3,000 twitchers at a time.)

That’s extreme, but twitches of several hundred are not unusual. Experienced twitchers may refer to these by name. “Yes, Gladys and I met at the Norfolk twitch of ’95. That’s right, the Chestnut Bunting.”

There’s a whole vocabulary associated with twitching. Here are the ones I know.

To burn up or flog: To beat around in the undergrowth hoping to flush a bird. A desperate measure and not a kind way to treat an exhausted migrant.

[I know flogging. It’s considered very VERY bad form. Calling another birder a flogger is a serious insult.]

Mega: A very rare bird

[I’d bet money this was originally American. But it’s used even in mainland Europe now. “C’est un MEGA!!!” Also used as an adjective. “Well, if it really is a Siberian Blue Robin, that would be a totally mega sighting.”]

Crippler: A rare and spectacular bird that shows brilliantly, perhaps an allusion towards its
preventing people from moving on.

First: A first record of a species (in a defined area, such as a county first).

To grip off (or grip): To see a bird which another birder missed and to tell them you’ve seen it.[I’ve only seen this on forums, but apparently it is in broad use.]

Lifer: A first-ever sighting of a bird species by an observer; an addition to one’s life list.

[Usually pronounced with great excitement. “That’s… aaaa… LIFER!” Also ‘personal first’. Your life list is a list of all the birds you’ve ever seen.]

List (noun): a list of all species seen by a particular observer (often qualified, e.g. life list,
county list, year list, etc.). Keen twitchers may keep several lists, and some listers compete to amass longer lists than their rivals.

[The keeping of multiple lists — as opposed to a single, simple “life list” — is one of the best ways to distinguish between your common or garden birdwatcher and your capital-B Bird Nut.]

Suppression: The act of not telling other birders about a rare sighting.

[Intensely controversial. Suppressors are not loved, of course. But everyone who suppresses claims the noblest of motives, viz., letting the poor thing get a rest after its long flight and/or saving the neighborhood from a mass descent of twitchers.]

Anyway. To bring this from the specific to the general: if you did a graph of birdwatching in Europe, you’d paint Britain and Ireland bright red, the Netherlands, Germany and Scandinavia mild yellow, and the rest of the continent various shades of bemused green and cooly disinterested blue. Yes, there are birders in Poland and Italy, but not in the way there are in Britain. Birding in Spain seems to have been imported by British tourists and retirees. Birding in Greece barely exists. As far as I know, there has never been a serious twitch in a former Communist country.

Some of this can be attributed to differences in income; a country with 20% unemployment and half its families living in poverty is not likely to produce large numbers of birdwatchers. On the other hand, most of Eastern Europe is richer per capita than Britain was in the 1950s and ’60s, when birdwatching was already well established as part of the British soul.

Will twitching eventually spread across the continent? Will throngs of Romanians rush to the Danube Delta to watch a Siberian Black-Headed Duck, while hundreds of Croats sit patiently for a single snapshot of a fabulously rare Zino’s Petrel?

I doubt it.

And that’s all I have to say about twitching today.

7 thoughts on “Twitchers

  1. So Doug, Fighter Command was the ancestor of Nancy’s ?

    Yeah … maybe the twitching tradition comes from all those Observer Corps guys trained in recognizing the jizz of a Heinkel.

  2. I don’t know much about it myself, but my uncle takes birdwatching pretty seriously, and is apparently moderately well-known in the birding community. Here’s his site:

    He is English, but lives in Texas, which I’m told has an abundance of interesting birds. I’ll have to ask him for some good birding slang next time I see him.

  3. Thanks for this one. As a “Capital B Bird Nut” I found this a welcome diversion, not to mention a lot of fun.

  4. Now here’s where Dutch twitching differs from the English; when a rare green heron, normally only seen across the Atlantic landed in amsterdam, the people who complained where not some local yokels, but the gay men who used the area in which it landed as a cruising zone. It;s hard to get your kicks when a lot of people with binoclears are watching your every move..

  5. Bird watching enthusiasts in a sense create an alternative reality with insider tags. Our world today is so industrial, so bleak, there is a quest on the part of those with imagination for a venue that offers a mode of communication that isn’t part of the usual schlock. Good on them!

  6. It;s hard to get your kicks when a lot of people with binoclears are watching your every move

    Doesn’t seem to bother the gays on Hampstead Heath, unfortunately. I’m not homophobic but I’d rather not stumble on buggery during a Sunday afternoon stroll.

    @Aodhan – right – plus you get to be really snooty about other people whose ID skills aren’t as sharp as yours.

    I sort of calmed down about twitching when I was confronted with the fact that the crested lark (so rare in Britain) was common in Amsterdam. S’all relative innit.

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