Bewitched by the twitch

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To what lengths would you go to, to see a Horned Screamer? Or a Black-eyed Fairy? How much would you pay to catch a fleeting glimpse of the elusive Lesser-spotted, Long-toed Monklet?  For starters, you would have to head into the depths of the Amazon jungle.  It would not be easy though. You may have to play dead for hours under a blanket of rotten leaves – or scale the buttress roots and perch Attenbrough-like in the canopy.

I refer, of course, to ‘twitching’ – a somewhat derogatory, if not highly appropriate name ascribed to seriously committed bird watchers.  Twitchers hunt in thoroughly intense, often humorless packs, and have been known to go to bed with their monopods.  They are defined by the reflex ticking action upon sighting, or hearing a bird.

Having worked for a few months for a safari company specialising in birding trips in Malawi (in the early 90s), I have been exposed to some obsessive twitchers.  They came on these tours with one goal and one goal only – to see, or hear, as many species as possible in the two weeks available.  As chief cook, bottle-washer and assistant bird-spotter, this was, very often two weeks too long.

At the end of a birding trip, some groups would have successfully clocked up 350 species – and leave satisfied with a ‘been there, done that, got the list, lost-the-T-shirt-in-the-process- attitude’.  Satisfied with another list of what they call “Lifers” (first time spotted), they would head off to the next continent – to hunt down a whole new bunch of unsuspecting feathers.

They would very rarely cast a glance at the world outside their circled vision to marvel at the swirling mists of Mt Mulanje, the frenetic markets of Lilongwe, or the rolling plains of Nyanga.  Instead, time would be spent arguing over Latin names with the guide, or in rabid squabbles over who saw it first.  Every evening, before dinner, they would all huddle together and consolidate their tickings – the name of each bird would be read out and claims made to their sighting.  This was often when there was the greatest derision and least humour.  The dedication was astounding.

I remember one particularly keen group from Australia.  In a staunch effort to catch a glimpse of a highly persecuted White-eared Barbet, they lay on their backs under a tree, binoculars skywards, mouths open, postrate for two hours, in anticipation of a mere flutter, a hint of a feather.  They would quite honestly, have donated organs for a sighting – such was the commitment.  Imagine the atmosphere, when Tony, our guide – borderline comatose and high as a kite at the best of times – ambled back to the party and claimed that he had just had an excellent 3 minute sighting of our feathered friend in another tree up the road while he was having a joint.

The group didn’t talk to him for the rest of the day.

We did have one or two non-twitcher groups.  They were invariably more relaxed and dare I say it – on the same planet.  They were more interested in bartering with the local people in the bustling markets, seeing the exquisite countryside and snorkeling in the Lake than ticking off names on a list.

Their ambivalence toward birds was, for me a breath of fresh air.  One group was especially memorable.  At breakfast one morning in one of the bush camps, one of the punters (clients) – a Cambridge History academic, Charles, asked:

‘Karoline, what is that ghastly bloody bird that wakes me up at the crack of dawn and goes “Knyack, Knyack, Knyack”?’  Many hours were spent going through the options with the rest of the group and a guide-book – debating the possibilities and deciphering the unlikely combinations of beak, body size, colour and tail length, based on vague alcoholic sightings the night before.  What really threw me though, was the “knyack knyack” bit.  Charles eventually called his mystery bird the “Double-breasted Knyack Knyack bird” and he had a rather subversive sketch to prove it.

After a few days later he spotted it, while it was “knyacking”, and it turned out to be a relatively harmless Black-eyed bulbul.  For the rest of the trip, all birds, (feathered and unfeathered), were labeled “Double-breasted Knyack Knyacks”.

As a self-confessed traitor to the twitching fraternity, I am far happier listening to calls and watching behaviour, and I would encourage any aspiring birder to rather enter the world of birding through this door.  They do not, however, make call identification easy for beginners if the descriptions in some of the more Field Guides are anything to go by.  If an over-zealous new birder on the block imitates the written version in an effort to flush a bird from the undergrowth, he or she is guaranteed to send any self-respecting bird into premature migration.

These are some of the offerings:

The Burchells Sandgrouse, if alarmed, utters GUG-GUG-GUG but in flight calls CHOK-LIT CHOK-LIT.

The Yellow-throated Sandgrouse, on the other hand, simply emits a hoarse GOLLI-GOLLI-GOLLI.

The Bar-throated Apalis goes PILLY-PILLY-PILLY, and if that’s not bad enough, your average Little Brown Job (or LBJ) is accused of emitting anything from ZWEET-ZWEET-ZWEET to CHIRRIT, CHIRRIT, TZEEP.

I find calls (and the interpretation thereof) one of the more fascinating aspects of bird watching.  There are calls associated with courtship, flight, alarm, bonding, injury and aggression. Once the connection is made, calls can tell you things about the bush and could help save you from coming face to face with a ravenous predator (or a despondent Australian).

My advice to any birder starting out, is don’t get bewitched by the twitch.  Don’t get bogged down with names, numbers, Latin and lists. Rather find a good waterhole or forest and watch, listen and absorb.  You will learn more this way than in a lifetime of ticking.  Try to fathom the meaning from calls and flight pattern, courtship rituals and nesting strategies.  Only then, if you have to, reach for your guide-book and see what name us humans have given it.  After all, what’s in a name?

It is more important that we come to understand the private lives of birds – the mysteries of navigation, their language and repetoire of song if we are to begin to understand what their very survival depends on.  Without birds to delight us with their colour and song, the world would be a very dull place indeed – even if they are all Double-breasted Knyack Knyacks.

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