Not being from the UK, I wasn’t exactly sure what a “twitch” was, when I came across it in the following caption recently: “The Long-toed Stint generated one of the biggest twitches seen in Britain in years.” The photo was on a Bird News website, part of a post about a rare bird sighting in Yorkshire October 8. A nerd I knew, and a geek, but not a twitch. I had figured out that a stint must be a bird and not a term of service in the army. But what were all these people doing on a country road with all that camera gear and optical devices? It could only be bird-watching and thus the mystery was solved for me.
I’m writing here not about birds but about twitchers, those people who leave the comfort of their couches to travel – sometimes half-way around the world – to see, record and (presumably) brag about a new addition to their life-list of birds. I confess that I find the whole idea of twitching sort of offensive, as if the bird were a bearded lady at a freak show. I’ll never be a real birder, I guess. I sent the news article and photo to my friend, the Rev. Ray Fletcher, a UK native and avid birder, for comment.
“Good morning, Curt,” he replied. “An interesting article. Personally, I don’t think “twitchers” are “real” birders. They certainly have a particular enthusiasm to add birds – numbers – to their life list and certainly an unusual occurrence is fascinating to see (as opposed to just hearing about it). Further, in UK it is easier to dash about all over the country than in other places. I also do not think real birding is about numbers of species even though it is nice to increase what we see. I would suggest your ongoing interest in birds and bird habitat etc. makes you a real birder.”
Only part of the experience
I am not condemning anyone who keeps lists. For myself, I note down unusual sightings in a journal or record them photographically. But I no longer keep lists. Here’s why.
When I was an avid duck hunter in the Lower Mainland, I found myself recording all my successes and keeping track of the season’s total bag. I think I shot (and cleaned) 78 ducks in a three-and-a-half-month season – see! I still am keeping track in my mind. Another fellow – I called him the Big Fisherman because he had a salmon gill-net license – shot 150 ducks in one season. By the way, he plucked and ate them all: three mallards for a meal. Being about 6’5” tall and weighing over 300 pounds, his body took some maintenance.
At some point, I realized that, for me, keeping track was just one more form of competition, which detracted from the pleasure of being out in rainy, windy, cloudy, miserable weather – the best weather for duck hunting in the long, Lower Mainland fall and winter. These pleasures included hunting ducks, but hunting was only one part of the experience.
I remember very well the times a harrier landed in a puddle and pecked at one of my decoys, and the time a bald eagle repeatedly struck a decoy with its talons before flying disgustedly(?) away. I could imagine the eagle saying, “What the heck was that?!”
Once I was looking vainly for ducks when a series of large shadows flew over me and landed in the decoys. They were tundra swans. And once, more recently, half a dozen trumpeters did the same thing. I well recall the time I watched a sharp-shinned hawk chase a flicker, which crashed into my blind for a safe haven.
I could go on. I don’t keep lists of birds anymore, but don’t judge those who do, unless they are compulsive twitchers; it’s a personal decision to keep myself from competing all the time.
Just last week, while driving my truck out of a field, I almost ran into a flock of ducks feeding in the field I had been hunting; it was past shooting time and dark and they seemed blinded by the headlights. One of them flew towards the truck and glanced off the side. I checked and the duck was apparently unhurt, having flown away. The other 99 also had safely returned to their duckish fold. But one of them had a story to tell about dual moons that actually tried to attack our flock. And it wasn’t even Halloween.
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