The Rules of Twitching!

Here in Southern Africa, the start of 2021 has been a special twitching season. Over this period a host of good rarities have showed up in many parts of the country, most notably the Cape, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu- Natal. This was the case even before the arrival of Tropical Cyclone Elouise – which added to the bumper crop of rare vagrants, including a host of Indian Ocean species!! I have to admit that twitching a species I have not seen before is not for me necessarily the most rewarding kind of birding.

I classify myself as a “lesser twitcher” because I get as much (if not more) pleasure from 3 other aspects of birding:

1. Finding the unexpected myself. To me, birding is about the journey, the adventure the searching and puzzle solving, rather than finding something at GPS co-ordinates.

2. Sharing with others. Getting “one up” on my lifelist is less rewarding than seeing the surprise and reward on a friends face when they see something new and feeling the excitement that others feel. I feel real satisfaction when the info I send to birders leads to great new birds.

3. There is so much to learn about the wonder of birds, their ecology, behavior, evolution and adaptation to their environment. I learn something new about specific birds every single day I am out in the field, and the learning process is rich and rewarding. This is not just about new experiences but about improving oneself as a birder.


Having said that, it’s been awesome to lead twitching forays for the rarities on offer. These and many twitches and interactions with twitches over 3 decades have served to bring a number of issues to the fore.

  1. Focus on the positive opportunity.  Twitching can be downright stressful. Once the “spend decision” is made, one can be overcome with negative thoughts and emotions. Some twitchers report feeling literally ill with stress as the possibility of failure looms large! Many people obsess about the scenarios and possibilities of dipping and what might happen between making a decision and actually getting to the site! The reality is that every twitching journey presents a positive opportunity to see a rare and special bird – usually for the first and only time in your life! However the opportunity invariably takes place at a a new or exciting birding destination with many other great assets and opportunities. A twitch is on one sense a gamble, so make the gambling trip more diverse, more entertaining and rewarding than just “yes or no”!! Personally I see every twitching trip as an opportunity to bird a new area (or bird a favorite area again) – and think about what else might be seen, what birding experiences might be had and what might be learned. Example- you are waiting at a tern roost for a rare tern to appear…..what a great opportunity to study and learn more about terns, gulls and other shorebirds in the area. Relish the trip! Look forward to the experience, the people you will meet, the cameradie and shared excitement.

  2. Do your homework. So you are off on a trip to see a few rare shorebirds. Tricky buggers those!! How do you approach it? There is so much possible preparation that can be done! Shorebirds on a estuary are part of a complex tidal system and their movements and location is all part of a complex orchestra of natural ecology. You can learn about the preferred feeding behavior of the different shorebirds and understand tidal systems, moon phases and migration. Then of course the dreaded “I” word – identification! Will you be able to ID the bird from other similar species when you see it ? Will you pick up on its call. Many twitches happen quickly (see rule 4 below) so you don’t have much time, but reading up on the bird on the plane rather than hoping that there will be someone there to ID it for you is so much better and so much more rewarding!! Personally the big penny drop of the last few weeks of shorebird chasing, was that there is so much to be gained by listening to shorebirds. All the species have distinctive sounds and the more familiar you are with the common birds, the more likely you are to notice something rare as it flies past!

  3. Care about the birds – and your fellow birders. A twitch is really no different from any other eco-friendly activity, in that the protection of the birds and their habitat must be paramount. Just because a bird is a vagrant and much sought after does not mean that it is any less worthy of non-disturbance. Unfortunately a minority of birders seem to think that because it is a lifer for them personally, that all normal protocol and consideration should fall away and in many cases birds have been chased away from a location where their presence was stable and predictable. When you arrive at a twitch the best practice is to show a high degree of caution and try to engage with other birders on site as to what is happening. In many cases a bird has a predictable movement or pattern and someone on the site will be able to tell you how to approach it. A related topic is the use of playback for rarities at twitches. This is is almost universally regarded as a complete no-no until all other avenues have been exhausted and all the birders present are in total agreement that this method might be tried. (But of course this should only be done if it is accordance with local conservation laws.)

  4. If you do twitch, don’t hesitate. Vagrants are usually lost, and very often have no particular reason to stick around. While we remember the famous occasions when birds stick around for weeks or even months – or return to the same spot year after year, many rarities do not stay around for long, and nobody can tell you for how long they are going to be there!! Seasoned twitchers have the best hit rate because they know that rarities wait for no-one. This means leaving immediately if it is within driving distance, or catching the first plane possible if that will get you there quicker. Of course not everyone is in a position to drop everything for every twitch, and this is where it helps to understand the difference between regular rarities and really rare vagrants that might never be seen again. Pectoral Sandpiper and Pacific Golden Plover are regular rarities in Southern Africa, while White-cheeked Tern and Temminck’s Stint may not present another opportunity for decades. If you have a basic knowledge of the status of the different rarities that will help make your twitching more rational.

  5. Don’t count the failures, but do report what you experienced. The most annoying questions birders get askes is “Was your birding trip a success”. I find it annoying because it fundamentally understand the nature of birding. The very definition of success is that you are birding! Success is not defined by a dichotomy of opposites. My take on birding is that the most difficult and least rewarding birding trips (with fewest birds) are among the most interesting and memorable. Yes of course if its all about the numbers, then one could see a dip as a failure, but then why approach birding as a numbers game in the first place ? Bottom line is that a failure to find a specific rarity or target species should always be taken as a learning experience, and if you follow rule (1) above, should always lead to growth and reflection. Report back to local site guardians, rarity forums (if they allow it) and the birding community in general. This provides the birding community with the information to inform and educate and helps others hoping to connect with the bird in question.

  6. Plan to become a hunter, rather than merely a gatherer. To me there is no more rewarding experience than finding your own rarities and specials, be they local, regional or global specials. However this is not a single minded pursuit, but is a by-product of “birding with meaning” whether it be through bird atlasing, ebirding, monitoring of a local wetland, or just a regular outing to your “local patch”. For me personally the Southern African Bird Atlas project has provided the motivation and passion to search for birds in a myriad of different areas, and by going deeper – to spend time in places where vagrants and rarities are likely to pop up. This has also meant being open to unexpected species and researching beyond the few pages
    Greater Frigatebird in the sky
    Greater Frigatebird – one of the cyclone vagrants that gets birders moving!!
    of the local regional field guide. How many birders would pick up a Spotted Sandpiper in Southern Africa? Being aware of what is possibly (and statistically likely) is the first step towards finding new “megas”, the second part is to spend time in the field and especially to spend time in areas that are likely to offer rare birds! The bottom line is that the more you bird the more specials you will find!

Celebrating the Sharpy Twitch!! April 2018
Celebrating the Sharpie Twitch - April 2018

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