Continuing our ‘Birdwatching Wednesday’ theme, the other night I came across a documentary on Twitchers on BBC4. I watched it for as long as I could endure, which was about a quarter of an hour.

Dear me, what is wrong with these people? They seem to have no intrinsic interest in the birds they are chasing after; each is merely the next ‘tick’ in their enormous lists of species spotted – 500 and more among the twitcherati. A band of uncouth and unprepossessing middle-aged men (by and large – certainly no women), badly dressed in ugly weatherproofs and festooned with state-of-the-art cameras and binoculars, they congregate hungrily wherever a rarity – some hapless bird adrift from its normal routes – happens to have been spotted, and there they jostle for that all-important ‘tick’.

The only person who has done any bird spotting in this process is the one who originally identified the rarity and, like a fool, passed the sighting on to the twitching fraternity. They, the hardcore twitchers, are doing nothing but training their ferocious optical technology on the bird and getting that ‘tick’. In no real sense do they seem to be bird lovers, or even nature lovers; they might as well be trainspotting or collecting stamps. And they seem to be too driven by their completist urges to actually enjoy what they’re doing – it looks more like an ordeal to be endured, culminating in a momentary thrill of excitment, reluctantly shared with a small army of fellow obsessives, in the middle of nowhere.

 Bird watching, a harmless and fascinating pastime rooted in a love of birds and of the natural world, seems to have evolved, in the hands of these ever more ruthlessly efficient, high-tech twitchers, into a kind of ornithological autism. What would Gilbert White, or W.H.Hudson have made of it?


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  1. ian russell on Wednesday 3, 2010

    Does it still count if you have to use binoculars? I only ask…

  2. Brit on Wednesday 3, 2010

    I watched it, amused and appalled. It was telling that one of the featured twitchers had previously been an obsessive plane-spotter and collector of Rolls-Royce numberplates; and another had previously been an obsessive bodybuilder, trainspotter and drinker.

    The couple who dragged their bored 7-year old daughter on endless weekend car journeys to compile the ‘year list’ of 300 birds were pretty alarming, but at least they noticed they had a young daughter. The main chap – the accountant – seemed to have largely forgotten the existence of his.

  3. worm on Wednesday 3, 2010

    Is it fulfilling some latent anthropological ‘hunting’ need? Or is it based on insecurity?

  4. Brit on Wednesday 3, 2010

    It’s the male collecting instinct taken to the level of mental-illness.

  5. Susan on Wednesday 3, 2010

    All very unstylish, Nige. I saw an article the other day about hundreds of birdwatchers flocking to Blakeney Point to catch a glimpse of the rare yellow-bellied fly-catcher – reminded me of the paparazzi. My type of birdwatching involves twitching the bedroom curtains to see how the goldfinches are doing in their nest in the olive tree outside… Or accidentally stumbling upon a salt lake full of flamingos in Anegada – have never seen the twitcherati there.

  6. Peter on Wednesday 3, 2010

    Maybe they have all just read the new besteller, 1001 Birds You Must Spot Before You Die.

  7. Mark on Wednesday 3, 2010

    Birders are certainly taking it on the chin today. I’m in favour, though. Without these chaps, British Rail, Hertz, Millets and the meat-pie industry would probably be filing for bankruptcy. Besides, it all sounds pretty harmless. The same urges must have existed in earlier times with far less pleasant consequences. It’s all too easy to image Vikings rushing across the North Sea on the merest whiff of a cassock, in search of the next “tick” to add to their enormous lists of monasteries pillaged and plundered.

  8. Kevin on Wednesday 3, 2010

    I’ve been on a couple of twitches, they are very miserable affairs. While it’s interesting to see an unfamiliar bird and get to grips with the identification of it the experience is not unlike trying to buy a hot dog from a stand by a premiership football ground on derby day.

    Mind you, the only thing better than finding a rare bird yourself is finding one that a bunch of twitchers half a mile away are looking for. :)

  9. Ian Buxton on Wednesday 3, 2010

    I too found this programme strangely compelling. There was a horrible fascination in their horrid fascination.
    And then I realised that the chap who had driven from south of England to Orkney without stopping must have passed by my house on one of the most dangerous roads in Scotland (the A9) in a state of high excitement, mixed with hunger and complete exhaustion.
    Thank God neither I nor my family encountered him on his crazed drive North as we popped out for the milk.
    These people are a danger to themselves and others – let alone the poor, innocent birds. (Swans excepted – it’s established elsewhere that they’re ‘gits’.)

  10. anton brodin on Wednesday 3, 2010

    perhaps some-one should organiste twitcher spotting as a hobby.i seen some waxwings on a tree outside my house beautiful little birds from siberia not telling i don’t want a garden full of twitchers

  11. Nick Snode on Wednesday 3, 2010

    I’ve been bird watching for 25 years and fortunately managed to avoid the Twitcher Brigade in all that time. I watched the programme with increasing discomfort and now know why twitchers have nothing to do with ornithology!