Monday, October 12, 2009

The Biggest Sit: A Narrative of the '09 Cape May Big Sit

It all started three years ago, when Tom Magarian and I challenged each other to a friendly big sit competition.

"Big sit?"

Now, to be clear... a big sit is kind of like a big day, where the objective is to find as many species as possible in 24 hours- except that instead of moving around all day in pursuit of birds, you let the birds pursue you. The New Haven Bird Club in Connecticut is to blame for starting this madness 15 years ago, and in recent years, Bird Watcher's Digest magazine has teamed up with the club to make the event more accessible and interactive (see website here). The official Big Sit competition is held on the second Sunday in October every year.

In the years since the initial match-up (which, by the way, Magarian and company won 121-104), we've shifted our efforts solely on the Cape May sit. It has become a really fun thing to do, with most of Cape May's birders making an appearance and contributing to the day-long effort.

So, I made my way down to the State Park early Sunday morning to once again partake in this peculiar, yet strangely addictive, activity. It was a clear, star-lit night that was also quickly becoming one of the coldest yet of the young fall season. A late-rising moon hung low over the Cape May city lights, and three figures sat huddled on the top deck of the platform. Michael O'Brien, David La Puma and Dave Hedeen beat me there, and had already tallied almost 20 species by the time I arrived.

There was a strong nocturnal flight occurring over our heads, but clear skies were allowing birds to travel high and many flight calls never made it to the ground. However, we still managed to tally a number of migrants, highlighted by a Seaside Sparrow that Michael nailed. There were a number of sparrows on the move, mainly White-throated, Swamp and Savannah. We also had four species of thrushes, including Swainson's, Veery, Gray-cheeked and a Bicknell's. A Barn Owl called once.

As the early morning hours crawled by, we all eventually took turns napping atop the deck, tucked into our sleeping bags. At some point, Sam Galick magically appeared out of the darkness with a round of Wawa coffee, which Richard Crossley unfortunately slept through. As the moon ascended, pre-sunrise violets and blues started to appear out over the ocean. Eventually there was enough light over Bunker Pond to pick out four Ruddy Ducks, which apparently came in overnight.

Soon enough, Doug Gochfeld and Pete Dunne arrived, and there was enough light to start using our optics. An American Woodcock whizzed by, Wood Ducks squealed from the back of Bunker Pond, and accipiters quickly filled the sky overhead. A small crowd quickly assembled on the platform, and the daylight portion of our day was underway.

The songbird flight started out slow, but slowly gained steam. Red-winged Blackbirds passed by in small pulses, and Flickers would soon join them. The morning started calm with almost no wind, and birds were scattered about all over the landscape. Offshore, small flocks of Black and Surf Scoters streamed out of Delaware Bay. A woodpecker i.d. mishap created a major comical breakdown for a few minutes, but the crew luckily pulled it back together in short time.

Richard Crossley then pulled a Red-headed Woodpecker out from over the distant treeline, and David La Puma found a late Black-billed Cuckoo nestled in a cedar tree from a quarter-mile away. How he picked it out, I have no clue- but it was certainly one of the day's highlights. By mid-morning, Yellow-rumps really started to stream through, and we would see about 5,000 for the day.

Sam made another Wawa run, this time for food. Meanwhile, Chris Hajduk appeared with some of the best bagels a big-sitter could dream of (and two types of cream cheese...clutch!) The Butterbutt flight continued, and we continued to add a little of this, a little of that...Pectoral Sandpipers coming in off the water, Pine Warbler in the cedars, Parasitic Jaeger offshore, Bald Eagle circling to the north.

A late-morning checklist recap revealed that we had found 125 species, a total that already beat the previous single-day mark for the hawkwatch, and was within a very large stone's throw of the North American Big Sit mark of 145- a total achieved by Will Russell, Pete Dunne and Don Freiday during the 2007 World Series of Birding. Their site was near Davey's Lake, at Higbee Beach WMA.

But, the problem with big sits is that once you get through the morning, new birds are always a huge challenge to find. And when you find 125 in a morning, this fact is even more obvious. Yet, the birds kept coming. An Eastern Bluebird call note that actually didn't originate from a Mockingbird was a nice pick-up, as was the Red-eyed Vireo in the cedars near the pavilion. A Lincoln's Sparrow showed off in front of the platform, and Ian Davies pinned down Northern Gannet and Chimney Swift. A fly-over Common Nighthawk also put in an appearance overhead.

The afternoon lull ended abruptly at 4:05pm. Michael was scanning offshore when he suddenly yelled the two most unexpected words of the day: "SABINE'S GULL!" The bird was visible just over the dunes, a fair way out over the water. Dave Hedeen then saw it land on the water. The command was given to clear the platform, and clear it did- just 23.6 seconds later. The bird was eventually re-found at a distance before it took off again toward the southwest, disappearing into the haze.

With the excitement over, we returned to the platform and started the late-day push. There were still a few holes in our list that could be filled, and a few more possibilities that weren't as likely, but were certainly still do-able. At 5:00, Pete packed up his hawkwatch stuff, and instead of leaving, promptly aimed his scope offshore. Don and Cameron came back and supplied us with two new sets of eyes and ears. The interns returned with a Burger King crown, which would be given to and then handed off to the person who found the next new bird (these things happen when you've spent too many hours in the same place, looking for birds).

Don picked out two Red-throated Loons that were almost beyond the limit of identification. Michael picked up on a small flock of shorebirds, which ended up being Semipalmated Sandpipers. Doug took care of Common Tern. Cameron found a distant Dark-eyed Junco across the marsh.

As the sun began to set, our total stood at 144. American Bitterns started to appear again, and a Barn Owl screeched as it headed out toward Delaware. Common Nighthawks patrolled the treelines.

Then something really cool happened.

"I have an unknown bird..." Don was looking into the orange twilight, where there was a small, fast-flapping, wader-ish bird quickly circling up into the sky. As everyone got on the bird, the consensus was reached that the bird was a Least Bittern, which was pretty damn remarkable. After it had circled up a few hundred feet into the air, it made straight for Delaware. I don't know if you've ever seen a Least Bittern taking off at dusk for points south, but that was certainly a first for me.

Songbirds started taking off again shortly after dusk. Winds were light out of the northwest, so passerines were again taking advantage of another evening of favorable flight conditions. At 7:45pm, Michael and Sam simultaneously called out an American Redstart calling overhead, accounting for species #146. The sound of high-fives followed.

After twenty-plus hours, a lot of great birds, too many funny moments, some superb company and a ton of memories, the '09 big sit was over. It was a day that will forever be remembered in birding history as one of the birdiest, luckiest and funniest days ever had by a bunch of birders anywhere.

We hope you can make it out next year to join us. Michael O'Brien's list for the day is included below-

Location: Cape Island--Cape May Point SP--CMBO Hawk Watch
Observation date: 10/11/09
Number of species: 146

Snow Goose 15
Brant (Atlantic) 6
Canada Goose 200
Mute Swan 15
Wood Duck 30
Gadwall 10
American Wigeon 25
American Black Duck 5
Mallard 50
Blue-winged Teal 6
Northern Shoveler 4
Northern Pintail 20
Green-winged Teal 40
Ring-necked Duck 2
Surf Scoter 70
Black Scoter 250
Ruddy Duck 4
Red-throated Loon 3
Common Loon 4
Pied-billed Grebe 3
Northern Gannet 2
Brown Pelican 7
Double-crested Cormorant 5000
American Bittern 15
Least Bittern 1
Great Blue Heron 30
Great Egret 15
Snowy Egret 25
Green Heron 2
Black-crowned Night-Heron 1
Glossy Ibis 1
Black Vulture 10
Turkey Vulture 81
Osprey 50
Bald Eagle 30
Northern Harrier 33
Sharp-shinned Hawk 507
Cooper's Hawk 587
Broad-winged Hawk 30
Red-tailed Hawk 41
American Kestrel 19
Merlin 79
Peregrine Falcon 69
Common Moorhen 3
American Coot 15
Killdeer 25
American Oystercatcher 1
Solitary Sandpiper 2
Greater Yellowlegs 2
Lesser Yellowlegs 1
Sanderling 20
Semipalmated Sandpiper 8
Pectoral Sandpiper 20
Dunlin 15
Wilson's Snipe 3
American Woodcock 1
Sabine's Gull 1
Laughing Gull 500
Ring-billed Gull 80
Herring Gull 50
Great Black-backed Gull 150
Caspian Tern 1
Common Tern 2
Forster's Tern 700
Royal Tern 40
Black Skimmer 200
Parasitic Jaeger 3
Rock Pigeon 25
Mourning Dove 50
Black-billed Cuckoo 1
Barn Owl 2
Great Horned Owl 2
Common Nighthawk 3
Chimney Swift 1
Belted Kingfisher 2
Red-headed Woodpecker 1
Red-bellied Woodpecker 4
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 3
Downy Woodpecker 2
Northern Flicker (Yellow-shafted) 50
Eastern Phoebe 2
Red-eyed Vireo 1
Blue Jay 100
American Crow 10
Fish Crow 40
Tree Swallow 1500
Northern Rough-winged Swallow 15
Bank Swallow 2
Cliff Swallow 1
Barn Swallow 2
Carolina Chickadee 1
Tufted Titmouse 2
Red-breasted Nuthatch 4
Carolina Wren 3
Winter Wren 1
Golden-crowned Kinglet 6
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 4
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 1
Eastern Bluebird 1
Veery 1
Gray-cheeked Thrush 10
Bicknell's Thrush 1
Swainson's Thrush 25
American Robin 200
Gray Catbird 2
Northern Mockingbird 3
Brown Thrasher 2
European Starling 50
American Pipit 80
Cedar Waxwing 150
Nashville Warbler 1
Northern Parula 25
Cape May Warbler 6
Black-throated Blue Warbler 12
Yellow-rumped Warbler 5000
Black-throated Green Warbler 1
Pine Warbler 2
Palm Warbler 50
Blackpoll Warbler 20
American Redstart 1
Common Yellowthroat 50
Scarlet Tanager 1
Eastern Towhee 1
Chipping Sparrow 5
Field Sparrow 2
Savannah Sparrow 80
Seaside Sparrow 1
Song Sparrow 15
Lincoln's Sparrow 1
Swamp Sparrow 50
White-throated Sparrow 90
White-crowned Sparrow 1
Dark-eyed Junco (Slate-colored) 1
Northern Cardinal 4
Rose-breasted Grosbeak 2
Indigo Bunting 15
Bobolink 4
Red-winged Blackbird 500
Eastern Meadowlark 50
Rusty Blackbird 2
Common Grackle 50
Brown-headed Cowbird 200
Purple Finch 1
House Finch 20
American Goldfinch 60
House Sparrow 20

This report was generated automatically by eBird v2(

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