Twitching

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

Review: Finding the Mammals of Australia

The Book: The Complete Guide to Finding the Mammals of Australia
The Author: David Andrew


Aside from your friendly neighbourhood possums and the ever-present ensemble of feral animals, many of Australia’s mammal species are quite hard to come across. Indeed, some species are only encountered by chance or through technology like camera traps. This is clearly a difficult scenario for those enamoured with Australia’s amazing mammals.

Bird-watching guides are a dime a dozen these days, helping twitchers seek out particular species right across Australia. However, there has been a lack of similar guides for those hoping to seek out some of Australia’s elusive mammal species. The Complete Guide to Finding the Mammals of Australia, compiled by David Andrew, goes a long way to filling that gap.

For a start, this book is brilliantly put together. In its first section, Andrew has split Australia into different locations. For each location, Andrew lists the mammal species likely to be seen, including specific sites where encounters are possible. Not every location in every state is covered, though. Instead, Andrew selects a handful of locations likely to yield the most diverse set of mammal species. Some Victorian examples include Wilsons Promontory and the Little Desert region, both of which are home to unique mammal communities.

Dispersed throughout, Andrew details particular methods and techniques for spotting particular taxa, such as those that are particularly difficult to track, like cetaceans or bats. These groupings work quite well, given the propensity for these species to travel large distances. Similar breakout boxes see Andrew offer short summaries and comments on particular conservation issues in some areas, such as the plight of the Tasmanian devil. These sections offer valuable context for the reader who may otherwise be unfamiliar with location-specific issues.

The second major section is organized by species, detailing exactly where in Australia to find each of our fantastic mammals. As an example, Andrew suggests heading to Cranbourne Botanic Gardens south-east of Melbourne to ‘easily see’ the elusive southern brown bandicoot. Elsewhere, Andrew muses that one’s only hope of seeing a long-nosed potoroo would be through joining a scientific survey team.

Quips such as these are perhaps the most welcome aspect of Mammals of Australia. Andrew’s conversational style presents equally well when only a quick check of the guide is needed, or indeed when an entire expedition is being planned. Some sections feel as though one is reading a field notebook, rather than the polished product that CSIRO Publishing and Andrew have produced.

It would be foolish to brush off Mammals of Australia as simply a mere field guide, because it is so much more. Naturalists and biologists devoted to mammal-watching have been desperate for a resource such as this, given the sheer amount of similar literature available to bird watchers. Mammals of Australia should now be a vital part of any nature-based expedition.

This book belongs on your bookshelf if… you’re still trying to tick an elusive mammal off your list, or you generally love seeking out Australia’s diverse mammal fauna.