Lucy McRobert: twitch on


Sitting in the IKEA cafe on Saturday 23 September, I felt my phone buzzing for the umpteenth time that day. Another hour, another mega. I flicked the notifications off entirely. The meatballs and mashed potato with lingonberry jam were tasteless. Daughter and I were having a fantastic day, but I couldn't escape the alerts and messages pouring in. The west of Britain, and in particular Wales, it seemed, had become an extension of the North American flyway. And here I was buying cushions, ornamental plant pots, towels and a chopping board.

It was the week of daughter's birthday, and I'd been tied up every evening with sorting party bags and decorations, booking bouncy castles, chatting to other parents, up to my elbows in wrapping paper and covered head-to-toe in buttercream (for two cakes – rainbow unicorn and mermaid, of course). Sunday was her party, so twitching the birding event of the century was not an option.

I've rarely twitched solo in the UK, a lack of confidence holding me back. So, post-party weekend, exhausted and high on icing sugar, I was almost surprised to find myself speeding down the M50 towards Swansea. I was damned if I was going to miss out on this American fall, an event people will be talking about for decades to come. I had a desperate urge not just to see a Magnolia Warbler (either would do!), but to feel part of the birding scene once again. This feeling was even stronger knowing that this would be the first Scilly season I would miss in 12 years. I don't list competitively, but this was a bird I wanted to see and an experience I wanted to share in. Time to put my big girl pants on.

This Eastern Olivaceous Warbler in North Yorkshire was one of a few rarities enjoyed by Lucy in late September (David Carr).

I found arriving at a twitch on my own nerve-wracking. People turn to look at you, in reality politely seeing if they know you – but it feels like they're sizing you up. Baglan wasn't the classiest site (in the local Morrisons, all the bottles of alcohol over £9 were locked behind reinforced glass doors) and people were milling around chatting, in that 'it-was-over-there-10-minutes-ago-and-we-all-got-great-photos-then-stopped-looking' way. Luckily, I was reassured by some friendly birders and within half an hour the bird had been relocated. A flash of yellow here, a wing-bar there, a cheeky eyering, then …


Magnolia magic

Birdwatch will edit out what I exclaimed next. What a beauty! Worth the drive, the tiredness and the stress of the weekend? Oh yes. The sense of personal achievement washed over me. No, I hadn't cured a disease, run a marathon or even had a productive morning at work, but I had this huge buzz. I wanted more. 

Two days later, I was on the road again, heading for a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper at Blacktoft Sands RSPB. When negative news struck on the M1, my foot twitched towards the brake. I could give it up, turn around and be back working within an hour. Instead, I hit the accelerator as I reprogrammed the sat-nav for Burniston, an hour further north. Eastern Olivaceous Warbler was on. This time, with some skilful planning, I even made it to all my Microsoft Teams meetings. Working and twitching – neat.

The twitch was very Yorkshire: Yorkshire scenery, Yorkshire accents and chaps with flasks of what was undoubtedly Yorkshire tea. Another lovely crowd. Ever since a rather controversial column a few years ago about Spurn, I've felt a touch nervous birding in Yorkshire (can I say that I was very silly in what I said, that I'm really sorry and that I'm stuck on the mainland now, so please can I come birding at Spurn?). The bird showed delightfully, with one birder demonstrating just how useful a thermal imager can be at times.

Finally, roll on Saturday. Ballet took priority, but idly flicking through bird news showed that the Wilson's Phalarope was still in Norfolk. This would take gentler, more child-friendly tactics, so complete with tutu we meandered across to the coast, stopping for ice cream, apple picking and playgrounds on the way. She happily ate blackberries from a hedge while I scored an easy third tick of the week, and then rewarded us both with pizza and myself with the new Kowa 'scope. I'm a big girl now; time to get the kit to prove it. And yes, I know I had the carbon footprint of a Boeing 747 that week and I'm sorry. But I needed this, for my own reasons.


  • This column first appeared in the November 2023 issue of Birdwatch. To be the first to read the magazine each month, take out a subscription to Birdwatch or Bird News Ultimate.
Written by: Lucy McRobert

Lucy McRobert is a wildlife author and communications professional, as well as a Birdwatch columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @LucyMcRobert1