12 Things I’ve Learned From Twitching


I’ve been birding for three years now, having started in early 2012. And while I still lag behind many other birders in terms of dedication to twitching and to birding in general, over these years I have twitched between 10 and 20 birds (or rather attempted to) and driven thousands of kilometers in the search for some new feathers. In this time I have also learned some things about twitching which one may not know when first starting out…

1. You’re Going To Dip (A Lot)

Dipping is a term used to describe when one attempts to twitch a target bird, but ends up walking away empty handed. While it may seem simple enough to assume that this is an obvious occurrence, I can assure you that nothing can prepare you for just how often it can end up happening. In the first year of birding I attempted 5 twitches, of which one was successful — since then countless others have been missed by either a few minutes or a few hours.

2. Prepare To Part With Your Hard-Earned Money

There is a reason why birding is sometimes synonymous with wealth, there is no getting around the fact that being a broke birder is a tough task, and twitching when broke, even more so. Binoculars are not cheap but yet vital – make a good decision when it comes to these, nor are scopes or digital cameras with sufficient lenses — but even more so than the hardware costs is the cost of petrol or flights. There is no escaping the cost of transport to twitch a bird, for those with lower list totals this may come from petrol to drive the 500km+ needed, while for others it may require plane tickets, accommodation and rental cars. Either way, if you’re looking to twitch you’re going to be spending money.

3. Not All Birders Are Going to Like What You Do

In many cases you can split birders up into two groups, listers and lovers.

Listers are people who focus highly on listing species and enjoy the challenge aspect of finding a unique bird and adding the sighting to their list. Lovers are those who tend to oppose the process of twitching and believe that birding should be done solely for the love of the birds and the observations. This isn’t to say that the former is void of love for the birds, and in vast majority of cases you will find that even the most hardcore twitchers appreciate, respect and enjoy the bird life in itself, or even contribute to citizen science on species.

Don’t be surprised though, if you mention to a ‘purest’ birder that you enjoy twitching and get a bit of a death glance from them — it’s been known to happen.

4. Don’t Wait!

This is one of the most important things I have learned with regards to twitching. It’s easy to say, “I’m going out that side in a couple of days, I’ll pop by then”. There are at least 5 records I have in mind where I decided to wait too long and missed the bird by a matter of minutes or hours. I can remember the Great Spotted Cuckoo in Klipheuwel, which stayed for a good week or more and despite it being well within driving distance for me, I decided to leave it until the weekend. Arriving at 7am on a Saturday morning, it turned out the 6pm sighting of it the evening before would have been its last.

Of course this remains more true for cases in which one isn’t risking a huge amount of money, and organizing last minute tickets in order to get out there as soon as possible can be risky, especially as there’s no guarantee that comes with haste. I once twitched a Cape Vulture in Strand 10 minutes after the first alert went out and still managed to dip by 2 minutes.

citrine wagtail strandfontein
A Citrine Wagtail seen at Strandfontein in April 2015

5. Prepare

If you’re twitching a bird you haven’t seen before, it will help to do some research before heading out into the field. Make sure you’re familiar with the species appearance as well as its typical behaviour and habitat. Check the location on Google Maps prior to leaving the house. It is even worth storing the GPS details as well as address on your phone and taking down as much information as possible that may have been included in the reports about the initial sightings. The last thing you want to do is drive 200 kilometers, only to end up lost.

6. Don’t Be Afraid To Ask For Help

As someone who struggles with social interaction, this is one I’m still trying to put into action. The most valuable tool at your disposal in the field, are the others that are there. One shouldn’t be afraid to ask them for information, when last they have seen the bird, do they know its current location, do they know if anyone else there had seen it that day, which areas they have covered, the behaviour the bird was displaying. I have missed out on a few sightings simply because I was too shy to speak to the others leaving the area when I arrived. Birders are typically quite friendly and will more than likely try and assist in you seeing the bird.

7. Don’t Be Afraid to Offer Help

While asking for help is extremely valuable to you, offering help to others (even on Facebook groups)may prove the difference between someone’s day being a disaster or the best they’ve ever had. If you see someone peering frantically through his bins, panning left and right with a sense of loss and confusion, just simply ask them if they’re looking for the bird in question and if they’ve managed to locate it. Take the time to explain what you know about the sighting and the behaviour for that day, be willing to provide any assistance that may aid in the other birder’s discovery.

Marabou Stork near Bredasdorp in 2013

8. Be Patient

While there is nothing quite like arriving and having clear views of the bird immediately after exiting your car, in many cases this won’t happen and it will require some waiting. Birds will often disappear from sight for even a few hours, so if you don’t get visuals within the first half an hour, don’t give up and go home. Instead, give yourself ample time to wait for it to show again. It’s often easier said than done, but in many cases you will find ample bird life in the area to keep you busy while you wait.

9. Prepare for Tension

While some birders are lucky enough to be with a partner who shares in their passion and understands it, for many others it is a challenge to juggle relationships and twitching, at least for those serious about it. If your spouse doesn’t share in your interest, and even some times if they do — you can sure expect some form of conflict when your weekend away plans change at the last second to include a 6 hour detour to twitch that mega that was just found.

10. Be Respectful

Keep in mind that you’re not the only person who wants to see the bird. Be respectful to both the bird as well as the other birders. Despite how much you may want to get right up in the birds face and push to get closer than it is clearly comfortable with, don’t do it! Always take into consideration the people around you and act in a civilized manner. If you’ve got children that are noisy little bastards, it’s probably better to leave them at home. At the same time, be respectful of the property you’re on. In cases where permission is required, follow the proper channels in order to gain access.

Lesser Sand Plover

11. It’s a Community

While birding in itself is an activity that can be enjoyed completely alone, there is a thriving and passionate community of birders who share in your enthusiasm and can’t wait to show you the photos they took and to show you theirs. I imagine that there has always been a community in the field, and you’ll often see familiar faces at twitches, however this has reached new levels with the invent of social media. Facebook now serves as a popular platform for birders to meet up, offer assistance on IDs, information on twitches and to just otherwise socialize. Don’t be afraid to join some of the many birding groups on Facebook and start posting, you’re bound to make some friends quickly which in many cases will be come friends outside of the realms of the internet.

12. It’s All Worth It

Despite the inevitable occasional heartache felt when dipping on a bird, or the extensive damage felt on one’s wallet, there is no taking away from the fact that the adrenalin, the sense of success and the knowledge that you were a part of a special occasion in nature makes it all worth it. There is no substitute to knowing that the same species of bird may never again visit the country, at least not in your life time. The friendships you will form out in the field, the knowledge you will gain and the excitement associated with a special rarity is unrivaled. Even though finances and other commitments may sometimes leave me in periods of lulls, it only takes a single twitch to bring back a reminder of why it is you do it.

Please share in your thoughts below, and feel free to add anything you may have learned about twitching.

7 thoughts on “12 Things I’ve Learned From Twitching

    1. Thanks Andrew. You should 😉 The nice thing is that it’s never too late and you know there will be another one, maybe not the same species, but there is always an exciting adventure around the corner. The best part is, nobody knows when it will arrive.

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