Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Big Sit! in Old Lyme, CT - Oct 9, 2021

The Big Sit! is an annual event on a predetermined weekend in October during which teams attempt to see or hear as many bird species as possible from the confines of a 17-foot circle. Sounds simple, right? Well, it is! There really is only one major rule: someone must see or hear said bird from the circle itself. It does not even need to be identifiable from the circle. In other words, one can leave the circle to identify a distant bird, as long as said bird is visible from the circle itself. 

Technically a "competition," this casual and fun event is more a "challenge" than anything else and might even double as a fundraiser for nature centers. Certain teams have been participating from the same circle for years now, and the goal is really just to have fun with it. Some teams do keep detailed records of their sightings, each year hoping to top their circle's previous record count. Others, such as the Milford Point "B.W. Surf Scopers," have also kept a cumulative list over the years that, I must say, is quite impressive.

Anyone interested in reading more about this event can visit the website HERE.

My personal involvement in the Big Sit has been rather limited. I have in the past assisted teams at Milford Point and Lighthouse Point. The closest I've come to an independent Big Sit came many years ago when I teamed up with Luke Tiller, who wanted to try a circle at Pleasure Beach in Bridgeport, CT. We had high hopes for the location, which was a narrow barrier beach between marsh and Long Island Sound, but despite excellent migration weather the count was a dud.

I hadn't given a new circle much thought until October 16, 2019. I was scanning the Great Island marsh in Old Lyme from the observation deck in hopes of adding American Bittern to my Self Found Big Year total. Waiting for three hours for a bittern to flush during that rising tide gave me plenty of time to soak up the location. Migration conditions that midday were decent, and a light hawk flight had developed. Several sparrows were kicking around the hedges. Shorebirds were flying around the marsh as the tide rose. Gulls and terns were feeding at the river mouth. I had only tallied 41 species over those three hours, but it seemed that this spot held great Big Sit potential.

Last October thanks to conflicting plans I was unable to put together a team. But this year's weekend was wide open, and I was thrilled that there was interest among friends not already committed to another team. And so it was decided. Matt Bell, Andy Griswold, Jason Rieger, Phil Rusch and I would give it a shot!

We set our sights on Saturday, October 9th.

Phil and I arrived at 0430 in hopes of picking up a few nocturnal migrants, owls, or rails. We didn't have much calling overhead despite mostly clear skies and light ENE wind, but a few SWAINSON'S THRUSHES and a VEERY got us off to a positive start. CLAPPER RAIL called from the marsh, and just before dawn a pair of GREAT HORNED OWLS began duetting. Our only BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERONS of the day were heard in the dark. We ended up with twelve species predawn.

And then when dawn hit we enjoyed our heaviest activity of the day, per usual. New birds were being added left and right. The increasing east winds weren't ideal for a morning flight of passerines, and so we weren't shocked that little was passing overhead. But there was plenty on the deck to keep us busy. Egrets and gulls were pouring out of their roosts. Common backyard birds could be heard and seen in the adjacent private lots. A feeding flock of LAUGHING GULLS developed that would last on and off through the morning, and for a little while a they were joined by a juvenile BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE. Kittiwake is a state review species and a really difficult bird to see from shore, but autumn 2021 has delivered a smattering of inshore and even inland reports through the entire region, so something is going on with that species right now. We were at 65 species at 0835.

The rest of the gang arrived throughout the morning, adding plenty of fresh eyes to the crew. The rate of additions tarried but kept steady. With only a light migration happening, we weren't seeing big numbers of birds, especially passerines. We struggled with some common stuff and even ended up entirely missing Robin and Chickadee for the day! But in early-mid October bird diversity is still pretty strong in Connecticut, so there was a wide range of possibilities for us to see. What we missed was made up for with quality finds such as GREAT CORMORANT, LITTLE BLUE HERON, GLOSSY IBIS, YELLOW-BELLIED SAPSUCKER, BARN SWALLOW and SCARLET TANAGER.

That feeding gull flock continued to produce by sucking in passers by. At one point a BONAPARTE'S GULL got in on the action, and a flock of 21 COMMON TERNS appeared from the east and eventually settled into that flock.

As the tide rose I hopped into my kayak for a marsh paddle. LEAST SANDPIPER, SALTMARSH SPARROW, NELSON'S SPARROW and MARSH WREN were ticked from the circle as I identified them from the marsh. Shorebirds and waders were forced to move around as this super high tide covered dry ground. While I was out paddling an AMERICAN BITTERN was among those flushed by rising water. At 1320 we stood at 88 species.

Other than the feeding gulls, Long Island Sound was eerily quiet all day. Nothing much was moving. We struggled for our few SURF SCOTERS and only had a couple loons. There was a light raptor migration happening, so we ended up with most of the expected species, though Red-shouldered was a miss. One of our toughest birds of the day was ROCK PIGEON, which we ended up finally getting in flight mid-afternoon.

Once we realized that 100 species was in sight, we felt obligated to keep going until dark, even if it was like pulling teeth. Our last bird came in the form of two unidentified teal sometime after 5pm. Counting 'teal sp.' we hit 98 species, or 97 fully-identified species. Going into this we figured that 75-80 or more would be a success, so reaching 98 felt like a major victory. Who knows what the ceiling is on this place. 110+ seems very plausible. Perhaps one day under perfect conditions we will find out. The team is already looking forward to 2022 as we spitball ways to improve upon our inaugural effort!

You can read our full eBird list by clicking HERE.

Phil assembled a shockingly sturdy platform for the top of his vehicle that helped us add many a bird to the list.

Panorama view from our circle. You can see that we have a large marsh in front of us. The mouth of the Connecticut River is scopeable beyond that but not seen well in this image. That water to our left is Long Island Sound. We have hedgerows on either side of the road that descends to the boat ramp below. To our right is residential backyard that has a few trees and shrubs. Out of view behind is a mostly dirt parking lot and the end of a residential street with a few more visible trees. This conglomeration of habitats puts many species in play.

"The Great Islanders"


 - Nick

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