Dipping Out on the Big Twitch

Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robin (well, not the bird exactly, but its perch), Zeekoeivlei, Cape Town

Picture the scene. A disorientated man somehow boards the wrong aeroplane and ends up at an airport in a foreign country. He cannot speak the language, he’s wearing unusual clothes and he has lost his passport and wallet. As this odd and bewildered individual paces back and forth across the terminal, somebody spots him, reaches for their camera and takes a snap. Another two people notice this and point at the man. By now, the image is out on instagram and people are so fascinated by the wayward traveller that they get in their cars and drive to the airport to see him. Soon enough, a crowd has gathered and they have circled the shy and fidgety man who is now moving restlessly from pillar to post trying to figure out his next move.

This, in a nutshell, is what twitching is all about – seeking out birds that have turned up in places where they are not supposed to be. Here in South Africa, the latest vagabond to pitch up is a Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robin that has been knocking about at a place called Zeekoeivlei for the past week. This species has never been observed in South Africa before – it’s not in the books – and this individual has evidently taken the wrong direction home from its wintering grounds in equatorial Africa. It should be nesting in the Mediterranean now, not being blasted by gale force winds and doused with cold drizzle at a public picnic site on the outskirts of Cape Town.

Personally, I’m not in the habit of running down these lost birds, but am always fascinated by local birding guru Trevor Hardaker’s ‘Rare Bird News’ and read his regular reports with interest. At any rate, since I had to drive through to Cape Town for meetings on Tuesday 19 July, I thought that it would have been churlish of me not to pay this straggler a visit. For days now, I’ve read that the bird has been perching out in the open, low down on wooden posts were everyone can see and photograph it.

So it was, that I joined a bunch of binocular-wielding, anorak-clad voyeurs sheltering under a sparsely foliaged myrtle tree at the sodden picnic site. A cold wind was cutting across the wetland, driving rain into the faces of the twitchers while the object of their desire – the scrub-robin – was apparently hunkered down, out of sight. I was on a tight schedule, so couldn’t wait it out and got back in my car and drove off after about 15 minutes, wiper blades at double speed.

Two hours later, meetings done, I was back. A different group of birders were in place but the weather hadn’t changed. The scrub-robin was allegedly hiding in a particular bush, so any move on its part would have been rapidly detected by the hardy twitchers, as their scopes, cameras and binoculars were all pointed fiercely at that greenery. I left the group to their business, thinking that if it had secretly slipped from its cover, as birds do, someone had better be casting the net a little wider. Traipsing along the well-beaten pathways through high grass at the water’s edge I flushed three ducks that heaved themselves out of the grey water and rose up into the leaden sky. A wagtail with a missing foot limped ahead of me. I was expecting a shout, “there it is!” at any moment, but it never came. Twenty minutes later, there were only three people left, all drenched, and I was looking at my watch.

Five more minutes is all I could do, the rush-hour traffic was about to build up and I had a 150 km drive ahead of me. A minute passed, followed by another minute, then, a different minute passed. It was time to go, I had dipped out. But, in some bizarre way, I felt strangely relieved. I hadn’t had to lock eyes with the bird that was never going to make it home.

Duncan Butchart

7 Responses

  1. O dear so sorry you dipped – if you’d stopped and given me your cell number I’d have called you instantly it reappeared ………… regards to Tracy, Helen

  2. Hi Duncan – I kind of vaguely remember Ernest Hemingway talking about writing ‘one true sentence’. I think you might have nailed one with that ending. Indeed nothing to do with seeing or not seeing the poor little creature and everything to do with something deeper . . . An honour to read.

    1. Hi Dave . . . not sure how to respond to this . . but thanks for the compliment! Trust you are keeping well . . I haven’t been to Durban for years but would love to see you in the museum one day . . . All the very best, duncan b

      1. Please do call by if you get a chance. Good thing about Museum bird specimens is you can’t miss them . . . 🙂

  3. Hi Duncan – lovely humourous article. I would like to include it in our bird club newsletter alongside an article from one of our members who also had a torrid twitch, but did get to see the bird. Would this be OK?

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