Sunday, October 24, 2010

Group Green

What's more green than getting out and birding without using any gas? The answer is to organize a group of people to get out and bird without using any gas. Started by John Himmelman and the New Haven, Connecticut Bird Club 15 years ago, the official "Big Sit" occurs annually on the second Sunday of October. Birders in North America (and a few worldwide) spend the day at their local big sit location - birding from a 17' diameter circle, listing all of the bird species they see and hear while staying in the circle. (Some have joked that it should be called the "Big Stand" since most birders spend the time standing at a scope and very little, if any, sitting.) Years ago, I asked John Himmelman why it was a 17" circle and he replied that the distance was arbitrarily picked so that people would scratch their heads over "Why 17 feet?" Bird Watcher's Digest now compiles the big sit's, and has past years results, rules, etc. This is at:  .

Our local big sit has been going on for 13 years at the Elfin Forest in Los Osos, California. We count in shifts from a wooden platform on a sandy hill in the Elfin Forest, overlooking the Morro Bay Estuary below us, the sandspit that separates the bay and the ocean to our west, the basaltic vocanic plug "Morro Rock" to our distant northwest, the fields and scrubland to our east and the edge of the town of Los Osos to our south. It would be a beautiful place just to sit and pass the day - even without any birds. It fortuantely has a wide variety of birds like ducks (e.g. the Blue-winged Teal pictured), terns, gulls, and shorebirds following the tide below us, raptors soaring by at eye level or over the ridges to our east, thrashers and Wrentits calling from the scrub around us, and urban birds sitting on the wires at the edge of Los Osos.

I joined Mike Stiles while it was still dark at Bush Lupine Overlook for the start of this year's count (I rode my bike the 2 1/2 miles in the dark). A warm onshore breeze came down over the hills to our east and it was warm enough for shorts. Birds were vocal in the estuary below at 6AM, with night herons, Semipalmated Plovers and wigeon calling. The two of us had 41 species by 7AM. In the early daylight that followed, more shorebirds and ducks called as they moved with the incoming tide and land birds such as towhees, Hermit Thrush and sparrows woke up around us. The California Towhee pictured below spent much of the day near our platform.

As it got lighter we began to use our scopes to identify farther away terns, shorebirds, ducks, geese, grebes and herons (like the Great Blue pictured below). The tides were extreme for the day, ranging from a 6+ foot tide just after noon to a minus tide at about 7:30 PM. We had 94 species by noon, which was a little lower than usual despite the nice weather. Some grebes, ducks, loons and other species had apparently not returned to the area yet, and other common residents like Belted Kingfisher were just not moving to our part of the bay.

Birders came and went, with most staying well beyond their assigned times and some dashing off to see an unusual bird found elsewhere and then returning to resume looking for big sit birds. We had our usual variety of great food, including fresh fruit, brownies, chips, nuts, cookies and more. It was a social event as much as a birding one and most of the local long time birders showed up. We added two new species to our all time big sit list - Red-breasted Nuthatch and White-fronted Goose. We ended up with a low total - 101 species - because we missed usual "gimmee" species such as Pied-billed and Clark's Grebes, kingfisher, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and Golden-crowned Sparrow. Additionally, we had no swallows or swifts. It seems that our totals in past years were also lower when the tides were extreme.

Over the years of October Big Sits we have had a cumulative total of 174 species from this spot in the Elfin Forest. Our highest ever was 122 species in one day. Only Cape May New Jersey has exceeded that total, although locations in the tropics would undoubtedly be much higher. While it might seem boring to count in one spot for a day, a great location like the Elfin Forest is not boring and 2010 was no exception. It was a beautiful day of birding in an extraordinry location.

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