Monday, October 10, 2011

The Big Sit, 2011

Yesterday marked the annual "Big Sit" at the Indigo Hill home of Bill Thompson, Julie Zickefoose, and their children Liam and Phoebe in the rural back country of Whipple, Ohio. I've been going down there for this 24-hour marathon of birding for the better part of a decade, and really enjoy it. For the uninitiated: A Big Sit is a 24-hour effort to tally as many bird species as possible from within the confines of a 15-foot diameter circle. Once a participant leaves the designated circle, he/she can no longer count. All birds seen or heard can be tallied.

As is the norm, I aimed to reach the Big Sit site at 5 am or shortly thereafter, which necessitated a 3 am departure from Columbus. That was rough, after staying up to watch the OSU Buckeyes incredible implosion and loss to the Nebraska Cornhuskers. After a none too brief safari through the 24-hour McDonald's drive thru for a bolt of coffee and exposure to various and sundry drunks, strippers just off work, and other pre-dawn characters that collect at such places at 3 am, it was off on my 2.5 hour drive.

The night was calm and clear, and as I traveled further from the halo of light pollution that enshrouds the city, the stars became ever brighter and more plentiful. I like to reach the Big Sit locale while there is still plenty of darkness before the dawn, as we will hear lots of nocturnal migrants, songbirds mostly, flying overhead. As always, Bill was running solo in the tower (more on the tower in a sec), with me being the second to arrive. I climbed up to an incredible celestial spectacle. Billions of stars twinkled overhead, and constellations shone brightly. Just as they have for eons, Neotropical songbirds winged southward through the night, using the stars to navigate back to their southerly wintering grounds. We heard Veery, Hermit Thrush, and scads of Swainson's Thrushes, all delivering distinctive notes. Less easy to distnguish were the calls of sparrows: Chipping, Field, and Savannah. An Indigo Bunting passed over, as did many warblers.

By dawn's first light, others had joined us in the tower and the birds began coming hot and heavy. Being intensely competitive, with ourselves at least, we were out to smash our previous Big Sit record of 69 species.

A distant view of the Thompson residence, looking north from the south meadow. We perch atop that large chimney-like structure for our Big Sit.

Big Sitters spotting birds at the tower's summit. Bill and Julie decided to tack this appendage to their house about 12 years ago. Their contractor did a marvelous job in building this "birding tower" which juts some 40 feet into the sky. Once a climber has reached the summit, a trap door is popped open and allows access to the roof and a commanding view of miles of hill country landscape.

Here's the view to the north, colored by changing fall foliage. We are able to see for miles, and have named all of the prominent landmarks so that people can quickly locate a bird that has been spotted. It's incredible what one can see and hear from up here. I would imagine that the cumulative Big Sit list from the tower eclipses 100 species.

By mid-morning, we were on a real roll and had surpassed 60 species before 10 am. The record of 69 was in mortal peril, as we still had 14 hours to bird. Problematic species were readily presenting themselves, and we quickly had all of the woodpeckers, thrushes, and seven species of warblers.

A gorgeous big-toothed aspen, Populus grandidentata, shines against a beautiful blue October sky.

This year, Bill and Julie erected a plastic Great Horned Owl, on top of the tower. As this fake hooter stuck up another ten feet from the tower's four story summit, and their house and tower sit atop one of the higher ridges in Washington County, this owl is probably a rival for the highest point in the area. It probably ought to be rigged with warning lights for low-flying aircraft.

The idea was that the owl would lure in such feathery bundles of testosterone such as Sharp-shinned Hawks, who would then put on an awesome show by blitzing the fake owl only feet over our heads. It didn't work, but we did see plenty of raptors passing by, including Cooper's and Sharp-shinned hawks, Red-tailed and Red-shouldered hawks, American Kestrel, and an easily missed raptorial bonus which turned out to be the record-breaking species (read on...).

Lugging provisions up the narrow staircases of the enormous birding tower grows wearisome, so B & J have installed a high tech trasnport system. A sturdy clothesline is connected to a small human-powered crane at the tower's summit, and the operator can hand crank goods to the needy people at the top. Here, Julie Z. attaches food and drink to the crane's basket, and it was quickly hoisted to the hungry mouths at the top. We can also lower dogs and small children by this method.

Birding from the tower usually hits a doldrums period in early afternoon. We've tallied the majority of birds that we'll find, bird activity lessens, and people are tiring. So, some of us set out to explore some of the 80-acre property. This is the view from the end of the south meadow, with the house-tower in the distance. The scarlet leaves of winged sumac, Rhus copallina, brighten the scene and are framed by a Virginia pine, Pinus virginiana. We found plenty of cool bugs, plants, more birds and other stuff, of which I made no images. Sometimes its nice to just cast around without worrying about photography.

Some others came and went during th day, but here's the majority of the core Big Sit crew atop the tower. Left to right, we have: Jason Larson, Julie Zickefoose, Chet Baker (he's a Boston Terrier not a person), your blogger, crack young birder Evan, Steve McCarthy, Shila Wilson, Nina Harfmann, Wendy Eller, and Dan and Kelly Hendrix.

Oh, and how I could I forget - Mr. Bill Thompson III himself! Bill is somewhat camera shy but I managed to capture his gaping maw in a photo that we can now all use for promo purposes. Where we would be without Bill? Certainly birding as we know it would be a lot quieter and duller.

The day ended in a glorious burst of colors, courtesy of a remarkable sunset. We were quite pleased by this point. The record had been beaten; a stellar seventy-two (72!) species had been recorded, eclipsing the old record by three. A rather homely species checked in for #72, a Rock Pigeon, but we'll take it. However, the record-breaker (#70) was much more sophisticated, a Northern Harrier flyby spotted by Bill.

A great day, lots of good birding, friends, and food. The bar has been set high for the Indigo Hill Big Sit though, and I wonder if we can best seventy-two.


rebecca said...

Congratulations! Sounds like a blast. I would love to participate in something like this someday.

Bill of the Birds said...

Love this post Jimbo! Thanks for the kind words and for being a key part of the record-breaking Big Sit team once again!

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