I am a big gaming fan, especially the big open world Role Playing or RPG Games. To purchase a game these days is fairly expensive, but these games can give you hundreds of hours of enjoyment. When I buy a game, I know from experience to not read any of the walk through guides on the full game, or even any of the quests. Another thing to avoid is cheat codes or mods that give extra powers, resources or lives. If you do use them, yes you will find all the rare treasures, weapons etc. in the game and you will successfully finish the game a lot quicker. The thing is though, that the experience becomes shallow, shorter and the sense of achievement is taken away. Trust me you don’t want to play Fable and then read where all the gargoyle locations are, or play Fallout with knowing how and where to find all the bobbleheads. I have done this before and it completely ruins the experience. I feel that there are huge similarities to gaming in this way and twitching. Twitching to me is fairly low quality birding, as you often spend hours in a car, spends lots of money, and have a pre-built expectation, and if everything goes perfect, there is a quick moment of joy, but the main emotion is just the relief of not dipping.
I also see how, as birding has become more organised, with the use of rare bird alert services, social media, listing etc., it has also become far more homogenised which to me is a big shame. I particularly see this phenomenon more prevalent in younger birders where it seems most people think it’s the norm to chase lifers, and to get a bigger list than the next person, whereas they might be missing out on all the other wonderful facets and layers there is to birding.
Now I want to make it clear that I’m not anti-technology (I am a software developer myself), nor I am I totally against twitching, but my own personal opinion is that in birding the use of these rare bird alert services should be used sparingly. Adam also brought up a very good point, which is that twitching is also increasing our carbon footprint, which is something that people tend to forget. The main reason why rare bird alert services and twitching are so popular is peer pressure. We feel inferior to people who have higher life lists, and we feel that we are missing out if we too do not rush off and get that rare tick. I have learned to largely resist the temptation. At the moment there is a Madagascan Cuckoo in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve. Our local KZN Rare Bird Alert group is just a running commentary on what this bird is doing, what it ate for breakfast, etc. I could easily go and see it if I wanted to, but honestly I have had very little desire to go and chase it, as its 3.5 hrs away. Again I have nothing against the alert services, or the people that run them (they are very helpful and friendly), but it must be said most of the people involved in these services do have some commercial reason to do so, whether it be by having their own guiding service, involved with their own lodges in private game reserves or having their own pelagic birding services etc. I wish them the best of success, and have no problem with these commercial interests, and I actually wish more Whatsapp and Facebook birding groups would actually just be more relaxed regarding advertising etc. for ALL their members.
My new year’s resolution is to try and avoid the peer pressure, and concentrate on higher quality birding. High quality birding to me is doing fewer crazy long day trip twitches, and rather doing longer weekend or week holidays to destinations where I get to explore an area without the pre-build expectations, without the constant buzz of the alert services, and a world full of endless and unknown encounters. Today was a good example of this. I went out at just past the 6am curfew to an area near the Illovo River (about 5-10km away from where I live), where I was lucky enough to spot a Corn Crake and a Bronze winged Courser. No twitched Sooty Gull or Madagascan Cuckoo would have made me feel that way. Speaking of the Sooty Gull, I can’t believe there are actually people who want to go and twitch that from KZN on a day trip! You couldn’t pay me to do that, but to each their own.
Update: 3rd February 2021 – So yesterday I went to twitch the White-cheeked Tern. This is a very rare vagrant to Southern Africa, and is only the 5th record ever. So did I enjoy the experience? Yes I enjoyed it. It was a bit of a nervous 45 minute drive to the site, but luckily it was there when I arrived. It was a pleasant experience to also run into a number of my birding friends from the club, and catch up. If you are thinking I am a bit hypocritical then you would be wrong. My point is not to never twitch, but to do it sparingly or in moderation, and to pursue things that you enjoy while you are doing them, and not just for an after the fact brag. I know an article like this does divide the crowds. I have actually had a lot of support already from it, but also had some people vigorously against it. My aim is certainly not to dictate to you as how you should be birding, but rather offer an approach that doesn’t get much airtime, and from my experiences has made me enjoy my birding a lot more, and might help others.
Chair’s Note: this article, excluding the update was first published by Tyron on The Birding Life blog but the sentiments were so important I thought it was worth repeating on our club page.