They're a strange bunch, but I get it

You can spot a twitcher from a mile away.
You can spot a twitcher from a mile away. Photo: Alamy

I should be thanking Mrs Cunningham, really. Without my Grade 4 teacher I'd have even less idea about birds than I do now; even less of an insight into the avian fascination.

Mrs Cunningham was a passionate twitcher, a bird obsessive who clearly planned to pass on her fixation to her young class. It wasn't in the Queensland educational syllabus, but most days of Grade 4 Mrs Cunningham would disrupt our reading-writing-arithmetic routine for some chat about birds. She'd bring out giant posters and explain different species, their habitats, their behaviour.

And I was into it. I knew my crimson rosella from my eastern rosella. I knew where to find black cockatoos. I knew what parakeets liked to eat.

However, my interest didn't last. When grade 4 ended, so did my obsession with birds. I went back to more normal boyhood pursuits like beating up my brother, and cricket. Mrs Cunningham went on to preach the avian word to a whole new class of uninterested eight-year-olds.

I was never going to become a proper bird-lover. But thanks to Mrs Cunningham, I kind of get them.

That's fortunate, because right now I'm in Bird-lover Central: the Peruvian Amazon. This particular spot, the Tambopata Research Centre, is known not for piranhas or anacondas or any of the other Amazonian cliches, but for birds.

It's famous for macaws, for parrots, herons, eagles, hawks, kingfishers and jays. It's famous for birds I've never seen nor heard of before. And as a result, it's incredibly popular with bird-lovers. They're everywhere.

Like an extravagantly plumed macaw, you can spot the twitchers from a mile away. They come dressed in long-sleeved and long-trousered adventure wear, multi-pocketed khaki vests hanging over their shoulders, binoculars draped across their chests.

Most carry tripods and cameras with huge lenses. There's a guy perched on a stool next to me who looks like he's got the Hubble telescope attached to his Nikon. His shutter clicks faster than the beat of a bird's wings as a pair of macaws soar through the sky in front of us.

It's dawn, and we're sitting near a "clay lick", the place birds come to socialise and have a breakfast of sodium-rich soil every morning. The twitchers around me are breathing heavily with excitement, passing bird books around, pointing out species sighted, following flights with powerful binoculars.

They're a strange bunch, the bird-lovers, but then again obsessives of all breeds can come over as a little odd. From the people queuing for the latest iPhone to the guys making banners to take to the footy, it can all seem pretty bizarre to those who don't share the passion.

The twitchers out here in the Amazon, of course, couldn't care less. "My word," breathes the English guy next to me, focusing his binoculars on a vermilion fly-catcher, "what a little belter".

To me, it seems far less than a belter, because I don't have any binoculars, and I'm slightly colourblind. The bird is a colourless speck in a tree branch. In other words, I'm hopelessly underprepared for this experience, and my ineptitude is showing.

I can't even find most of the highlights. I'm searching treetops in vain as someone points out a toucan. I'm pointing my camera at foliage while someone else clicks away at a red-breasted, purple-faced jumbokeet (which, obviously, doesn't exist, but how can you be expected to remember all of the real names?).

But the bird-lovers are kind to the amateur in their ranks. Someone passes me a pair of binoculars and points out another find. "Scarlet macaw up there to the right," he whispers.

There's a group of German naturalists staying here who are not just bird-lovers, but hardcore twitchers. They're up at 4.30 every morning to head out to the clay lick with their Hubble telescopes and army binoculars. They spend the day trekking through the hot, steamy forest, using fake bird calls to attract their photographic prey.

Each evening they sit around a table comparing notes, marking off birds sighted on matching sheets of paper as their guide confirms them to the group. "Great blue heron - number 874 on your list," he'll say as the Germans scribble furiously, committing the sightings to a memory bank bursting with avian satisfaction.

I actually quite like the bird-lovers, despite not sharing their obsession. They're not a snobby bunch, and not overly competitive.

In a way, they're all like Mrs Cunningham, adoring bird-watchers who'd like to share their passion, who want to pass on the fever. I just haven't been properly infected.

Ever travelled with a twitcher or other person who took their hobby very seriously? Do you have an obsession you like to indulge in while travelling? Post your stories below.

The writer travelled as a guest of Chimu Adventures.

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