Last week I twitched again. There…it’s out and I feel better for confessing it.
In blogs posted earlier this year I have touched on my views and my approach to twitching. If you don’t know what twitching is, then let me explain: twitching is the chasing of rare birds found by someone else so that you can add those birds to your list of species seen.
For those who haven’t read my memoir, ‘Don’t Die in Autumn’, I need to say that I was once a major twitcher and was also was the man behind BINS - the Irish rare bird information line that spread the news of rare bird sightings around the country. Rare birds and twitching was my lifeblood for so many years.
In Don’t Die in Autumn, I recount an experience on Cape Clear Island where a group of birders acted in such a way as to prevent me from seeing a Baltimore Oriole, an extremely rare species for Ireland. It was a life-changing experience that made me walk away from the ‘scene’ once and for all. The truth is that I was already walking away for many years before that moment.
This year I have twitched a few birds and it was fun. The twitches weren’t the frantic, ‘must see at all costs’ type of experiences of years past. No, they were on my terms and were also very educational experiences. Seeing Glaucous-winged and Vega Gulls alongside Herring Gulls in an Irish setting are good learning experiences (that’s my story and I’m sticking with it).
My latest twitch was to see a wonderful Semiplamated Plover, first found by Killian Mullarney at Tacumshin Lake in Wexford on 11th May. They are the North American version of our Ringed Plovers. Wexford is only one hour from my home in Wicklow and I had a free day… so I went down to see that bird the following day. It was gone. It was re-found last week by Paul Kelly (once again at Tacumshin Lake) and, on 6th June, I headed off to twitch this bird again. This time I was successful and spent a couple of hours enjoying the bird before a deluge forced a hasty retreat across the lake. I also managed a few poor images of the bird (see above).
So, why is all this worth writing down?
This morning I received a message from a young birder who twitched for the first time. With all the images of the Semip Plover up on websites, he was tempted to ‘go for it’. He missed it and in his message to me, I could feel his disappointment and distress. I assured him that, if he was planning on following the twitching side of birding, he had better get used to that feeling. Connecting with a twitched bird brings a ‘high’…that is the addictive side to twitching. However dipping on a bird (the bird slang for not seeing the bird you hoped to see) is such a dreadful feeling, that it too creates a high. In other words, the emotion of connecting or dipping are so extreme at the opposite ends of the spectrum, they are both equally addictive.
A Tale of Two Twitches
My previous experience of Semipalmated Plover was one that really brought the ‘madness’ of my twitching into sharp focus. On 10th October 2003 (as the person running the birdline), I got some amazing news within seconds of each other. It was news that would throw most of us Irish twitchers into turmoil. A Bobolink (an extremely rare bird from North America) had been found on Cape Clear Island in south-west Cork and Ireland’s first Semipalmated Plover had been found on a beach on Arranmore Island in Donegal. Two mega birds at opposite ends of the country!
It was generally felt that the plover might stay (shorebirds often do) so I headed down to Cape Clear, getting a chartered boat onto the island very early the following morning (11th Oct). We spent all day on Cape Clear. No sign of the Bobolink anywhere but we consoled ourselves with the knowledge that the plover had not been seen either. At least we weren’t missing out on that!
Leaving Cape Clear that evening my phone buzzed…a text to inform me that the plover had just flown back onto the beach at Arranmore in Donegal. It was a long drive back to Dublin from Cork (in the days before the new motorway) and was broken only by a quick ‘grease stop’ (a stop to eat at a well known chipper used by birders).
I got back to Dublin late that night and had a quick few hours sleep before setting off early on the morning of 12th Oct to catch the first boat to Arranmore. We arrived at the ‘plover beach’ to the sight of birders looking in all directions. When birders are looking in all directions, it means just one thing…they are looking for the bird (or to put it bluntly, the bird you want to see is not there!). Such a sight is a sinking feeling for a twitcher.
To make a long story short…we spent all day looking for the plover and left late that evening without seeing it. It was an even longer drive back to Dublin from Donegal that night. As I sat in the car on that journey, I reflected that over the course of two days, I had travelled the length and breadth of Ireland, had been on some of the most wonderfully scenic islands in the country…yet, I felt totally and utterly depressed.
A Good Place To Be
In my notebook entry for that day, I question the ‘whole twitching scene’ and ask myself…’will I ever learn?’ To have spent those two days of my life in the futile chasing of rare birds was one of the catalysts to make me take the first tentative steps away from twitching. Speaking, guiding, writing, photography and sharing my passion for birds became, and are now, my new highs.
Don’t get me wrong…I still love that feeling of seeing a new bird. I still get that high and feel that buzz when I see a bird I want to see. But twitching is no longer the stressful side of my birding experiences. I do not take it too seriously…twitching is for fun. I twitch when and if it suits me. If I see the bird, well that’s great. If I dip, the experience does not get me down. I simply enjoy being out. Even being fit and healthy enough to walk out across Tacumshin Lake is something to be thankful for.
I’m in a good place now in my birding, in my head and in my heart. It is a good place to be.
And my advice to my young friend…the sooner you find that place, the better your birding experiences will be.