The vagaries of vagrant-chasers explained

It’s a compulsive obsession. There’s no turning back once you begin. A bird that is missed could be a blocker for life. When word comes through that a vagrant has been spotted, twitchers all over the country consider how much annual leave they have up there sleeve, check their bank balance and scramble to clean their bins.

There is currently a submission being reviewed by BirdLife Australia's Rarities Committee to verify that this is a genuine Red-billed Tropicbird. If accepted, this will become only the second record of this species in Australia. Photo: Rowan Mott. 

There is currently a submission being reviewed by BirdLife Australia's Rarities Committee to verify that this is a genuine Red-billed Tropicbird. If accepted, this will become only the second record of this species in Australia. Photo: Rowan Mott. 

If that sounded mostly like gobbledygook, let me explain a little better. I am talking about ‘twitching’, the pastime practiced by bird watchers at the extreme end of the hobby. People who do twitching are called twitchers and twitch can also be used as a verb for doing the activity. But what exactly is it that twitchers do and why are they cleaning their bins because of it? Twitchers are bird watchers who specifically aim to see birds that are unusual because of where they have been seen or, in some cases, ones that are so rare that when they do turn up (even where they are supposed to be) it is a noteworthy sighting. In most cases, a twitcher will be travelling to see a bird from another country that has been blown off course during migration and ended up here. Sometimes freak weather isn’t responsible and the bird in question may instinctually follow the wrong flightpath, perhaps due to a genetic mutation. These birds are referred to as vagrants. To a twitcher, the reason for the bird being here matters little; it is seeing the bird that is important. To aid observation they use binoculars, just like any other bird watcher might. This is where the term bins comes from. To fully clarify the opening paragraph, a blocker is a bird that is unlikely to show up again anytime soon and hence blocks the people who missed out on seeing it from catching up to those who were lucky enough to see it.

The rarities are sometimes adorned in mute tones of greys and browns, but chasing rarities, such as this Phylloscopus warbler, always gets you out to interesting places even if you don't see the bird. Photo: Rowan Mott

The rarities are sometimes adorned in mute tones of greys and browns, but chasing rarities, such as this Phylloscopus warbler, always gets you out to interesting places even if you don't see the bird. Photo: Rowan Mott

As you can see, there is a rich terminology associated with the pastime of twitching. There are positive words such as tick (seeing a new species and hence being able to tick it off) and mega (a bird so unlikely to be seen that it is deemed a mega-rarity). There are also terms that a twitcher never wants to be associated with, like dipping (travelling to see a bird, but not being able to find it when you get there) and stringer (someone who claims to have seen something that they have not). No twitcher wants to get a reputation for being a stringer. At the end of the day, the twitching world operates on an honesty system. A reputation for honesty cannot be easily regained once lost. In today’s era of smart phones and digital cameras, most claims of a rare bird can easily be verified with photographic evidence. There is even a rarities committee that you can send reports of sightings to to get them officially accepted as an Australian record.

Throughout this article, I have said that vagrants arrive ‘here’. This could mean anywhere in Australia, hence the need to check the status of annual leave and bank balance. While I am writing there is a Laughing Gull at Venus Bay, west of Adelaide and a Eurasian Wigeon (a type of duck) somewhere near Port Headland in Western Australia. So how does a twitcher in Melbourne find out about these sightings? The twitching community is pretty close knit and there are a number of websites (see here) and social media groups, such as the Australian Twitchers Facebook group, for sharing information. There is also a certain amount of kudos that comes with being the first to spot and identify a rarity, so most people are only too happy to share the information about what they have seen. “Hang on,” you might be thinking, “‘community’ and ‘sharing information’ imply there is more than one person crazy enough to do this.” And you are correct. Twitching is a serious pastime full of friendly rivalry. There is even a leader board keeping tabs on who has seen the most species (see here). In comparison to the crowds of hundreds that turn up at the sighting of a mega in the U.K. or North America, crowds of Australian twitches pale into insignificance numbering up to around 15 people at any one time. So who are these twitchers? Well, I am one (when I can afford to and have the time which inevitably means I don’t get to chase everything I would like!), but you can find all types of people at a twitch, ranging from the occasional school child to grandparents. People younger than thirty are typically a minority, but everyone is very welcoming.

The bigger bird on the left was the most exciting ‘mega’ to show up in Victoria in a while. It is a Long-billed Dowitcher - a species that had never been seen in Australia prior to this one being found at Lake Tutchewop near Swan Hill. Photo: Rowan Mott

The bigger bird on the left was the most exciting ‘mega’ to show up in Victoria in a while. It is a Long-billed Dowitcher - a species that had never been seen in Australia prior to this one being found at Lake Tutchewop near Swan Hill. Photo: Rowan Mott

Twitching invariably involves travel. It is always a thrill when a trip plays out as hoped and you are able to return home having seen the bird. However, extensive travel is not great for a minimising your carbon footprint. I think the best way to turn a twitch into a positive for the environment is to tell as many locals as possible why you are there. The more people who appreciate how much tourism can be generated by people wanting to get out into the environment and see exciting wildlife the better. Ecotourism can be an important economic generator, particularly in rural and remote communities, with ensuing conservation benefits. If you go chasing the next mega, make sure you tell everyone who will listen why you are there. Wherever the next vagrant happens to turn up, perhaps I will see you there (and fingers crossed we both see the target bird, too).


Rowan Mott

Rowan is a PhD student studying seabird ecology. When he's not thinking about the ocean he likes to think about woodland birds. 

Check him out on Twitter at @roamingmoth