Birdist Rule #42: Discover the Thrill of Chasing a Rare Bird

There's nothing like the excitement—and dread—that comes from driving across multiple states to possibly see a rarity.

You never forget your first time. Mine was an Ivory Gull in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 2009. When word got to me in Maine that the bird had been spotted in a nearby state, I just didn’t know what to do with myself. An Ivory Gull! It’s an almost mythical species, a ghost of a bird in the far frozen north cavorting with walruses and narwhals. Now, apparently, one of these magical creatures had deigned to allow us humans a glance, and I knew I had to see it.

It was time to go on a rarity chase, aka a “twitch.” There isn’t an exact definition for a twitch, but it’s basically this: When a rare bird shows up somewhere unexpected, you drop everything to go see it. You can chase a bird in the next town over, but a true twitch involves traveling a long distance on short notice. Birders often twitch by car, and you'll hear stories of a groups of birders driving straight through the night with rushed stops for fast food and gas. The well-heeled and truly dedicated (or those in the middle of a Big Year) will even book last-minute flights to get a bird, though I’ve never been fortunate or crazy enough to twitch that way.

For birders like me, twitching is one of the most exciting aspects of birding. Part of the fun is that there’s no warning: One minute you’re living a normal life, and the next minute you’re scrambling to cancel your obligations and find the quickest route to Ohio or wherever. It’s a routine breaker.

Looking back through my emails, it appears that I bailed on a friend’s birthday party for the Massachusetts Ivory Gull. I’m sure I made it up to whomever it was. The drive from Maine isn’t actually that far—you can cover a lot of states in New England pretty quickly—and before lunchtime my buddy Doug Hitchcox and I were standing in the parking lot of some wharf, freezing along with a bunch of birders from all over the Northeast to get distant but clear views of a freaking Ivory Gull. Success.

Success is not guaranteed, however. In fact, twitching is sort of terrifying for that very reason. Each minute on your way to see the bird is suffused with dread, a sweaty anxiety that you’ll “dip” on the bird, which is to say that you’ll have traveled so far and the bird will be gone. It happens all the time; birds don’t leave itineraries showing how long they’ll be in a particular place, and “one-day wonders” are just as likely as rarities that stick around for months. You are never sure that you’ll actually see the bird until it’s there in your binoculars. If trips to a rare bird are defined by an intoxicating mix of fear and hope, trips home are either dominated by satisfied relaxation or a deep shame that you ditched your friend’s birthday party to silently stare at an empty bird feeder in Trenton, New Jersey, for five hours.

However, there are some steps birders can take in order to minimize the possibility of dipping, and I want to share some with you before you head out on your first rarity chase. To help, I got some input from two friends who are not only excellent birders but also dedicated twitchers. One is the aforementioned Doug Hitchcox, a naturalist for Maine Audubon, who completed a 23-hour round-trip drive to Nova Scotia with a friend for the Eurasian Kestrel in 2014. The other, Justin Bosler, is a wildlife technician in Texas. Justin once got on a plane to see a Ross’s Gull in California, and he says his most impulsive twitch was an overnight drive from Baton Rouge to South Padre Island for the White-crested Elaenia back in 2008. These guys know what they’re talking about.

Information Is Key. To give yourself the best odds of seeing the bird, specifics matter. Where, exactly, has the bird been seen? Something like “Johnson Park” isn’t good enough. When you’ve driven for hours through the night you need details like “the row of hedges along the back pond on the northeast side of Johnson Park.” Usually when a really rare bird is first found, detailed directions will be sent to a listserv, so read through the posts to get as much information as you can. Justin recommends also finding a local contact to provide updates on the bird (Has it been seen that day? What time of day is best?) and scouring eBird for updates.

Go as Soon as You Can. “Nothing ruins a twitch more than not seeing the bird,” Doug told me. “Flat tires and speeding tickets can be fixed and paid, but it is a long ride home when you miss a bird.” He’s absolutely right. You never know when a bird will vanish—or be eaten by a Peregrine—so you should move quickly. Justin doesn’t always recommend an immediate chase, though. “If chasing long distance, wait at least 36-48 hours of daylight hours to learn the bird’s behavior or likelihood of sticking before going,” he says.

Guessing on how long a bird is likely to linger in a particular spot puts birders in a tough position. Justin says you should “hesitate more when chasing birds that could be actively migrating in spring or fall.” To him, winter chasing, when the birds tend to hunker down for longer, is the most reliable. “You can usually count on them staging at a site for 7 to 10 days in spring and fall,” he says. 

Follow the Rules. Rare birds don’t know anything about private property rights, and they’ll frequently show up in areas that aren’t necessarily ready to host a horde of birders. I’ll never forget the time I twitched a Calliope Hummingbird in a Maryland suburb. I was with a whole group of other birders packed into a tiny front yard overlooking the feeder while confused neighbors gawked at us on their way to work. Good times.

When a bird shows up in a private or otherwise sensitive location, there are often rules that birders need to know and follow to not irritate the homeowner or neighbors. These rules aren’t always the easiest to find, and there typically isn’t someone there to tell you want to do. So, in your information search through the listservs or on eBird, make sure to take note of important directions such as where to (or not to) park, and if there are certain times you aren’t supposed to be looking for the bird. Breaking the rules can result in the homeowner cutting off access, which is bad news for any birders who might be traveling even farther than you to twitch the bird.

But otherwise, just have fun. Revel in the eccentricities of your new hobby, one that can have you sitting at your office desk one minute and a few hours later looking at an amazing bird in a completely different state, figuring out how to smooth it over with your boss when you get back (I’ve got some excuses ready if you need one). Happy twitching!