Monday, October 21, 2019

Big Sit 2019

On Saturday, October 12, I met Helen Mastrangelo and Steven McDonald at 6:30 AM (about 1 hour before sunrise) at a special spot on Lake Creek Trail to begin The Big Sit. Bird Watcher's Digest magazine organizes this yearly birding game. You pick a single spot (defined by a 17 foot diameter circle) and you see how many species of birds you can identify from that one spot in one day. We've done the Big Sit on Lake Creek Trail at this same spot twice before, but it had been a long time. The first Big Sit we did was in 2009 and we observed 45 species. The second (and last) was in 2010 and we recorded 50 species. This time we lucked out. A cold front the day before made Saturday ideal for raptor migration, with a north wind blowing most of the day. This helped us hear and see 61 species of birds by the time we stopped over 12 hours later!

We arrived before sunrise hoping to hear an owl or two. If any were around, they were quiet so we didn't get any owls on our list. But our first bird was dramatic! At about 6:45 we heard a loud croak and a Great Blue Heron flew over the trees across the pond and headed right towards us! It veered off to the side when it realized we were there and found a spot on the creek to start its hunting. Afterwards while it was still almost too dark to see, we identified Killdeer, Northern Mockingbird, Carolina Wren, and Northern Cardinal by sound. Before sunrise we had 5 birds on our list!

Just before 7:30 AM there was finally enough light to take a photo and I took this one of Steven and Helen under a dramatic overcast sky:

Early Morning Sky

Shortly after this photo was taken, we got our biggest surprise of the day. A single Anhinga flew over us on its way south. This was the first Anhinga I've ever seen on the trail. A little later we were joined by Craig Browning and Matt Denton, and the five of us were the main observers for the rest of the day.

A little after 8:30 raptor migration started kicking in. For the rest of the day, sometimes mixed in with groups of Turkey Vultures that must've totaled over 1000 by the end of the day, and sometimes by themselves we spotted these hawks and falcons flying over us, usually headed south:

  • Swainson's Hawk
  • Cooper's Hawk
  • Northern Harrier
  • Peregrine Falcon (a species I've only seen once before on Lake Creek Trail)
  • Merlin
  • American Kestrel
  • Sharp-shinned Hawk
  • Osprey

The only falcon we didn't see all day was the one that's most likely, a Crested Caracara. (And the very next morning as I jogged by our circle, one flew right over my head.)

Migrating songbirds were few and far between, but we did manage to find an early Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Blue-headed Vireo, and White-throated Sparrow. Others included Common Yellowthroat, Nashville Warbler, Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, and almost our very last bird, a young White-eyed Vireo.

At about 10:15 AM we heard a very strange drawn-out bird call from some very dense nearby bushes. None of us could identify it. (Matt tentatively said, "Towhee?") Very soon after we heard it other birds started gathering around and calling in very clear alarm behavior. Several species of songbirds were in the same small area but the brush was so dense we could never see what they were clustered around. My guess is that we had heard the death cry of a bird (probably a Northern Cardinal) that had been grabbed and eaten by a snake! Other predator types would have left the area after capturing the bird, but snakes really can't do that. And the alarm behavior of the other birds matched what we've seen them do around snakes before.

It was a great way to spend a day, and here are a few photos of birds and other wildlife we got to see:

The Peregrine Falcon that was so high in the overcast sky it was just a silhouette:

Peregrine Falcon - 1 - 2

A juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk that flew over in the early afternoon after the sun came out:

Red-shouldered Hawk - 1 - 1

A beautiful Common Green Darner dragonfly that we rescued from being stuck in the water:

Common Green Darner

Probably the largest group of mixed Turkey Vultures and Swainson's Hawks that drifted south over our heads at around 3:45 PM:

Turkey Vultures and Swainson's Hawks - 1- 2

Craig laughs and Helen looks on disapprovingly as I tried to take a selfie:

Big Sit Selfie

A beautiful buck White-tailed Deer that quietly foraged nearby and didn't seem to mind our presence at all:

White-tailed Deer Buck - 2

One of many Monarch butterflies that was migrating south over our heads throughout the day. Sometimes these butterflies were as high as the raptors!

Migrating Monarch Butterfly - 1 - 3

More photos are on Flickr here.

Big Sits are counter-intuitive to me. When I first heard about them I thought they would be pretty darn boring. And I guess they could be if your spot is pretty barren. But my experience with Big Sits at locations with a variety of habitats in view has been the opposite. They're exciting! And I usually see at least one bird that was almost totally unexpected. This time the Anhinga and the Peregrine Falcon stood out. And the bird alarm event we got to observe was a great opportunity to hear a sound not many people get to hear, and to witness a classic "umbrella" type bird alarm. All we had to do was stay in one place all day!

I could not have asked for better birders who joined me throughout the day. We had a blast! And I was not at all worried about missing birds. Here's a group shot I took at about 9:30 AM:

Big Sit Group Photo

Left-to-right: Steven McDonald, Craig Browning, Helen Mastrangelo, Matt Deton, Chip Beaudette  and Kat Ross. Through the day we were also joined by Laura Lefler, and Kim and Jeff Carter. Steven was the only one who stayed at the site all day. He's the only one who didn't leave and come back at some point. He was on the site for over 12 hours and added 2 species to his Lake Creek Trail Big Year list!

Here's our complete bird species list for the day. I recorded it in the order we observed them, and included the time each species was first observed. Notice how the morning is the most exciting time during a Big Sit. After noon we only added 7 species, once with a 2 hour gap between new species. And see how active things were up until about 8:15 AM:

1Great Blue Heron6:45 AM
2Killdeer6:55 AM
3Northern Mockingbird7:08 AM
4Carolina Wren7:11 AM
5Northern Cardinal7:12 AM
6Mourning Dove7:13 AM
7Bewick’s Wren7:20 AM
8Red-shouldered Hawk7:24 AM
9Blue Jay7:24 AM
10Belted Kingfisher7:25 AM
11House Wren7:26 AM
12Eastern Phoebe7:28 AM
13Blue-gray Gnatcatcher7:30 AM
14Anhinga7:31 AM
15Red-bellied Woodpecker7:31 AM
16Great Egret7:31 AM
17American Crow7:32 AM
18House Finch7:35 AM
19Black Vulture7:36 AM
20Rock Pigeon7:38 AM
21Scissor-tailed Flycatcher7:47 AM
22Great-tailed Grackle7:48 AM
23Common Grackle7:54 AM
24White-winged Dove7:56 AM
25Turkey Vulture7:56 AM
26Cattle Egret7:56 AM
27European Starling7:59 AM
28Lesser Goldfinch8:03 AM
29Common Yellowthroat8:04 AM
30Red-tailed Hawk8:08 AM
31Red-winged Blackbird8:09 AM
32Barn Swallow8:15 AM
33Ladder-backed Woodpecker8:22 AM
34Merlin8:27 AM
35American Robin8:32 AM
36Ruby-crowned Kinglet8:36 AM
37Dickcissel8:39 AM
38Swainson’s Hawk8:42 AM
39Double-crested Cormorant8:42 AM
40swallow sp. (square-tailed, not a Barn Swallow)8:45 AM
41Cooper’s Hawk8:48 AM
42Northern Flicker8:54 AM
43Peregrine Falcon9:05 AM
44Blue Grosbeak9:09 AM
45Nashville Warbler9:26 AM
46Chimney Swift9:40 AM
47Northern Harrier9:43 AM
48Indigo Bunting10:02 AM
49Carolina Chickadee10:17 AM
50White-throated Sparrow10:30 AM
51Wilson’s Snipe10:36 AM
52Downy Woodpecker11:03 AM
53Snowy Egret11:29 AM
54Sharp-shinned Hawk11:57 AM
55Black-crested Titmouse12:05 PM
56Yellow-rumped Warbler1:07 PM
57Blue-headed Vireo2:06 PM
58Osprey2:20 PM
59American Kestrel4:24 PM
60White-eyed Vireo4:52 PM
61hummingbird sp.5:47 PM

Here are the official Big Sit results an BirdWatcher's Digest Magazine's web site. Look for Birding on Broadmeade. Our official total there is 60 species because there was not a slot for an unidentified swallow species. But that's OK, 60 is still an amazing total for a suburban hike-and-bike trail!

And here's our list in eBird.

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