The first two months of 2007 have showered one spectacular bird species after another upon a deserving New York Metro region. While this time of year can often seem slow from a birding perspective, twitchers have been racing across the Empire State trying to keep up with each new sighting.Â I’ve intimated recently that I’m losing my taste for twitching. The mad hunt for megararities seems at once adventurous and unseemly. Part of my problem may lie in the often unknown origin of my quarry. Consider the potential profiles of a given extralimital avian:
- An intrepid pioneer exploring exotic, new ecosystems, claiming new territories on behalf of its species
- A storm-tossed wretch condemned never to reach its breeding grounds, lost and alone in a strange land
- A dolt too deficient in the essential skills of avian navigation to follow the routes its innumerable antecedents have established
- A fugitive from captivity, out of the frying pan of involuntary confinement and into the fire of an alien, possibly unsuitable environment
This knowledge can change the complexion of a successful twitch. When enthusiasts stampede from miles around to capture a spectacular vagrant in scope and camera lens, is the convocation a spontaneous celebration of the persistence and adaptability of life or is it more like the birding equivalent of rubbernecking, wherein a crown gathers to gawk at the spaz confronting the consequences of its own deplorable sense of direction? Does such an experience offer insights into the endlessly dynamic interaction of changing habitat and species or the anthropocentric arrogance of one species who would transport others across the globe simply for amusement?
Ultimately, these megararities attain a certain celebrity. The Piermont Snowy Owl, for example, has attracted thousands of birders during its long reign over a storied stretch of the Hudson River. Other Northeastern US rarities of similar magnitude that come to mind are New England’s Western Reef-heron of Summer 2006 and Martha’s Vineyard’s Red-footed Falcon of Summer 2004. These birds are all memorable ticks on countless lists, but their celebrity offers no insight into the quality of their own lives. Do the birders who have seen these birds so far out of their natural environments know them any better than fans know their favorite performers based on roles in films and tabloid photos?Â And can we differentiate the talented from the trainwrecks among birds any better than we can from the throngs of packaged personalities the media purveys?Â Does it even matter? The difference between fame and infamy is probably meaningless to a bird. But then again, twitching isn’t about the bird at all, is it? That, however, is a discussion for another day…
Some of your points are excellent, but I think you may be thinking about it W-A-A-Y too much. How about maybe it’s just fun for some people who have the time to try to see an unusual, rare, or interesting bird. For me, there’s no deep philosophical underpinning to my birding; it’s fun first, educational second, and overall a very pleasant way to spend some time outdoors, alone or with like-minded companions.
I feel the same way, Enchilada. I’m not saying I’m against twitching. Nor would I pretend that I won’t keep doing it. But I do think about the implications of twitching megas because it’s such a departure from the norm, much more like celebrity spotting than bird watching.
I agree with what you wrote…I feel like I understood Bullock’s Orioles more in their natural habitat when I saw (and ID’d) them on my own on a visit to California then when I twitched the one that is (still) in Phoenicia. I might feel differently if I was the one who did the discovering though.
Seeing the oriole in Phoenicia was about a checkmark on my New York checklist, whereas seeing the Ivory Gull was about experiencing a bird I may never see again (while also checking it off my life list).
And I bet that Snowy Owl has made at least one person into a capital “B” Birder!
I guess I don’t really have a point but thanks for making me think (An unexamined life yadda yadda yadda…).
I don’t think that twitching is so bad from a birding perspective. Certainly birding should not be confined to twitching-type activities. One does learn much more from the regular study of common species. And seeing a bird of the Arctic this far south does not measure up to the experience of seeing the same bird in its natural habitat. And, of course, there are also ethical questions about driving long distances for one bird.
But there are at least two benefits to twitching. One is that local twitches are likely to be the only time that some of us will have a chance to see a species. As you know, seeing a bird in the flesh inspires a much closer mental connection than seeing a bird confined to the pages of a field guide. So when it comes to conservation priorities, we have a greater personal idea of what is at stake.
The second is that the appearance of megararities tends to draw the birding community together. A lot of our birding is done alone or with one or two friends. When a megararity shows up, we frequently see dozens at the site at the same time. Granted, it does not establish strong connections among the individuals, but it does help to build the wider birding community. I think there is some value in that.
But Mike, I sent that Ivory Gull especially for you…
You already know most of my thinking on twitching… but I to am having a small change in heart. I’m kind of hoping an Ivory Billed Woodpecker will show up here. I mean, twitchers need a place to stay right?
I don’t care for twitching, and of your reasons I think my primary one is simply because it’s not about the bird. I prefer birding to be about birds and not about me.
That said, as long as someone isn’t spending the rent money to go on a twitch, and if birding isn’t all about getting one more number on a list, then going to see a rare bird isn’t a sign of going over to the dark side, either.
For one thing, many of us who enjoy birding will never be able to afford those trips to far-flung places to see unusual birds. Going to see a bird that’s well out of its normal range from a place I will never be able to visit is my only way of ever seeing that bird at all.
Corey and John, you both make excellent points, just as I’ve grown to expect.
You know, Clare, it was that Ivory Gull of yours that got me thinking. After dipping on it TWICE, I had to stop to consider my motivations. The fact that Patrick and Corey and Birdchaser and City Birder and who knows who else got a glimpse didn’t help!
Ahhh, twitching. The best part about the Ivory Gull twitch was explaining twitching to my 4th grader who I pulled out of school for the twitch. Hope that will be a good memory!
Twitching can be so many things. Sometimes its like eating three bags of cotton candy. But other times its great. My worst twitch was driving from Austin down to the Rio Grande Valley for a Blue Mockingbird–leaving at midnight, driving til dawn, birding all day until dusk without seeing the bird, then getting a glimpse of it, then having to drive back to Austin with my friend who was off somewhere else when I glimpsed it and didn’t even get that.
But other twitches have been great. Chasing a flamingo on the Texas coast was a great time birding with a friend I didn’t get to bird much with. Same with the Idaho Siberian Accentor. And a host of other birds. Twitching a Green Violetear in Texas was nice–I watched and sketched the bird for over half an hour. Most of us don’t take that much time (though maybe we should) looking at common birds, so twitching can help us understand birds as individuals.
I don’t chase as much as I used to. I haven’t been an avid state lister for over ten years, and though I’ve been an avid county lister in the past, I’m pretty slack about that right now. So I didn’t chase Pennsylvania’s first Scott’s Oriole this week, I couldn’t pass up the Ivory Gull, and was lucky to have been able to chase it before it disappeared.
Of course, I’m usually most down on twitching after a bad miss–after dipping on something, or being gripped off by another chaser. But that’s all part of the game.
Twitching. Gotta love it. And hate it. But only until that next megararity shows up!