Saturday, March 13, 2010

To Twitch...Or Not?

If you call yourself a birder, sooner or later you will be driven to twitch a rare bird.

twitching-n.-The act of chasing rare birds found by others, mostly for listing purposes.

Nowadays it is easy (too easy?) for birders to twitch birds. Most serious birders are connected to rare bird alerts and birding listservs. Word of a rarity often gets out within minutes of discovery via phone calls, texts, and Facebook. All the birder has to do is to grab his binoculars (even this step isn't completely necessary, since plenty of other birders will be there to mooch off of), jump in the car, and drive to the place. More often than not, the birder finds the bird, loses interest after a minute or two, and then begins chatting with other birders until someone's phone buzzes with a text about another rare bird fifty miles away. The process is repeated.

I don't know about you, but I don't see the point of twitching. Sure, you get to add a species to your life list, but who cares? I've drifted away from listing. I know my life list is somewhere above six hundred, but beyond that I have no idea. I've allowed nearly all of my lists to fall into disrepair.

Hard-core listing barely counts as birding. The birds become mere objects, worthless once they've been ticked off. For this reason, many die-hard listers aren't even decent birders. I know plenty of birders with impressive life lists but very little knowledge of the birds to go along with the names.

Now that I've spent sufficient time bashing those filthy twitchers, I have something to confess. I sometimes fall prey to the evil temptation. My latest lapse came on Wednesday.

It actually started on Tuesday. As I made one of my routine checks of LACounty Birds, I noticed a few posts with "Yellow-billed Loon" in the headlines. I continued on, seeing a post about a Baltimore Oriole, and nothing much else...

Wait. WHAT?! Yellow-billed Loon?!

I've never seen a Yellow-billed Loon. I've always wanted to. To make matters worse, several friends of mine saw one in Michigan a couple months ago. Of course, they rubbed it in my face...

That's why I dragged myself out of bed at five on Wednesday morning. That's why I battled through beastly traffic jams on the 1-210 near Pasadena. That's why I shelled out eleven bucks into the waiting hand of the grumpy, sleep-deprived attendant at the entrance booth at Castaic Lagoon. That's why I tumbled out of the driver's seat, stretched, extricated my scope from the trunk, and walked to the lake's edge...

I huddled in my jacket from the dawn chill. Sweeping the lake with my scope, I quickly spotted the loon out in the distance. It was darker than I expected. Then the bird turned--and I could see it was a Common Loon.


Five minutes passed. Ten. Then, a huge, tan loon with a pale horn-yellow bill popped out of the water a short distance off. No mistake this time--this was the Yellow-billed Loon!

I made a point of enjoying the bird. When I do break down and chase rare birds, I like to hang around for awhile and photograph, sketch, and simply watch them. I ended up spending nearly three hours with the loon. By the end of my visit, I felt like I had gotten to know the bird. Not only that, I had seen some other nifty birds--Swainson's Hawk, Lawrence's Goldfinch, Rock Wren, and Common Merganser. Around midday, I loaded my trappings back into the car and headed home. As I pulled onto the freeway, driving with a knee while munching on a sandwich, I happily reflected on the loon.

I felt only slightly guilty.


Alf said...

That's funny considerig you are one of the people who *finds* the irds people twitch. *cough*bar-tialed godwit*cough*

Cathy Carroll said...

Neil, your comments on twitching/listing are very articulate. I found myself agreeing and have made similar observations over the years. Congratulations on your Yellow-billed Loon. As you may know, we in Michigan also had a Yellow-billed Loon at the end of December, 2009 on the St. Mary's River in Sault Ste. Marie. I may come to regret my decision, but I did not chase it.

"Dr. Bob" said...

I loved this blog! It made me LOL a few times. And, I learned a new word "Twitching". I even found it on Wiki. An interesting lesson!

Your blog shows an interesting perspective for a youth! My "life list" is mostly undocumented. I lived in California for decades as a field biologist and saw some amazing birds. I visited most of the offshore islands and all mainland habitats on the west coast. Last year I started "birding" in Michigan.

I now maintain a list (or several), but only as part of my field records. I do not "win" anything by getting checkmarks on a list. I am driven by an interest to learn. Yes, I really enjoy a day with a "checkmark" for the life list I might compile someday, but only after thorough study of the books to understand what I saw!

Yes, I "twitch". I love the fact people tell me of sightings! I do go to these places sometimes. I am usually quite pleased to see something new! But mostly, I learn of new places, habitats and appropriate times of year to visit. My needs are not immediate for a "tic".

My special note on this blog: NEVER drive with knees! And NEVER use a cell phone (voice or text) while driving! And always watch the road first and foremost! Back in "my days" (1960s-1970s) in California, there were many roads on the west coast we could drive where it was reasonably safe to watch for snakes on the road and birds and critters by the side. It was great fun! It is NOT true anymore! If you "sense" something of interest pull over! That way you can keep publishing your interesting blog! Please consider this! Thanks! I really enjoyed your blog! - "Dr. Bob"

Bob Kaufman said...

Very well articulated, Neil. I share the same sentiments as you do. And now here in the Philippines where there only a handful of twitchers, I feel more at ease.

Joy K. said...

I agree with you about listers whose focus is more on the LIST than on the birds that make it up.

rebecca said...

I have a friend who once spent an entire weekend road-tripping across several states in hopes of seeing a Ross's Gull that had been reported at Niagara Falls. (He missed the gull.) I love birding and keep a life list but I am often just as happy watching chickadees at a feeder as I am seeing a rarity... twitching is such a strange, strange sort of birding.

Larry said...

Neil, it is so great to meet a young birder that has such a good head on his shoulders.

I concur with your assessment of twitching and personally have not been sucked into the habit, probably because I don't have time to go running off to different places to twitch a new species.

I find it much more interesting to study the species and learn their behavior. Their behavior and individual requirements of habitat are the things that will allow you to learn what that species is all about.

Congrats on the new lifer and the fact that you spent three hours in the observation as opposed to simply checking it off.