Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Twitching/Listing laid bare

It has been a long time since I've relaxed in the month of June and 2015 was no different... With that in mind, I've had the urge to write a short blog post on twitching/listing and the Little Egret that I presumably won't be seeing...


Avid Ontario birders were stunned to see Ben DiLabio's photos of a spankin Little Egret taken on June 2nd, 2015 in Carp, ON (major congrats Ben!). Probably one of the most exciting birds ever to be found in the province - it happened to be sporting breeding plumage and the photos showed almost every feature you would want to see. WOW. Several local birders saw it in the afternoon.

Understandably a number of people went looking for this stunner the next morning but many/all were thwarted as it left the site quite early in the morning. Dang. But that's birding for you. A rare bird is found, and eventually it leaves.

Then things got weird.

The bird was refound, but was now lacking its beautiful (and ID useful) head plumes, several km from the first site, and continued to be challenging to nail down. Over the month of June and into July there were sporadic sightings until birders have figured out enough of a pattern that people can travel some distance and hope to get a sighting of the beast. For those who enjoy the chase, or the tick, or the social aspects of seeing rare birds - it must be a real treat. As a disinclined chaser, I just can't wrap my head around the idea of going for it.

Others have written more detail on why this Little Egret is so rare, so I'll keep it short and simple. Our Snowy Egret appears to be the "new world" counterpart to the "old world" Little Egret. We guess that they blow from Africa over to the Lesser Antillies (or beyond) on the trade winds that blow in the oppisite direction as the northern Atlantic (east to west). These are the same winds that bring us Cape Verde-type Hurricanes in the fall. Once they're in the "new world" - a select few get REALLY freakin lost and end up in North America (presumably migrating "north" as they would have from Africa into Europe).

The story is spectacular, until you look into the details. The Little Egret really doesn't look that different from our Snowy Egret. Don't get me wrong, Ben's photos are some of the best rarity photos ever taken of a truly beautiful bird - but now that it has lost it's distinctive head plumes and the skin colours fade - well... It starts to look more and more like a Snowy Egret...

Things turn comical (for me personally) when a Snowy Egret was found by Cheryl Edgecombe at Windemere Basin in Hamilton barely five minutes from my house. 5 min, 5km for the Snowy or 10 hours and 1000km for the Little Egret. If I blur my eyes, I could probably just pretend the Snowy was the Little and be done with it!

So I ask myself, what (truly) is the difference between the Snowy Egret and the Little Egret at this point? Some initial thoughts are: first provincial record, life bird, not a North American species... But none of those points affect me personally. I didn't find it (so not "my" first/second/third record), I don't keep a life list, and I would prefer to see all birds in their proper range for the first time. Vagrants for me are the excitement of the unknown. I can go to Van Wagner's Beach 1000 times and not see a Leach's Storm-Petrel, but when I do - it's MORE exciting because I HAVE been there 1000 times before.

Most of this is subjective due to my personal interests and where I live, and in no way am I trying to deter from the excitement of the observation or those who have traveled to see it. I know I won't be going to see it anytime soon, and I know there will come a point  in the future where I say "dang, I wish I could have seen that Little Egret - what a spectacular bird".

A quick summary of twitching factors for me:

- Distance

- Beauty 

- Rarity

- Can I learn anything by going?

- Time of year

Any reasons for twitching/not twitching rare birds that apply to you that I haven't mentioned? Or that you feel differently about?

Quiz answers soon!


  1. Interesting take on it. My #1 factor for chasing or not .. time. As in I have a family, a full-time career and a part-time career ... Chasing birds like this is just not possible for many folks. Great bird though.

    1. Interesting. I guess the factors I had listed were the direct influence on how much "time" I had. If there was a Roseate Spoonbill at Windemere Basin - I would suddenly have "time", regardless of how busy my work schedule was. I think I will be getting a better handle on your experiences with "having time" in the upcoming years though!

  2. I agree with all of the above and mostly despise twitching, I even hate the word "twitch". But hey, to each their own. That said, I would add "awesomeness" as another factor that might, in a moment of weakness, make me twitch. I'd go chase down a Gyrfalcon terrorizing a landfill full of crows and starlings any day, but if you told me there was a Mottled Duck in my backyard I might not bother looking out the window. Also, "quality of location", as in if the bird is found at a good location, and I can hedge on finding some other decent birds even if I dip on the main target, that'd help. And one last factor, "who found it?" If a friend of mine found something awesome, I might be more likely to go after it than if it was someone I didn't know, just to help them celebrate. Especially if they were buying.

    1. I hadn't thought about the "friend" side of things before but I agree that the finder of the bird influences my desire (or lack of) to go look for something. Very interesting! Quality of location also plays into it for me, but not all that often. I went to see a Spotted Towhee at Pelee several years ago in the winter. My comrade wanted the towhee, and I went along because it was Pelee!

  3. The absolute limit of a twitch for me is a 30 to 45 minute drive. The birds I have twitched successfully are Ross'/s/Snow Goose hybrid (on the way to work), Greater White-Fronted Goose (in Callandar, 15 minute drive), Hudsonian Godwit (Powassan Lagoon, 25 minute drive), Summer Tanager (North Bay, 5 minute drive), White-winged Dove (5 minute drive) and Northern Hawk Owl (Corbeil, 20 minute drive). I was unsuccessful with Varied Thrush (Tilden Lake, 30 minutes) and Brambling (North Bay, 5 minutes).

    Earlier this year I saw a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, my rarest bird, but it didn't stick around for others to find it. My wife and a passerby were the only others who saw it. Of these rare birds, the flycatcher was the most exciting because it was unexpected and I found it myself.