Twitching: The obsessive world of extreme birdwatching

A photo of a singing honeyeater taken on one of Kay's twitching expeditions.Supplied: Kay Parkin

Most people start training for ultramarathons because they want to get fit or raise money, but Kay Parkin runs 80 kilometres a week because she's having a break.

She's taking time out from something you might think is relaxing — watching and counting birdlife.

And while you might consider her a "birdwatcher", seasoned enthusiasts prefer another title — "twitching".

Photo Kay Parkin has captured many animals with her camera, including this curious fox.

A woman holds a camera as a fox walks by Supplied What is it?

The Macquarie Dictionary explains that the name comes from the story of two British birdwatchers in the 1950s who used to travel on a motorbike on birdwatching expeditions, the passenger shivering — or twitching — in the cold.

Long distance travel, nervous behaviour, keeping lists; Kay Parkin is certainly a twitcher.

Planning for a 'Big Year'

A Big Year is the holy grail for many twitchers.

While New Year's Eve is a celebration for many, it has a different significance for others, with avid twitchers challenging themselves to find and record as many birds as possible over 365 days.

"Most twitchers will freak out on the first of January because when they wake up they have a zero on their list… it's an obsession," she said.

So what does a "winner" get if they spot the most? An official award.

In 2010 Kay Parkin scored the South Australian Big Year record with 358 species spotted.

Photo A welcome sparrow feeds its chick.

Twitching welcome sparrow Supplied: Kay Parkin Twitching is an expensive and emotionally taxing obsession

Kay's obsession has come at a great cost.

"Dead broke", she worries about the day a cop pulls her over for a balding tyre on her car.

Since starting serious birding in 2009, Kay has hopped onto a plane every fortnight in pursuit of birds.

"You wouldn't want to know how much I've spent," she said

But it's the birding anxiety — the "real medical condition that all twitchers suffer from" to the point of vomiting, nightmares and anxiety attacks — that catches her.

Kay recounts the first time this extreme anxiety really dawned on her.

It was 2015 when she finally convinced her birder friend to go on his first twitch.

Photo A scarlet-chested parrot.

Twitching scarlet chested parrot Supplied: Kay Parkin

That night the two of them booked flights to Sydney and left for Penrith first thing in the morning.

He was a "nervous wreck" — the unbearable pressure and anxiety of putting time and money on the line in pursuit of a bird you may not see was all too much.

Despite finding the bird he hated the experience and swore never to do it again. Kay found it hilarious.

Danger also plays a part.

Between trips and twitches, Kay has camped out in the furthest corners of the country, helicoptered in and out of deserts and survived cyclones on the Cocos Islands.

And then there are the leeches and friends with broken bones.

How far is too far?

If you're serious like Kay, you only plan holidays around what species you haven't seen yet.

A conservationist's paradise, Tasmania's Bruny Island was not a fun place for Kay.

For twitchers, ticking off a bird means a flurry of emotions.

Photo A golden whistler.

Twitching golden whistler Supplied: Kay Parkin

"That rush of adrenaline is immediately followed by this remarkable sense of relief but then, until you get all 12 (birds found on Bruny Island)… you go 'okay, forget that one, what's next?'"

Only on day four was Kay able to look up, see where she was and remember she was on a holiday.

Birding was also the mutual ground for Kay's closest friendship.

Despite the rush of winning her Big Year record, 2010 was marked most by the loss of her great friend John.

A "gentle man of nature" and birder (not twitcher), Kay recounts one of her favourite times birding.

They had both spent "a great day birding … as they always did" when they spotted the endangered Mallee emu wren together.

Later that night, the melanomas in John's body paralysed him.

Despite the anxiety and sacrifice that comes with birding, the search for flying creatures was in 2010, and remains Kay's refuge.

She "wouldn't have it any other way".

Photo A black-shouldered kite.

Twitching black-shouldered kite Supplied: Kay Parkin

These days, a perfect day for Kay is looking for birds solo in her "favourite place on Earth" — among old growth Mallee an hour north of Adelaide.

"[You can] walk around for three or four days and never see another person," she said.

Her current goal?

To photograph every bird species in Australia, and with 723 snapped out of around 850 birds, she's well on her way.

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