Birder's Journal: Learning to Let Birds Come to You

Robert Winkler
for National Geographic News
October 11, 2002

On a bird count I become a hound, sniffing out birds while always on the move. I first heard about a sedentary count from a birder I met at Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison, Connecticut. He and a few companions had tallied some 60 species birding all day at a single spot. It was a new event called a Big Sit, conjured up by a member of the New Haven Bird Club. I dismissed such enfeebled birding as unworthy of my participation.

By the time I was invited to join other birders for a Big Sit at Sherwood Island—a coastal state park off Westport, Connecticut—my opinion had changed. During the summer, I had taken my reading to a town beach in Westport, passing many hours on a sandy crescent across the inlet from Sherwood Island. But I didn't read much. Most of the time, I watched summer rhythms: shorebirds following the tide, lifeguards twirling their whistles, umbrella fringes and common terns flapping in the breeze.

From my bed of sand on those late-summer days, I saw things I had missed in miles of walking. A short-billed dowitcher shot along the inlet—I heard its subdued triple toot—the only dowitcher I saw all season. Least sandpipers landed at my bare feet. Fifty semipalmated plovers settled beside the Sherwood Island jetty and became invisible among the rocks. Children exploring the tidepools didn't notice the plovers, or the probing ruddy turnstone, or the teetering spotted sandpiper.

The carousel of life keeps turning, in time showing sides you might never see while moving with it. You need not always go to the birds. If you're patient, nature's ultimate travelers will come to you—the inspiration for the Big Sit.

The Big Sit is like a hawk watch because you stay in one place: a strategically located 17-foot-diameter circle. It's like a spring Big Day, also known as a Birdathon, because you count all species, not only hawks. Members of your team are supposed to stay in the circle from dawn to dusk on the second Sunday in October, and you compete with other teams for the highest species total. You can leave the circle to get a closer look at a bird you're unable to identify, but you can't count other birds while outside the circle.

Scouting Sherwood Island the day before the event, I couldn't imagine approaching the 70 species found a year earlier by big sitters at Milford Point, a Connecticut birding hotspot at the mouth of the Housatonic River. In three hours I had only 53 species, and that was while moving through the park in my usual doglike way.

The next morning I arrived before my two teammates and picked our spot: the picnic area behind West Beach. I had seen a sharp-shinned hawk and a kestrel there the previous day, and we'd have a view of most of Sherwood Island's habitats: Long Island Sound and the beach in front, the marsh and the Mill Pond in back, woods on the left, and dry brush on the right. It was also a very pleasant place to be, this grassy carpet dotted with oak saplings and picnic tables.

A west wind blew stiff and steady all morning, so I never really warmed up. Under low and swiftly moving clouds, the choppy sound was slate gray, a good background for spotting waterfowl, but all we had were mallards and black ducks, plus the usual gulls.

The land birds at times swirled around us, but generally they trickled through, crossing east to west over the open area where we stood. In the saplings, yellow-rumped warblers and a few palm warblers were our constant companions, and tufted titmice streamed by. Most of the park's common birds passed our checkpoint—if we didn't see them, we heard their distinctive calls.

Unusual species were an American oystercatcher flying way out above the sound, the fall's first red-throated loon, and a formation of 40 snow geese against the clouds. A peregrine falcon flew directly over us at 7:30 a.m.—we expected one but not so quickly.

We waited hours for several common birds—blue jay, northern flicker, and fish crow—but missed red-winged blackbird and American robin. We were lucky to get an eastern meadowlark and a common snipe, which usually stay on the east side of the park. Our only sparrows were songs and savannahs. More sparrows undoubtedly skulked in the weeds about 200 yards to our right, but we decided it would be cheating to send someone over to flush them into view.

Our scopes pulled in a lone greater yellowlegs on the Mill Pond, and we had fair success with raptors: 20 ospreys; five northern harriers; ten sharp-shinned, three Cooper's, and two red-tailed hawks; five kestrels; and the peregrine. Two of the harriers were flying west just above the sound, migrating over open water, I suppose, to avoid harassment by crows. A Cooper's hawk forced down a couple of black ducks crossing the marsh, but then passed over them—a practice attack maneuver.

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