To Twitch or Not to Twitch?

Swallow-tailed kite. Photo by A. Morffew/Wikimedia.

To twitch or not to twitch? That is always the question.

One of the numerous birding groups I follow on social media is called “Ohio Chase Birds.” As the name suggests, the posts are about birds that are worth chasing, or twitching, after. I prefer “twitch” over the more ominous-sounding “chase,” since my brain literally starts to feel like it’s twitching when I get a bird in my head that I must go see!

There are usually a couple new birds posted in the group each week, but obviously a working mom of four can’t just drop everything to go see a bird any time she wants, so how do I decide whether or not to twitch? First, of course, is the question of do I have time to dedicate a couple hours or more to the trek and the search and (hopefully) satisfactory viewing time.

Jessica and her mom spy a booby! Photo by J. Vaughan.

If yes, then it is a question of where is the bird. I generally stick to twitching after birds within an hour’s drive, though I will take into consideration if it is somewhere that justifies making the longer trip—for example, a couple summers ago I twitched to my hometown of Akron, two hours away, to view the infamous vagrant brown booby at Nimisila Reservoir. I took my mom and my best friend who live there to see the booby, too, which of course made the trip completely worthwhile (plus I got to enjoy my favorite pizza in the whole world!).

I remember when my youngest was an infant, I twitched after a pair of swallow-tailed kites an hour away, timing the drive with her nap time. She konked out within minutes of hitting the road, while I enjoyed a quiet scenic drive through the country on a perfect blue-sky summer day. I joined the several cars lined up alongside a soybean field, and stepped outside while she continued to nap.

I spent a half hour or so watching the kites’ mesmerizing swooping and hunting, snatching grasshoppers out of the field and eating them on the wing (!) before hopping back in the car and heading home—the baby still snoozing and none the wiser of mommy’s latest life bird. It’s a sweet memory, as both a birder and a mom!

Bean fields provide loads of grasshoppers and other insects for swallow-tailed kites to dine on. Photo by J. Vaughan.

Another consideration, of course, is what is the bird? If it’s a gull, forget it, unless it is basically in my backyard. I did twitch after a mew gull that was in my county one winter, only because it was so close and it was New Year’s Day, and it’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement of starting a new year with a new life bird! But generally, if there’s a rare gull around, that usually means it’s winter, and I have a hard time getting excited about standing in the freezing cold with the wind blowing across a lake smack into my face.

Not to mention it’s very difficult to engage in the “Where’s Waldo”-esque challenge of trying to pick out a single gull among hundreds when your eyes are watering! Gulls are intrinsically difficult to identify, and while it’s a family of birds I would like to get more comfortable with, I would prefer to do so on a warm beach not in Ohio… just sayin’.

I also learned early on not to go chasing after snowy owls in cornfields, unless you enjoy the continual disappointment of mistaking a white plastic grocery bag stuck on a cornstalk for an owl. (SO ANNOYING, for many reasons.) We were fortunate enough to have a snowy here in Central Ohio for most of last winter at a very accessible location (with easy viewing at a safe distance from the owl), and that was a wonderful opportunity to share the joy of twitching with my children and non-birder friends as well.

The expansive Alum Creek Dam felt a bit like the tundra to a visiting snowy owl, which found a plentiful supply of rodents here last winter. Photo by J. Vaughan.

Last January, I got that twitch in my brain about a northern wheatear that was an hour north in Upper Sandusky. That bird was supposed to be in Africa. AFRICA! I couldn’t stop thinking about it. When would I have another chance to see that bird in Ohio—or anywhere for that matter??

Finally, after a few days of reading about continued reliable sightings of the bird, I couldn’t resist anymore, despite it being a particularly busy workweek. I abruptly closed my laptop one morning and hit the road. (One bonus of working for a bird magazine is that technically I can say I’m still working when I’m birding… professional development, right?!) That bird was exactly where everyone said it would be, doing its wheatear thing, oblivious to the delight of us onlookers. It was 100% worth the drive, enduring standing in the frigid cold, and a late night of playing catch-up on my work.

Northern wheatear. Photo by J. Vaughan.

My most recent twitch was super impulsive, born out of nervous energy and the need for some ornitherapy—that is, birding to promote peace and wellness in your everyday life. It was Thanksgiving weekend, I was missing my children who were with their dad for the holiday, and while I had a lengthy to-do list I should’ve been tackling, I couldn’t stop focusing on my anxious feelings.

Juvenile black-legged kittiwake. Photo by Shutterstock.

On a whim, I hopped on Ohio Chase Birds. I found a post a few days’ old about a juvenile black-legged kittiwake (yes, technically a gull!) just 15 minutes away at Alum Creek Reservoir. I scrolled through the comments, and the most recent was from a birder friend who reported seeing it the previous afternoon. I didn’t think, I just threw on my warmest coat, hat, scarf, and mittens and jumped in the car.

I stopped to grab some coffee and, on another whim, called my birding bestie and BWD advertising director Kelly Ball to see if she just happened to be available to meet me NOW. “I need some ornitherapy!” I said. “YESSSS!” she said. I dropped her a pin for the location and as a wise afterthought texted her, “Bring your scope!!”

Kelly Ball (left) and Jessica Vaughan (right) glowing after some ornitherapy. Photo by J. Vaughan.

Within the half hour, we were lakeside, scope on a mixed flock of gulls bobbing in the water, freezing our you-know-whats off, but there it was… the kittiwake AND that feeling of peace I had been seeking. As I’ve said many times before, sometimes birding is about the birds, and sometimes it’s about other things. The good company. The fresh air. The mindfulness.

That holds true for twitching, too. The decision of whether to twitch is born of many factors—where, what, when, the current state of my heart and mind… but even when I’ve “dipped” (missed out on seeing a sought-after bird), I’m always rewarded for my efforts, sometimes with a bird, sometimes with so much more.

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