Birdwatching 101: To Twitch or Not to Twitch

by Maia Tanedo

What is “twitching”?
In birding lingo, twitching does not refer to the muscular spasm or convulsive body movement. Rather it is a British slang term for a dedicated pursuit to see a specific bird. Usually, these subjects of birders twitching trips are rarities, uncommon sightings, and even once in a lifetime birds seemingly within reach. Or not. Not all twitches are success stories with happy endings. Let me share my own experiences of memorable twitches, both the wins and the zeroes.

Are you a twitcher?
In my opinion, birders can be unapologetic twitchers who are proud of their eagerness and enthusiasm to go the extra mile to see a bird. These birders are usually the ones on a rare bird alert group and the first on a plane to distant places to find a reported rarity. But there are also some who are quite shy and maybe in denial about being twitchers. I for one am a picky twitcher who makes the extra effort just for a specific list of birds in my “want-to-see” list. Not all rarities make me so agitated and excited enough to forego a workday or two and get on a plane for the chance to tick off a bird on my list. Or maybe that’s just the denial speaking… Hmmmm…

My First Twitch
I had my first experience with twitching in 2010 when I was only a few months old birder and a Ferruginous Flycatcher made an appearance at a construction site in UP Diliman. The e-group was abuzz with excitement over this rare migrant showing up in Quezon City and birders were flocking to see it! Without really realizing the uniqueness of this sighting, I ended up with a group of birders, standing in a small fenced-off construction site in UP, watching this rusty-colored flycatcher eat flies. It was effortless. It was fun. It was a successful twitch. (Side note: Years after, I finally learned the gravity of that sighting. So, when a Ferruginous Flycatcher made another appearance in La Mesa Ecopark in 2014, I allowed myself the pure happiness of enjoying a successful twitch of the bird.)

A “retake” of my twitch of this rare migrant in 2014 when it popped up for a few days in La Mesa Ecopark. Finally felt like a real twitch!

Easy vs Challenging Twitches
I’ve had a run of easy, successful twitches after that: Ruddy Kingfisher in a vacant lot in Quezon City, Philippine Eagle Owl in the MWSS compound also in Quezon City, Black-faced Spoonbills by the roadside in Candaba, Narcissus Flycatchers outside the Baclaran Church… easy-peasy! I just got out of the car and… lifer!!! However, I also learned that not all twitches are as easy as that. I was just lucky. But as all birders know, no one is lucky 100% of the time.

Successful twitch: Black-faced Spoonbill by the roadside (2013)
Successful twitch: Narcissus Flycatcher outside Baclaran Church (2016)

Some, if not most, twitches are hard and challenging. Rough trails, difficult treks, long hours of waiting while being eaten alive by mosquitoes… these are only some of the things birders willingly endure for the chance to see a rare bird. Add to that air fares and other expenses for those irresistible out-of-town and far-away locations.

But we do it anyway. I tried to go see the Whiskered Pitta back in 2012. The trail was almost non-existent, rocky, and slippery. The rain did not help and I had to crawl on all fours and hoist myself up rocks, vines, and fallen tree logs.

The trail going up…
The trail going down…

We were all soaked after that trek. And the worst part was… we didn’t even see the bird. That was a failed twitch right there. But years after, I still attempted another twitch of the bird so up the mountain I went. Finally in 2017, I was rewarded with two Whiskered Pittas on a memorable birthday twitch.

Successful twitch: Whiskered Pitta
Finally saw these handsome birds 5 years after my first attempt.

The Joy of a Successful Twitch
Whether you are a self-confessed twitcher or not, any birder who has experienced a successful twitch will tell you it is all worth the effort. There is a sense of joy and triumph when your target bird shows itself. Of course there is the crushing disappointment when you don’t… but hey, that’s birding for you.

My most recent twitch was probably the most challenging (so far). Given my unprepared mind and physique plus the lack of stretching prior to our climb, I still pushed forward to see one of my most wanted birds on my list: the resident ernesti race of Peregrine Falcon. I literally had to hang on to dear life and onto the rock face and force my screaming muscles to cooperate.

I didn’t think I could do this… but I did!

It was a lucky day for us. Given our very challenging trek, we were treated to awesome views of our target bird and also aerial displays of the falcon family.

Successful twitch: ernesti race of Peregrine Falcon

Bonded by Birds
Twitches, just like most birdwatching trips, are shared experiences among birders. Personally, I think twitches create stronger bonds and more memorable adventures given the nature of the trip and the circumstances birders have to go through. When birders get together, we usually enjoy recalling these shared trips with great fondness, both for the successful ones and the failed twitches. And that is a huge part of making all the effort worthwhile.

So I guess I may be a twitcher, again a picky one at that. I look forward to my next adventure in the search of more birds to see. I will be more mindful of preparing myself for the challenges that stand in the way of my seeing the bird, and of course, to properly stretch before starting the climb.

Happy twitching, twitchers!

Do you have a twitching adventure you’d like to share? Email your story with photos to ebonph@gmail.com to be featured!

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