Lockdown musings of a life-long birder and closet twitcher

To: Canberra birds <>
Subject: Lockdown musings of a life-long birder and closet twitcher
From: John Layton via Canberrabirds <>
Date: Thu, 16 Sep 2021 03:01:02 +0000

Born a son of the inland, I ranged through the bush wild and free, watching birds as soon as I was old enough to wander alone. Inspired by a copy of What Bird is That?, I vied to see every bird species in Australia and, as I attained the grail of my first 100, I decided we should build an aviary.

“ We don’t need an aviary,” Dad said. “We live in one of the grandest outdoor aviaries in the world.”

His words remain with me to this day.

On the eve of my twelfth birthday I watched Rainbow Bee-eaters flashing in the sun. When I saw one disappear into a hole in the river bank I stood astounded. Next morning my parents gave me a book that told of bee-eaters migrating from New Guinea and Indonesia, excavating metre-long tunnels in sandy soil and nesting at the end of the tunnels. That book added grist to my booming mill of insatiable curiosity.

Alas, economic necessity ended my bucolic birdwatching bliss and placed me in a high-rise public service office isolated from the bush and its birds. However, my ennui was relieved when I noticed birds lofting above Canberra’s CBD, and an old country adage, “Rain follows the plough,” sprang to mind. I brought my binoculars to work and, between boredom and boardroom briefings, I watched the birds of downtown Canberra.

A workmate noticed my binoculars and inquired if I was going to the races. I told her no, I was a birdwatcher. “Oh, you’re a twitcher then!” she shrilled and sped off to relay her newly acquired gossip. Later, I overheard, “Does his nose twitch?” “No, his ears do, watch after he’s had a haircut.”

I find the word twitcher a little too quaint. Reportedly, we can thank the British for this addition to our vocabulary. British birders are said to twitch with excitement when they encounter a bird they haven’t seen before. The word evokes images of retired clergy replete with deerstalker hats and wellies meandering through watery meadows seeking a glimpse of a Lesser Yellow Legs or perhaps a storm-flung trans Atlantic vagrant.

However, I do not denigrate such venerable, tweedy folk. Rather, I see them as ornithological brothers and sisters and I’d like to walk with them on a quest to tick, check, record or even twitch a Golden Oriole or maybe a Dartford Warbler.

Interestingly, 12-century Italian monk, Francis of Assisi, who became the patron saint of animals, is said to have charmed birds from the air. They perched on his pate and tickled his tonsure no doubt causing him to twitch. From another perspective, Vitus, a Sicilian monk, after the whom the affliction St. Vitus dance is named, may well have been history’s first recorded twitcher.

John Layton



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