Terry O'Connor

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On twitching

Twitter just occasionally throws up something that cannot be addressed in 140 characters, no matter how much one condenses and abbreviates. Amongst the kitten pictures and comments on the current crop of TV fodder, there will be an astute observation or question that sets the mind running. Today it is the knotty question of ‘twitching’.

The context is the slang vocabulary used by birders and/or bird-watchers, who may or may not be the same set of people. Ornithologists are different: they study birds with serious scientific intent and rigour, and may even do so as a paid career. Birders and bird-watchers generally engage with our extant volant dinosaurs in their spare time, as a hobby, as therapy or, as in my case, as an excuse not to be doing something else. Amongst the keen birders, there are those who keep lists, for example of all the bird species they have seen in their lifetime so far. To these birders, the prospect of adding a new species to that list gets them very excited and agitated, hence the term twitcher. Find a roomful of outdoorsy naturalist types and say loudly “There’s a scarlet rosefinch in Grimsby”. The twitchers will be the ones reaching for their car keys.

Twitchers in action at Caerlaverock. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/da/Birders_at_Caerlaverock.jpg

Twitchers or birders? Depends how far they have travelled. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABirders_at_Caerlaverock.jpg

Personally, I have never understood this obsession. I enjoy seeing a new species, and if one is within an hour’s walk, I might go and take a look. But Grimsby? Many years ago, we were having a family holiday on North Ronaldsay, in Orkney, when word went around that a spanish sparrow (Passer hispaniolensis) had fetched up on the island, presumably having mistaken it for Ibiza. The next couple of scheduled flights onto North Ronaldsay were full of twitchers. One group had even chartered a light aircraft in order to fly to Orkney from South Wales. Now that’s what I call twitching.

Even more years ago, I was Duty Warden for the day on a quiet nature reserve somewhere in Yorkshire. It was a bright, cold winter’s day and I was looking forward to counting ducks on the shallow pool at the south end. Good chance of a few smew. There were more cars than usual parked in the lane, and a clutter of unfamiliar faces. “There’s reports of a great grey shrike”, said one. “It will be in the scrub at the north end”. Fair enough, I thought, as the posse of twitchers headed off upstream. The ducks and I will have the other end of the reserve to ourselves. An hour or so later, the great grey shrike (Lanius excubitor) also decided that it wanted some peace and quiet, and parked itself on a branch just a few yards from where I sat. It stayed there for nearly a half-hour, perfectly lit by the low winter sun. I made a note in the log-book and felt quietly smug, even more so when it turned out that no-one else had seen the shrike that day.

What would motivate someone to travel great distances in order to see a new species? I could understand the wish to visit a new location, using the bird as an excuse, but in my experience most twitchers are so focused on the bird that they barely register their surroundings. Twitching seems to be a form of compulsion related to that which drives some people to make collections. I am not a collector by nature, though I do have a collection of land and freshwater snail shells. Nothing unusual about that. My collection has a few gaps, rarities that I have never seen dead or alive.

Phwoarr! Helicodonta obvoluta. By Francisco Welter Schultes [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Phwoarr! Helicodonta obvoluta. By Francisco Welter Schultes [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I could probably spend a weekend driving to just the right spot in Sussex to find a specimen of Helicodonta obvoluta, adding a ‘tick’ to my life-list of British gastropods. I could do that, but won’t. I just do not have whatever it is that drives collectors to crave completion, that one more specimen or photograph that brings their list or collection closer to finality. That is why I am not a twitcher.

Don’t misunderstand me. I have great respect for people who have the focus and motivation to be completist collectors. The world needs them, just as it needs those of us who are content to know that a Pallas’s warbler (Phylloscopus proregulus) has been seen in Lowestoft without feeling the urge to hit the ground running.

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