Birding In The National Parks: Twitching

Last month I mentioned that I missed out on a chance to go after a Lesser Sand-plover that was spotted in Michigan City, Indiana, just up the road from Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. There’s a post-script to the column about that bird being re-found just as the column went to press. The problem, once again, was that word got out in early afternoon and I had a three-hour-drive to the bird. That doesn’t leave enough of a window on a short fall evening.

So I prepared everything for a twitch the following day. “Twitching” is a British birding term referring to the habit of obsessive birders to drop everything and travel long distances to see a specific bird, usually a rarity. Americans call this “chasing” a bird, but twitching seems more descriptive as the behavior often leads to actual twitching from sleep deprivation, excessive caffeine intake, or sheer frustration.

My plan was simple. I’d have everything ready to go at dawn, and I’d closely monitor word from Indiana via several channels on the Internet. As soon as the bird was spotted, I’d take off. Once the bird was found on any given day it seemed to linger, but it had the alarming habit of disappearing overnight. I figured waiting for it to be seen was a good safeguard against frustration and a wasted three-hour drive. (Not entirely wasted, as Indiana Dunes is beautiful with or without Lesser Sand-plovers.)

My drop-dead cutoff time for engaging the twitch was 11 a.m. By noon the bird had not been found. I made the same plan for the following day, but as of right now, two weeks later, it has never been relocated. The odds of anyone ever seeing the thing again are near zero.

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A Broad-billed Hummingbird at home near Saguaro National Park. One was seen in 2008 at Cape Cod National Seashore! Kirby Adams photo.

While I was internally debating the great question (to twitch or not to twitch), an article highlighting some pros and cons of the practice was sitting on my coffee table in the latest issue of Birding, the magazine of the American Birding Association. The benefits are fairly obvious. It engages people in the hobby and gets them out into nature. With continent-wide twitches, local communities can see a financial boon from the sudden influx of birders.

The big downside to twitching is that it leaves a substantial carbon footprint, unless you happen to be able to bike or walk to the bird. My driving to Indiana Dunes to stay an hour or so and look at one bird definitely wouldn’t have been the most environmentally-conscious thing I’ve ever done.

Twitching also has a tendency to wreak havoc with the citizen science project eBird. Birders around the world enter millions of observations into eBird, which yields a database of bird distribution. The problem is that we don’t always bother to record a flock of American Robins seen here and there, but if an out-of-range rarity shows up, everyone reports it. That results in the appearance of greater abundance for a bird that may in fact be the only one of its kind to ever show up in a particular region.

On the other hand, getting back to the pros, the rush of skilled birders to an area with a rarity leads to another birding phenomenon with a name even more colorful than twitching: the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect.

What the PPTE tells us is that when birders converge on an area to see one rarity, the sudden increase in observant eyes will lead to the discovery of more rarities that may have been there all along. That helps the eBird database by finding the geographic and temporal limits of bird distribution.

Since I’m sure you’re wondering about the origin of the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect, I’ll relate the legend as I know it. Back in the early '70s, some birders stopped for lunch at a rest stop a few miles north of Patagonia, Arizona. The stop was apparently chosen because it had one (and only one) picnic table.

While sitting at the table, the birders spotted the first Black-capped Gnatcatcher ever seen in the United States. This led to a rush of birders to that rest stop, which immediately resulted in the first Yellow Grosbeak ever recorded in North America. And then more rarities were found.

It’s likely the same thing would have happened had you concentrated that many birders at any spot in southeastern Arizona, but it just happened to occur at the Patagonia picnic table.

Are any of you national park travelers out there prone to twitching for birds, or perhaps other wildlife? A discussion about the ABA article ensued online and I contributed the following that sums up my birding behavior: My twitching habits, or lack thereof, probably appear random to an outside observer. I recently twitched a Curlew Sandpiper two hours away and was about to pull the trigger today on the Lesser Sand-plover (3 hours) if it reappeared.

Two years ago I did not twitch a Lucy's Warbler that was three hours away. (I'm in mid-Michigan, for reference). I knew I'd be in southeast Arizona within a few years, and I find seeing a Lucy's Warbler in the arid scrub immensely more satisfying than seeing one in Michigan.

I'm an ecologist and a biogeographer at heart, so the outliers interest me, but seeing the bird in the habitat it evolved with is what moves me. Even if I'd gotten the Michigan one as my lifer in 2011, I'd consider the one I got a couple months ago in Portal (Arizona) to be my "real" lifer.

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I found this Red Phalarope, a denizen of the ocean coasts, in Michigan the day after writing this column. Kirby Adams photo.

I found proper habitat in the right region, went at the right time of year, and I found the bird right there occupying its niche. If I'd gone to Whitefish Point (Michigan), I would have driven up to a row of people with binoculars pointing at a tree, seen the bird that made a migration error so profound it likely removed itself from the gene pool, and I'd go home not really feeling anything.

The Curlew Sandpiper was a bird I'd much rather see in South Africa or Siberia, but I'm not sure when, if ever, that will happen. In that case I went and got the bird to put a bird on my list that may be many years away if I wait for the "right" one. While there, however, I experienced one of the big pros of twitching: camaraderie. I met some people I'd known only as names on eBird and the birding listservs. We'd never met, but shared a common language of birding jargon and found jokes about woodpecker taxonomy amusing.

It's a nice feeling to walk up to strangers and feel that included. We also had a non-birder approach the group and inquire what we were about. That's when my birding ambassador alter-ego kicked in, and I wove a tale about a bird making a wrong turn on the way from Siberia to Africa and ending up in Douglas, Michigan. That was satisfying, and much more rewarding than the tick was. [Tick is birder-speak for adding a bird to any of the various lists a birder keeps]

So, Lesser Sand-plover - I'm there if that thing starts cooperating better. But if a White-headed Woodpecker showed up at the same place, I'm not entirely sure I'd be on it, despite my love for all things Picid [Picids are members of the woodpecker family, Picidae]. There's a good chance I'll be on the dry side of the Cascades in Oregon late next spring and that's where I want to see them.

Then again, it would be fun to hang out with some of the Chicago and Indiana birders, so maybe I would chase. I guess we'll never know....or will we?