The Biggest Twitch – Tid-bits from a Tropical Birding Adventure (27 Oct, 2010). By Christian Boix

The Biggest Twitch – Tid-bits from a Tropical Birding Adventure (27 Oct, 2010). By Christian Boix

Everyone has dreamt of doing it but very few have actually done it – packed up their lives to follow their dream, leaving behind the safe and secure for the freedom and excitement of doing exactly what they’ve always wanted to do.

The Biggest Twitch is the tale of two people who did just that. As keen birders with a love of travel, it seemed obvious to Ruth Miller and Alan Davies to combine these two passions in an odyssey of discovery – a record-breaking attempt to see more bird species in a single year than ever achieved before. How to go about it was a different matter…but luckily for them once they mentioned the idea to their friends at Tropical Birding, there was no going back.

With an itinerary covering more than twenty countries and a target bird list of over 4,000 species, it was never going to be easy. Could they do it? – Tropical Birding never doubted it!!

Their book follows the ups and downs of their birding year in a fast-paced adventure of birds, people and places. Below follows a few “tasty” snippets from their un-put-downable-tale whilst on tour with Tropical Birding at the shores of Lake Awasa, in Ethiopia’s Great Rift Valley…..

At the shores of Lake Awasa (Ethiopia)….

The next morning, we were up early for a visit to the fish market at Lake Awasa. Fishing boats were hauled up all along the lakeshore. Young boys worked on the nets – folding them, repairing tears and fixing the floats – while next to them the fishermen crouched at the water’s edge sorting their catch into neat piles. With one hand they held the fish, while in the other they used a sharp knife to gut it. Blood dripped everywhere, and the stench of fish and offal was overwhelming.

The guts were tossed into the lake, though I doubt they ever hit the water. Gangs of White Pelicans, Great and Long-tailed Cormorants and Marabou Storks squabbled violently over the scraps. If the first ranks missed anything, hundreds of Black-headed Gulls and Grey-headed Gulls, along with a Heuglin’s Gull and Lesser Black-backed Gull, soared and wheeled in the air, swooping down to snatch any tit-bit going. The sound was incredible: the cries of the birds mingled with the babble of the people. Behind the fishermen, the womenfolk laid out the fillets of fish, and fierce trading was going on. Meanwhile Marabou Storks strode around fearlessly, looking for any opportunity to steal something edible. At close quarters you appreciated the huge size of these ugly birds, with their skinhead hair-dos and messy bills. The whole fish market had a party atmosphere, as families picnicked in the shade of the trees, while some hard-working mothers did the family wash in the waters of the lake right next to the blood and guts and fishermen.

Alan and I stood next to Christian in a small patch of shade under an acacia tree to scope some of the gulls sitting on the water further out. In these situations it is always worth looking up first to check where you are standing. Had we done so, we would have realised we were directly under a Marabou Stork who’d just been filling his belly. A large input usually leads to a large output, and the inevitable happened: a load of smelly white guano cascaded down onto Christian’s head and scope. Laughing fit to burst, we retreated to a safe distance as he tried to wipe the mess out of his curly hair and off his shirt. He cleaned up pretty well, but for the next few days we were aware of a peculiar smell whenever we used his scope.

We wandered along the water’s edge to a slightly quieter marshy stretch of shoreline, though a gaggle of curious urchins still followed us like the Pied Piper. It was slightly more peaceful here, for birds as for birders. We set up our scopes and scanned the area. A curious black umbrella opened over the water, and then folded itself back into a Black Heron as it strode forwards a few paces. Soon it did it again, opening its wings over its head to form a patch of shadow over the water. Was this to stop the glare so it could see underwater clearly, or did the patch of shade it created actually attract fish within reach of its sharp bill? However it worked, this fishing technique was obviously successful in these fertile waters. Not far away a handsome Saddle-billed Stork was also poking around in the water. Its black-and-white body was set off by its enormous colourful bill, red at the tip and base, with a black band around the middle and a bright yellow, saddle-shaped frontal shield over the top. A bright yellow eye completed the picture and confirmed that this was a female. What a place! It is impossible to do justice here to the sights, sounds and smells of Lake Awasa but we will never forget the total assault on the senses.

Migration extravaganza over Lake Abiata (Ethiopia)….

A group of us headed out to the nearby Lake Abiata. As we drove along the track to the lake, we became aware of an ever-multiplying swarm of black dots in the sky. Soon they filled the sky from horizon to horizon like an enormous cloud of midges. But checking through the bins, we realised these were not insects but Barn Swallows – more than even Christian had ever seen before in one place. It was as if the whole world’s supply of swallows had congregated here. They were swirling like smoke, massing in one place then spreading out to bunch up in a new spot elsewhere, forming clouds and shapes as they swooped and swirled around us, sometimes coming right down to skim the ground before soaring up into the air again.

It was an amazing and unforgettable sight. And there was more to come. We drove closer to the lake and out onto the saltpan, abandoning the vehicles and continuing on foot as the surface became more unstable. The fragile salt crust crackled and crunched under our feet, creating a strange vibrating sensation whenever anyone moved. Not that we paid much attention to our feet, though, as there were much better things to look at. Thousands upon thousands of Greater and Lesser Flamingos strutted their stuff in the water, some stretching their necks and parading while others sifted the water with their bills upside-down, all combining in a shimmering band of pink as far as we could see. Shuffling in the shallows at their feet were thousands of waders: Ruff, Little Stints and Avocets. Hopeless to try to photograph this view in the heat haze, and hopeless to try to count the numbers, as there were just too many birds coming and going. This was a moment just to stand and marvel at such an awe-inspiring wonder of nature.

To continue reading this exciting tale contact Alan and Ruth Miller (“The Biggest Twitch” [email protected]) for a signed copy of their book or order yours online now. The books details are :

The Biggest Twitch
Alan Davies and Ruth Miller
301 pages, 32 pp colour photography.
ISBN- 13: 9781408123874
Christopher Helm