The Biggest Twitch

Authors Alan Davies and Ruth Miller, Helm, 2010, ISBN 978-1-4081-2387-4, PB

Although it’s fair to say that the subtitle, Around The World In 4,000 Birds, pretty much gives the game away in terms of story, you’re unlikely to come away from this account of an extraordinary birding adventure unsatisfied.

If you didn’t already know as much from the pages of Bird Watching present and past, The Biggest Twitch was the authors’ attempt to see more bird species in a single year than anyone has ever managed before.

That they succeeded, and then some, has already been widely documented, but the pleasure of it all for any birdwatcher is in the detail. And what detail!

Starting in Arizona on New Year’s Day, the authors work their way through the incredible 4,341 species that they clocked up. There are moments when you worry that the account is going to turn into a list of sightings that all blur into each other, but the book is saved from the danger of monotony by two factors.

One is that, put simply, Davies and Miller are engaging companions, and sensibly take on alternating chapters to give contrasting views of what must, again and again, have seemed a completely madcap scheme. Both write concisely and entertainingly, and while Davies keeps the birds more firmly in his scope, Miller is great at evoking the other, more personal side of the story – the endless late night journeys, early starts, dodgy meals and unexpected encounters.

And that’s the second factor. It was inevitable that such a huge, globe-trotting journey would result in all sorts of last minute changes of plan, diversions and even dangers.

These include everything from the genuinely alarming, such as when the boat they’re in starts to sink off Australia, to the sort of gastric hazards familiar to most birdwatching tourists who have ventured to the further reaches of the globe. You’re left feeling that a birdwatcher’s best friend, after their binoculars and field guide, is an industrial-sized supply of Immodium!

The Biggest Twitch: Around the World in 4,000 Birds
By Alan Davies, Ruth Miller

The greatest success of the book, though, is that despite the problems and pitfalls it unflinchingly documents, it leaves you itching to get out there and see even a hundredth of the exotic species described within its pages. There’s no purple prose, just good, detailed descriptions of the sort of birding ‘eureka’ moments we all dream of.

It’s interesting, too, that these don’t always involve the massive rarities or colourful exotics you’d expect – sometimes it’s the appearance of a relatively familiar bird at the right time and right place that gives the record attempt fresh impetus, and that’s a feeling every birdwatcher can relate to.

The colour photos are a nice touch, with just enough included to give you a real flavour of the trip, while the chapter format previously mentioned (by location) means that you can dip in and out just as enjoyably as reading straight through. I found myself, after the intro, skipping ahead to locations I’d visited myself, then going back to read through in chronological order.

However you approach it, though, you’ll find yourself marvelling at the sheer stamina of our two heroes, and thoroughly inspired as well as entertained.