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Why a Big Sit gets every day off to a good start

The Carolina Wren is one of many species Pete Dunne records during his daily Big Sit sessions. Photo by Raul Baena/Shutterstock
Among the many species that Pete Dunne records during his daily Big Sit birding sessions is the Carolina Wren. Photo by Raul Baena/Shutterstock

No doubt, you have heard of the birding institution known as the Big Sit (aka Big Stay), where observers indenture themselves for a 24-hour period, counting only the birds seen while seated within a 17-foot circle. The birds can be anywhere, but the observer must remain within the circle. Why 17 feet? I dunno. But this diameter may have been fixed by the same Roman bureaucrat who established the width of railroad tracks long before the invention of the steam engine. 

Anyway, I do a mini-Big Sit every morning. It lasts only as long as it takes to consume one or two mugs of coffee, but it gets every day off to a good start. No two mornings are alike. Ma Nature deals me a new hand every a.m. In the spring and early summer, most of the birds I tally are vocalizing. Now, in mid-August, our little town is mostly bereft of birdsong.

Perennial vocalists include Fish Crow, whose comical Haw-haw call resonates from the church steeple. Mourning Doves, too, can almost always be counted upon to add their cooed lament to the scant soundscape, and the twittering of Carolina Wrens accompanies these furtive birds as they investigate the same nooks and crannies they explored yesterday. Because of our travel schedule, we don’t have feeders up in the summer, so the nattering of Carolina Chickadee is not an everyday occurrence. But Blue Jays can almost always be counted upon to be making conversational jay sounds.

Northern Cardinal and Northern Mockingbirds are frequent flybys, as are the squadrons of starlings and Red-winged Blackbirds leaving their roost south of town. Laughing Gull? Guaranteed, as is Osprey, at least until the end of September. The Delaware Bayshore hosts the largest concentration of breeding Osprey I’ve ever heard of. One of the local treats of the late summer season are the Purple Martins, whose riverside roost has, at times, held as many as 1 million birds. Tree and Barn Swallows round out the Hirundinidae. Bank Swallows? Already gone; ditto Northern Rough-winged. Add Red-bellied Woodpecker, Common Grackle, and Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and that about accounts for all my morning regulars.

Now comes the make-or-break species. This morning saw a flight of five Double-crested Cormorants and a wedge of high-flying sandpipers, probably Semipalmateds — the default peep hereabouts. Did I mention I typically conduct my mini-Big Sit without binoculars? It adds to the challenge and prevents me from dripping coffee into those expensive ocular lenses. And inevitably, the moment I need binoculars, I have a mug of coffee in hand. 

American Robin? Yes, a flyby, today. But the day’s surprise entry was the Baltimore Oriole that gave out a snatch of song. Breeder? Or migrant? Hard to say.

It’s important to keep your eyes fixed on the sky. The Rock Pigeon that rocketed past might easily have gone unnoticed. Here and gone in four seconds. Ah, silly me, I forgot to mention Chimney Swifts, as omnipresent as the trill of crickets this time of year. On trembling wings, scores of swifts cut cookie-cutter patterns over our town, feasting on the insect riches of the Bayshore. The promise of “just one more bird” generally holds me in my chair after the last of the coffee is gone. But the allure of a second mug is certain to stir me by and by.

So, this morning’s tally was 21 species. Not bad for a back porch in a small South Jersey town on a sultry late-summer morning. I’ve tallied over 50 and tomorrow, I’ll do it again. Eager to see what kind of hand Ma Nature deals me. Until hawks start migrating in a couple/three weeks, my morning Big Sits are my favorite form of birding. Chasing rarities? That’s a younger man’s game. For the present, at this stage of my life, I’m happy to sip my coffee and savor my backyard regulars, the birds that enliven my life with their presence. 

And come the next cold front, the trees around our yard will be buzzing with warblers, a special treat of the season. When hawk migration starts, my morning backyard count is sure to be enriched with Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks and maybe Merlin and Peregrine, too. But the Purple Martins will be gone. Even with a million birds, hereabouts in August and September, I’ve yet to tally an October Purple Martin. The changing seasons giveth and taketh away. It’s what makes every day special and worth getting out of bed for. That and the coffee. I wonder what gets non-birders up in the morning… I don’t know any, or else I’d ask.

Hey, did anyone notice I left Canada Goose off my list? It was once so rare, Charlie Urner only tallied three over the course of 20 New Jersey Big Days in the 1920s and ’30s. Now in New Jersey, they are about everywhere. Ask any golf course groundskeeper. But they weren’t here this morning unless those five cormorants were actually Canada Geese. No, the birds had kinked necks and choppy wing beats. Corms for sure. But for certainty’s sake, I also had a single corm flyby so close I could fairly smell the menhaden on its breath. Canada Geese nest locally. They’ve even taken to nesting in tidal marsh, but Mauricetown was the only place in New Jersey Canada Geese were not this 14th of August, after a grueling stretch of hazy, hot, and humid days. 

This column was inspired by a young birding friend of mine from Seattle who asked in a recent email whether I’d seen any “rare birds lately?” My first thought was “no,” but then I thought more deeply on the matter. In truth, I have not seen any birds not typically found in our region for a long, long time. But in my advanced years, I’m prepared to say every bird I see is rare. There is no guarantee my next Laughing Gull won’t be my last, so I’ll savor each and every one, for as long as mornings last. 

This article was first published in the “Birder at Large” column in the January/February 2022 issue of BirdWatching magazine.

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Pete Dunne

Pete Dunne

Pete Dunne is the author of over a dozen books about birds and birding and the founder of the World Series of Birding. In 2001, in recognition of a lifetime of achievements in promoting the cause of birding, he received the Roger Tory Peterson Award from the American Birding Association. Until 2013, he served as director of the Cape May Bird Observatory and vice president for natural history for New Jersey Audubon. His column “Birder at Large” appears in every issue of BirdWatching.

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