BTO: On the lookout for rare visitors

Yellow-browed warbler. Picture: BTO/Joe Graham
Yellow-browed warbler. Picture: BTO/Joe Graham

Some birdwatchers get really upset when they are referred to as ‘twitchers’, writes Graham Appleton, from the BTO in Thetford.

It’s a quirky word that adds colour to a newspaper article but most of us are not twitchers.

In the same way that you can like a pop group without feeling it necessary to stand at the stage door to ask for an autograph, you can be a birdwatcher without twitching. A real twitcher is supposed to get so excited at the thought of seeing a new species that he or she will start to twitch – that’s the theory as to where the name came from, anyway.

As I write this on Friday evening, twitchers in East Anglia are preparing for a weekend of serious birdwatching. There are loads of yellow-browed warblers arriving from eastern Russia, and who knows what other species will turn up at the same time? The true twitchers are going to be up early in the morning, hoping to spend every minute of daylight tomorrow on the look-out for a really rare bird. There’s a special kind of kudos if you find your own ‘rare’ and, once you have, there is an understanding that you will report it. By the end of the weekend your bird – perhaps a Lanceolated Warbler – might have been viewed by hundreds of other twitchers and you’ll have a tale to tell.

I’ve never quite understood twitching; I get my thrills from seeing new species in my patch or by chance. Wouldn’t it be great if one of these Russian, yellow-browed warblers turned up at home over the weekend? I shall be listening for its call, as I cut down the wild-flower patches in the lawn and take one of my regular walks around the village, but I don’t feel the need to go to the coast.

I am not criticising the people who seek new birds – and I’d probably know more about bird identification if I was one of them – but it’s just not me. I have only seen one rare bird in our village and that was a great white egret – white and the size of a heron, so much easier to identify than a tiny yellow-browed warbler. My wife and I were doing a survey for the BTO, specifically looking for snipe, and came across this very distinctive bird. We had to write a description – which was easy – and we added it to the list we sent in to the BTO. We should probably have phoned it in to the Rare Bird Network, so that other people could twitch the bird. Fortunately, however, it spent many months in the general area, so anyone who needed it for a county list will have had plenty of opportunity.