Twitchers: A Very British Obsession!

Twitchers. Andy Wilson.  Flickr. Creative Commons.

by Gunnar on November 3, 2010 · 7 comments

in Birding News

TV documentary show the extremes in UK birdwatching

Yesterday (Nov 1)  on prime time UK Television there was a documentary about Twitching. (thanks Tom McKinney for the thumbs up about this). You can see the birding documentary on the BBC page (if your country is not blocked like Peru is)

The page says: Documentary about the secret tribe known as twitchers, obsessives who take to the roads of Britain with the aim of seeing as many birds as possible in a few short months.

Every year, a secret tribe take to the roads of Britain. In the space of a few months they will drive thousands of miles and spend thousands of pounds in pursuit of their prey. Their aim is to see as many birds as possible, wherever that bird may be.

Welcome to the very competitive world of the twitcher – obsessives who’ll stop at nothing to get their bird.

It all started in 2008 with a query on BirdForum.

Dear all,

My name is Daniel Dewsbury and I work at the BBC in their observational documentaries dept.

My job is to find characters for documentaries which represent the certain area we are looking into. This can include the extremes and also include much of the middle ground too.

We are looking into the world of twitching, something which seems to be a much debated subject on these forums and from the people I have talked to at Rare Bird Alert. So if I appear not to have grasped the nature of the subject fully please forgive me, I have literally only begun researching it.

I would appreciate anyone who considers themselves a twitcher (publicly or not) to get in contact with me for a chat. At this stage, even if you don’t want to be on film, I would still like to talk to you as I want to learn more about the subject from the people who actually go out there and do it.

Likewise, if you know people who are considered the top in this area then I would also like to know.

As you can imagine this is a difficult task to do correctly and thoroughly, (especially because I do not want to get any of the ‘facts’ wrong)
If good people like yourselves do not get in contact with me this could be a real danger so I really would appreciate your kind help.

Thanks again, I do hope you can help.



One of the replies (on page 3) is rather comic….and sort of leads to understanding that this shall become a controversial subject among the British birders.

There is a very easy way to do your documentary about Twitchers……become one yourself for a year. You don’t actually need to know anything about birds. You don’t really need any optics! Just get hold of a pager and a mobile phone, have plenty of money (rich parents always help or student loans) and transport. Then wait for rarities to turn up and go for them. Once there ask to have a look at the bird through someones scope (hence no need for optics!). Tick it off on your list (you dont have to study it, just a quick glimpse will be enough!) and in the space of two years you can reach 400 species in the UK and be a top twitcher!! You’ll probably still know **** all about birds and not be able to ID stuff, but hey, who cares as long as you’ve seen over 400 species! Now that would be worth watching and you would P**s a few twitchers off in the process (covering the competitive side!). __________________
Paul Freestone.

The reactions to the documentary

Yesterday, the show was finally on. It followed real twitchers such as the Garry Bagnell, the Craig family (including 7 year old Mya Rose Craig) and Brett Richards on their twitches – some extremely obsessed twitchers that sacrifice their families either by abandon them or by “forcing” them to come along. The UK “birding police” Lee Evans of UK400 commented through-out the show.

This is how real (non-twitchers) people re-acted to the documentary.

In the UK, the twitching scene is a hot potato for those involved. With all these lowly and dirty moves done, the name calling, verbal abuse, lies and cheats…it sounds like a great plot for a soap opera. Can anyone please write up the screenplay from the 578 (at this point) comments on this BirdForum thread? It should be very interesting TV – or not!

Question is: Is medias fixation with birding as an obsession – good or bad – for recruiting more people to become birders at a more modest level? Will there be more or less people involved in bird conservation after a film like this?

Now could someone please videofilm the show and post it on Pirate Bay or excerpts on YouTube, so I can see it here in Peru?
Update: Here is some ways how to see it outside the UK.

Top Photo by Andy Wilson Creative Commons on Flickr.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

MPG November 3, 2010 at 7:21 am

I’m old enough to remember a time when it was OK to be called a “Twitcher”. The excitement of seeing a new bird in Britain was what caused you to twitch uncontrollably not the idea that some meaningless list would go up by one digit. Those who went to Ireland for the1st Philadelphia (that’s a kind of Warbler incase you are on 399 and wondering) were prob all fine birders. Nowadays it seems you don’t even have to know what it is you’re going for to have seen 450+ very sad indeed 🙁

These Guys aren’t even Twitchers they are merely Listers and that is what this programme should have been called.

OK it may have been set up but I thought the final quote summed up the whole current scene. Guy on 498 “Grey Phalarope, do I need that or not?” Laughable.


MPG November 3, 2010 at 8:36 am

Yes yes yes I know. A Vireo isn’t a true Warbler but you get my drift… 🙂


Dawn November 3, 2010 at 12:07 pm

Darn it..cant see the Show…Blocked here in the USA


Mark Robinson, Ph.D November 3, 2010 at 6:20 pm

I feel like this is a situation that is hyper-polarized. There are twitchers/listers that only care about getting ticks on a list, but in my experience the vast majority are extremely knowledgeable and passionate birders. These are typically the guys that have spent hours studying gull plumage and molts so they can positively identify that thayer’s gull, or empidonax sp. when they stumble across it. I’m not denying that many of them are quite obsessive, but I think the stereotype of the superficial twitcher who only cares to get the next tick is mostly hyperbole and does not represent very accurately the majority of even the most extreme ranks of twitcher/listers.


Gunnar Engblom November 5, 2010 at 12:51 am

Mark, there are a lot of hard-core birders/twitchers that are extremely good birders. We fall too easily into stereotypes though, and it is a bit unfortunate that media is so fixed about it. I wonder how the follow-up series (in 4 parts I believe) Birds Britannia is received. Seems like an interesting topic – that should be copied for US public.


Andy Pat. November 3, 2010 at 6:21 pm

It was, I think, Oscar Wilde who classed fox hunters as the unspeakable in search of the uneatable. I wonder how many twitchers/listers have ever found a ‘mega’ for themselves? Fortunately, here in Spain the twitchers are in limited numbers and the last good bird at my local reserve (an Isabelline Shrike) attracted a maximum of 14-15 people at any one time. Being a ‘patcher’ is much more interesting!


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