A Short Tale from the Big Sit

by Ben “Swampfox” Steines, Fall 2016 Environmental Education Intern

It was 12 a.m. on the cloudy morning of October 9th as I stumbled through the darkness to find my way to Loon’s Lookout. The only source of light was coming from the Shaver’s Creek parking lot and the cabin lights across Lake Perez at the Civil Engineering Lodge. As I approached the lookout I could just make out three dark figures. Not knowing who they were just yet I sauntered up to them in silence. As I neared, all three turned their heads and one remarked, “Is that Ben?” It was Torri Withrow, the Raptor Center intern and dear friend of mine. The other two figures were Madisen, a former SEED semester student, and Nate, whom I did not know. “It is Ben,” I replied as I pulled out my chair and settled in for the long haul, the Big Sit.

boardwalk
Loon’s Lookout, AKA the boardwalk from Shaver’s Creek over Lake Perez. (Dec. 2014)

It wasn’t long before Doug Wentzel joined us for owl calling. Doug and Torri both tried at length various owl calls to try and convince any owl in the area to make itself known. But it was to no avail. The crisp temperature and calm weather were not enough to bring out the owls. And so it was, we sat there out on the lake, in the dark, listening to the faint sounds of what we assumed were Wood Ducks. Over the next two hours, people came and went until it was only Torri and myself. We sat for a time, huddled in our sleeping bags and blankets, listening for any birds that might still be out there. Listening, listening, listening until sleep fell over us.

I awoke at 3 a.m. to a faint sound. In my foggy state it took me awhile to realize what I was hearing. “OWLS!” I thought, and then it hit me, “GREAT HORNED OWLS!” The calls soon went away and did not return, so I made no move to wake Torri, but I was excited. I had not heard Great Horned Owls in the wild before. I soon fell back into the slumber I had so briefly awoken from. An hour and a half later (I know because I kept checking my watch) I woke again. This time the sounds were coming from behind me. More owls, Barred Owls. And so our checklist grew to three species: Barred Owl, Great Horned Owl, and Wood Duck. I went to sleep once more. By quarter of 6 Torri was waking me to alert me of owl calls once more. She had not been awake when I had heard the first two, so for her they were the first of the day. The sun was finally starting to make its way back around, so Torri and I both stayed up to see what birds truly were lurking in the shadows on the lake. We soon began to see dark, blurred shapes floating in the water. One shape began to bob its head back and forth. “AN AMERICAN COOT!” I thought to myself, “What a great start to the day.” But the sun soon made a fool of me when the light revealed the bird to be just another Wood Duck. In time Doug wandered back down to the lookout, then Jon Kauffman, then Julia and a dozen doughnuts, then Zoey and Matt too. Early on we saw a group of Ruddy Ducks on the lake, a couple Double Crested Cormorants flew over the water, and a Great Blue Heron passed overhead. As the sun rose higher and warmed the boardwalk with its presence, birds soon filled the brushy vegetation surrounding us. We started seeing warblers flitting from branch to branch, a Song Sparrow singing in the bushes, a Black and White Warbler stopped by for only a brief moment. For a while it seemed as though there was no shortage of new bird species to count. But by 10 a.m. the frequency with which birds appeared was starting to slow.

Great Blue Heron seen from the boardwalk in September.

Shortly after 10 a.m. Torri left to run errands. In the next hour Doug left for a lunch break, then Zoey and Matt took off, then Julia too. For an hour it was only Jon and myself, and no new birds to speak of. An occasional raptor was spotted up high and on the far side of the lake, a vulture of some sort, a Red-tailed Hawk, or maybe a Sharp-shinned Hawk. Birds would continue to pop in and out of the vegetation around us. Oftentimes they were Yellow-rumped Warblers or Eastern Phoebes, but the excitement of hoping it was a new bird was enough to keep me going at least for a few more hours.

Over the next couple of hours, we had many visitors pass by and talk to us about what we were doing. It was nice to see some new faces and to converse with folks on topics not always focused on birding. By 1 p.m. Doug had returned, and our group of birders grew again to three. There weren’t too many new species seen after that, maybe one or two. Jon eventually left to go run errands before returning to the Big Sit around 5 p.m. And I left at 2 p.m., after having sat out on the lookout for 14 hours straight. I did not return after that.

Doug Wentzel leads a misty Migration Morning bird walk at the boardwalk. (September 2015)

In the end we recorded 58 total species over the 24 hours allotted for the Big Sit, tying our all-time record from last year. It was a day I’ll not soon forget. Since coming to Shaver’s Creek I’ve grown to enjoy the hobby of birding and events like the Birding Cup and the Big Sit. I haven’t dedicated much time to birding since the start of the summer; I guess I’ve just felt too busy with work, but the Big Sit helped to rejuvenate my interest. I think part of the magic of events like the Big Sit is the simplicity in it. You’re only expected to sit in one place for as long as you want and record any birds you see. Who couldn’t enjoy that?

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