227 Square Feet and 24 Hours of Birding

by Mel White
October 15, 2010
big sit birding competition
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By a stroke of work-related luck, I happened to be present the spring day in 2007 when Pete Dunne, Don Freiday, and Will Russell set a new North American record for a “big sit”: that odd niche of birding competition in which participants count only species seen from within the confines of a 17-foot-diameter circle. The three were competing in New Jersey Audubon’s World Series of Birding, and by the time I stopped by their site near Cape May’s Higbee Beach in late afternoon they were practically in shock from the onslaught of birds they’d observed.

“This has been one of the best birding days of my life,” Pete said. “We could hardly bird, we were laughing so hard.”

“We’ve seen something between a thousand and fifteen hundred passerines,” Will said. “The day started with a hundred orioles and just went on from there.”

As we talked, Will spotted a duck in an inlet more than 50 yards away. Despite looking directly into the setting sun, he quickly identified it as a Red-breasted Merganser—one more tick in the team’s astounding total of 139 species.

I can’t remember if I’d thought much about doing a big sit myself, but as I left Higbee Beach I knew I wanted to try. Not as a serious competitor, but just because it seemed like fun. I used to do one or more “big days” each spring, but I’ve become increasingly reluctant to spend hours in a car on a whirlwind listing chase. A big sit seemed like a way to enjoy the challenge of a big day in the most relaxing (all right—you can call it lazy) way possible.

But where? It seemed obvious that half the battle was choosing the right location for that 227-square-foot circle. Pete, Don, and Will had staked out a spot with views of a marshy freshwater pond, shrubby grassland, distant woods, a stretch of saltwater bay, and lots of sky. It didn’t take long to decide on my site: Peveto Woods Sanctuary, a 40-acre patch of woods on the Gulf Coast of southwestern Louisiana.

Like the more famous High Island, 50 miles west in Texas, Peveto can attract throngs of northbound migrants in spring, tired from crossing the Gulf of Mexico and eager to land in the first trees they see. I have family connections in southern Louisiana, which meant I could combine a trip to see relatives with my mid-April big sit. I imagined setting up my chair at the edge of the woods, with a good scope view of Gulf beach and an expansive horizon for hawks and other soaring birds.

I’d been to Peveto since it took a major hit from Hurricane Rita in 2005, when many of the big live oaks, hackberries, and honey locusts were blown over by high winds or killed by saltwater storm surge. I had not, however, seen it since 2008’s Hurricane Ike, which sent 12 feet of saltwater through the sanctuary and caused major damage in a region still rebuilding from Rita. When I arrived on a Saturday afternoon to choose my site, I discovered that the ideal location of my imagination no longer existed.

The area of woodland closest to the Gulf was now an expanse of skeletonized trees, with tangles of vines and herbaceous vegetation growing up through soil covered in a layer of sand. Because of the slope of the terrain, if I chose a spot with a good view of the beach I was too far from the woods; if I selected a spot within the still-living oaks, I could see only the distant Gulf, not the beach. Over and over I marked circles, only to rethink and move inland, farther from the Gulf. I am, shall we say, Charadriiformically challenged. I’d much rather give myself a chance at more songbirds than have to squint through the scope at sandpipers.

In further bad news, Saturday was another in a long string of beautiful sunny days with a strong south wind, and the sanctuary was depressingly quiet. Migrants were finding easy traveling in those winds, zooming right past the coast before stopping to rest and feed on their way north. I finally decided on a spot beside a live oak, in a kind of natural amphitheater with nearby shrubby places, close enough to the Gulf that I could at least identify large things like gulls. I could see part of a grassy field to the east, and I had a decent-sized patch of sky above. I marked my circle with blue tape on twigs stuck into the ground, and left Peveto with a hopeful look at gathering clouds, noting—just maybe—a shift in the wind.

I had almost no clue about how many species I might record. I’d never done this before; I was disappointed that I wouldn’t have a good beach view; the weather was iffy; I wasn’t at all sure how keen my eyes and ears would be. I finally decided that I’d be content with half the total of the North American record I’d partially witnessed: 70 species.

When the alarm rings well before dawn on the day of a Christmas Bird Count, you’re inspired to get up because you can’t let down your team. But for a one-person big sit, you are the team. Regretting the half-bottle of Big House Red from the previous night, I dragged myself outside to look at the sky. Good news: no stars. Clouds had moved in overnight, and the wind, though not northerly as would be ideal, had at least calmed.

With help from my wife, Hope, I was set up in my circle by 6:12 A.M., with my folding chair, ice chest, box of snacks, scope, and a large plastic bag where I could toss things in case of rain. The noise of the surf, so loud the day before that it had interfered with hearing songs, had died down along with the wind. The mosquitoes, which would have been kept away by a strong breeze, were out in force. Through their buzzing I heard my first bird of the day—a Northern Mockingbird, of course—at 6:20.

The dawn song I was hoping for was nearly nonexistent, but I wasn’t too worried. Peveto is usually most active in the afternoon, when trans-Gulf migrants start dropping in. A Common Nighthawk flew over, a White-throated Sparrow sang one phrase and quit, and a few of the usual suspects popped up. At 7:26, a Yellow- crowned Night-Heron flew into a live oak just 20 yards away and stayed for 10 minutes. That was a nice surprise, but the birding was undeniably slow.

Was the gloomy, cloudy day-break delaying bird activity? I don’t know, but things were about to change. The first warbler, a female Hooded, didn’t show up till 8:00 on the dot, and yet by 8:30 I wrote in my notebook, “I’m already tired of Scarlet Tanagers.” This stunning species was the bird of the day in Peveto Woods. At one time there were 20 of them arrayed in the trees around me, all as silent as Trappist monks. Next came a wave of Orchard Orioles. Hooded Warblers darted and flitted and pirouetted everywhere. The most enchanting thing about that hour from 8:00 to 9:00, though, was the influx of Worm-eating Warblers, a bird I’ve always considered beautiful in its own earth-tone way. It’s hard to say how many there were, but there was almost never a time when the species wasn’t in sight, demonstrating a surprising range of behaviors. They mimicked sparrows in the grass, wrens in the lower shrubs, creepers on tree trunks, chickadees in the higher branches. When they slowly fluttered down toward the ground, chasing insects, they even disconcertingly mimicked the dead brown leaves of live oaks that continually fell from branches. Several times I actually thought, “It’s just another Worm-eating.”

It was about then that the most important question of my big sit occurred to me: was I having fun yet? Most certainly. Those little blue-taped twigs kept me from running after birds, but they also made me work harder, sharpening my senses, making me question every cheep and strain to make out every dot high in the sky.

At 10:45 I wrote, “Definite lull,” and sat down to rest. A Kentucky Warbler immediately popped up right in front of me, and the floodgates opened again. Five male Rose-breasted Grosbeaks appeared, as did various vireos, thrushes, and warblers. In a few hours I may have doubled the total number of Cerulean Warblers I’d seen in my life. By then, the major problem with doing a solo big sit was apparent: you just can’t look everywhere at once. Quite literally, nobody has your back. I always had a nagging feeling that something was going on behind me, making me feel guilty about taking 30 seconds to enjoy a binocular view that encompassed, say, two Prothonotary Warblers, a Black-and-white, a Northern Parula, and an American Redstart. When I turned to scan the Gulf with the scope, I just knew that a Baltimore Oriole was peeking out of the leaves behind me. (Despite the influx of Orchards, I never did see a Baltimore.)

Meanwhile, Hope was spending time at a clearing in the center with a nice view of trees and shrubs, a bigger patch of sky, and, most notably, a small pond and a mister spraying water. I could tell the evening before that she thought I should have chosen that spot, despite its not having a view of the Gulf. Throughout the day she periodically returned to check on me. In accordance with our rules she didn’t point out birds for me or even mention species, but I could tell by the look in her eyes that she was seeing good stuff.

Around 11:30 more people began showing up at the sanctuary: a biology class from a college in Lafayette, a birding group of a half-dozen people, several solitary birders. As they passed my circle I’d say, “I’m doing a big sit, so don’t tell me anything you’ve seen”—but of course I couldn’t help noticing when, say, four people down the trail, suddenly turned, and raised their binoculars toward the same spot in a tree. (I never picked up anything new by observing birder behavior.)

By noon the day’s big rushes of birds were over. A light rain started just after 2:00, and I was encouraged to think that it might bring down more migrants. The shower quickly stopped, though. Later, I heard from a passing birder that a big patch of rain would arrive any minute from Texas. Sure enough, at 4:51 a steady drizzle began, and I scrambled to cover my scope, put things into the bag, and get out my poncho. Again, the rain ended quickly, no fallout fell, and it turned out that the highlight of the afternoon was the delivery, courtesy of my own pizza girl, of three slices of warmed-over pepperoni from dinner the night before.

I had to work hard to find any new birds from mid-afternoon on. All day I’d been wondering where the Gray Catbirds were (the place should have been crawling with them), and one finally darted across a clearing at 5:30. A flock of ducks way out in the Gulf, right at the limit of scope view, luckily turned out to be Blue-winged Teal, the white face patch on the males providing an explicit field mark when they bobbed up in the waves and the sun hit them. The last bird of the day was a Double-crested Cormorant at 6:33.

I had seen 72 species, so I met my goal of half the North American record. Hope was finally able to tell me about her sightings. A Least Bittern appeared and posed for a while; a Northern Waterthrush had spent the whole day at the little pond. I wasn’t surprised at some of the things she’d seen that I hadn’t (Swamp Sparrow, Painted Bunting), but how had I not heard the Fish Crow? Why didn’t the Black-throated Green come over to join its warbler cousins near me? I saw a flock of Little Blue Herons fly over, but she’d seen a different group with a Tricolored tagging along.

Even with my meager list of seabirds, I still thought I’d been wise to choose a site with a Gulf view, since the sure things— from Brown Pelican to Least Tern—outweighed what I might have gained from a view of the little pond. The grassy field east of the sanctuary was almost a total bust (all I got out of it was Loggerhead Shrike), and my patch of blue sky was disappointing. One thing on my “if I had it to do over again” list would simply be to look up more often.

And I will do it again. The challenge and competition of Christmas counts and big days are fun—even if you’re just competing against yourself—and the puzzles and compromises involved in choosing a site for a big sit add another dimension. I got lucky: that April weekend was the only time all spring I could have scheduled the trip to Louisiana, and Sunday was fortuitously the first day that the weather changed and migrants showed up in numbers. I’m eager to pick a circle near home next spring, close enough that I can watch the weather and purposefully wait for a day that looks good for a fallout.

Of course, there’s luck, and then there’s luck. I heard from Louisiana friends that Peveto Woods was a madhouse the very next weekend, with regional rarities including Lesser Nighthawk, Western Kingbird, Cape May and MacGillivray’s warblers, and Western Tanager. Who knows whether any of them would have dropped by my circle, but still . . . I’d sure like to give the Louisiana coast another try.

Postscript: It turns out that I didn’t reach the halfway mark of the North American big sit record after all. I learned later that a group participating in the Cape May hawkwatch in the fall of 2009 recorded 145 species. If only that Ovenbird at Peveto had sung just once . . .

Post-postscript: The infamous Deepwater Horizon explosion off the Louisiana coast, which caused a subsequent massive oil spill, occurred two days after my big sit at Peveto Woods. Because of the direction of ocean currents, the beaches of Cameron Parish had, at the time of publication, suffered little damage from incoming oil.

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