Monday, October 12, 2009

Big Sit 2009!

Dawn breaks yesterday morning on a ridge high over the burg of Whipple, Ohio. Located in the southeastern hill country, the burbs of Whipple also are home to the farm of Julie Zickefoose, Bill Thompson III, and their kids Liam and Phoebe. I was there to participate in the annual Big Sit, an effort to tally as many bird species as possible within 24 hours. The rub? You can't leave a designated 17 foot diameter circle, or at least of you do, you can't count any birds seen while AWOL.


I've made this scene a number of times, and arrived about 6 am to catch the last call notes of migrant songbirds passing overhead. There always seems to be a flurry of activity just prior to sunrise, and seeing the sun's first glimmers from this location is worth the early-bird travel in its own right.

The all-time record is 69 species, and with wonderful weather predicted, we had high hopes for smashing it. Thanks, as always, to Bill, Julie, Liam, and Phoebe for their always gracious hospitality.


A view of the Thompson/Zickefoose estate from the far reaches of the meadow. Autumn is a glorious time here, with the fields lit in technicolor hues courtesy winged sumac, New England aster, various goldenrods and other plants of fall.


The mowed path stretches to the house, and you may notice an odd architectural anomaly jutting high in the sky. That's the "birding tower", a 40-foot wooden skyscraper built just to up the birding ante. Our big sit takes place on top of the tower.

Tony, Lee, and Nina keep vigil. In regards to our Big Sit circle boundary, there's no rule-breaking here. Step outside the circle, and you fall several stories. Keeps cheating to a minimum. That fishing pole-like contraption is rigged with a crank handle and rope; it serves to hoist supplies to the sky-watchers. It's amazing how many bodies can wedge into this space. I think we had 15 people and one small dog up there at one point.

While this sort of birding may seem like trite nonsense to the uninitiated, it is actually a fantastic way to hone one's skills. Some tremendous birders make this scene, and you'll see some spectacular identifications. Every distant speck, each faint peep, and every speeding blur offers an ID challenge and we want to nail them all. We don't, but we do pretty well, I'd say.

The northward view. Spectacular. The rolling ridges stretch for miles, richly carpeted in oak, maple, tulip, ash, and many other tree species. By mid-October, the chlorophyllic mask of green is fading, leaving a colorful palette of oranges, reds, and yellows in its wake.

To the south is the meadow and its covering of herbs and grasses, creating a diversity of habitat. Way beyond lies the Ohio River, and those most distant hills are West Virginia.

Julie Zickefoose holds an Eastern Bluebird that's not quite up to snuff. It is is one of scores of wild birds that she's taken in and rehabilitated over the years. This one was doing well and will hopefully be released successfully. Fortunately, she detected the attempted depradations of the Ozzy Osbourneish hubby Bill just before he lunged. In his defense, one does work up an appetite after hours on the tower.

Speaking of bluebirds, they've got quite a nest box trail on the farm, and there are more of these gorgeous little thrushes about than you can shake a stick at.
The fifth wheel of the Thompson tribe, Chet Baker. This highly social Boston Terrier delights in the company of people, and asks to be carried up to the tower's summit to help with the Big Sit. This dog is not as richly plumaged as, say, a Norwegian Forest Cat, and nippy days set him to trembling like a cottonwood leaf in a wind storm. So, we wrap him in blankets. Like some sort of goggle-eyed pied turtle, he peeks just his nose from the swadddling to keep an account of our activities. And, of course, up his odds of having someone pay him some attention.

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The tower offers a panoramic view of the hills of Washington County; in the video above I pan my camera around so that you can see the perspective that we get.

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Lots of bird-friendly vegetation skirts the tower and yard, including a number of Gray Birches, Betula populifolia. These white-barked catkin factories attract birds galore and constantly engage our attention. Yesterday, two Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers spent most of the day working the birch, and I made the above video through one of our scopes. The sapsucker is excavating deep sapwells to get into the deeper flowing autumnal sap. In spring, when the sap runs shallow, they dig smaller round holes.

Much of our tower time is devoted to sky-watching, and yesterday brought gorgeous blue ether dappled with odd wisps of cloud. We like some cloud cover; the raptors and other fliers show up better with a backdrop.

Turkey Vulture comes in to check us out. We saw lots of these, and sometimes at their level, one of the advantages of being several stories up in the air.

The familiar shape of a Red-tailed Hawk. There are resident pairs, but we saw many migrants passing by as well. The tower is an excellent hawk-watching platform, and allows observers to see birds for a mile or more in all directions.

Speeding bullet, a male Sharp-shinned Hawk streaks by. This one put on a spectacular show, repeatedly strafing a female Cooper's Hawk. This aerial dogfight had us all enraptured, and offered a dramatic and direct comparison as to how radically different in size this two species can be. The sharpie looked about the same as a Blue Jay to a crow. Feathered balls of testosterone, Sharp-shinned Hawks seem to delight in harassing other birds.

My stint on the tower lasted for 13 hours. Finally, the sun dipped below the horizon, and our prospects for adding new species dipped dramatically. We finished the day with a very respectable 67 species, just two shy of tying the record and a scant three short of busting it. Oh well, maybe next year.

Thanks again to our gracious hosts, Julie, Bill, Liam, and Phoebe.

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3 comments:

Bill of the Birds said...

Great encapsulation of a wonderful day of birding, Jimbo. Thanks for making the scene, and for adding so many birds to the list with your outstanding ears!

Julie Zickefoose said...

I'm sending all my blogbuddies over here for a Chet Baker fix! Thanks so much for this lovely post, Jim. Being otherwise occupied, I really appreciate your doing this. Not to mention the fact that I love your writing style.

Whoops--there goes another feathered ball of testosterone, right over the white-barked catkin factory.

Clay Lady said...

wow--the tower is something else. Thanks for the view straight down to give us an appreciation of the height.

Poor Bill--I always hate it when someone snaps a photo of me eating!