The Filth of Twitching

Like any true-blue young birder, I cannot fathom rising after five on a weekend. It was not surprising, then, that the dawn found me wandering the trails of the flood control basin near my home, earnestly searching for Yellow-billed Cuckoo, a fabled migrant that appears only about once a decade in the county nowadays. Unsurprisingly, I failed—exactly the way I have every year for the last four years. But it was an enjoyable morning, with goodies like Least Bittern, White-tailed Kite, and Blue Grosbeak. Arriving home around ten-thirty, I stomped up to my room to punch in my eBird checklists for the morning despite my raging hunger that demanded I indulge in pita and hummus. I could not, however, resist the urge to check my email before doing my eBird duty, and—

HOLY CHARADRIUS!! Lesser Sand-Plover thirty minutes away?? I muttered expletives of disbelief and displeasure as I skimmed over the brief details. Gathering up my scope, binoculars, and camera in my arms, I stormed down the stairs, politely informing my dad as I passed him that I would be using his car for the next few hours.

To make a long story short, I missed the bird because of unfavorable tidal conditions. But, returning the next morning, I saw it, thanks to the high tide and the Guns ‘n Roses song on the radio on the way down. In addition to enjoying the bird for a couple hours, I was also bemused—and slightly disturbed—to observe some filthy twitching behavior by some of the fifty-odd other birders present.

The scene repeated itself every few minutes. A birder would breathlessly hustle up, friendly arms would gesture to the waiting eyepiece. The arriving birder would hunch over, turn the focus wheel slightly, and—“Ahh! There it is!” The next few minutes of observation invariably generated the same comments: “It’s beautiful!” “I’ll probably never see another one of these in my life!” “Just a bit bigger than the Semis.”

But, the universal exclamation was, “Lifer!” Some were so bold as to shout out an accompanying number.

Ah. So, that’s all this Sand-Plover is worth. A tick on a checklist, a new name for the ledger, another species vanquished in the War on Birds. Oh, I casually keep track of a list or two myself, but they are mere footnotes—merely microscopic, at that—to my love of birding.

Come now, let us have some faith in fellow birder. Surely everyone else felt the same way; they came to relish the Sand-Plover, not just collect it.

Alas, no. The average length of observation was a mere ten minutes. Then, the universal vice—conversations with neighboring birders—began to impinge on Lesser Sand-Plover enjoyment. Clusters formed, backs were turned to scopes, and the bird forgotten until the next newcomer panted to the fence of scopes. The qualities of various digiscoping cameras were praised and cursed; speculation about the next county record were aired;  discussion of different tour companies was had. I felt like an outcast, a renegade, a stranger with my eye still engulfed in my scope eyepiece.

Eventually, the twitchers tired of such theoretical conversations. Talk turned to other rarities in the vicinity. “I’m going to chase the Glossy Ibis at San Jacinto Wildlife Area after this,” one man declared.

“Oh, how far is that?” another man queried, his interest visibly piqued.

 “Only about an hour and a half.”

“Not bad! I’ll go for it, too!” Half a dozen ibis converts drifted away. Conversation around me changed to the best birding spots in Africa.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy conversation and socializing (at least, in small amounts, with select people), but—if you’re going to spend time, money, and effort to chase a rare bird, why not soak it in for a longer than ten minutes? A rare bird experience should be like a good massage—long, deep, and intimate, not rushed and impersonal. You don’t learn much from a few moments of appreciation. The twitchers can now boast they’ve seen a Lesser Sand-Plover, but that privilege is a shallow one. Yes, they’ve seen a Lesser Sand-Plover, but that is all there is to it. They watch birds the way one might watch a movie. They race from rarity to rarity, choosing the long drive to the next “good bird” over fantastic birding opportunities nearby. More often than not, the twitcher with an impressive life list is a sub-par birder.

I should probably end this scathing rant before I offend too many. Twitching is a common sport among ABA members, and, when practiced well, it can be enjoyable and educational. But, all too often, it winds up a filthy, despicable, deformed beast that consumes the innocent birder.

2011-06-28T23:13:54+00:00