The ‘Big Sit’ is an annual birding event that takes places at hundreds of prime birding locations around the world on the second weekend in October. The idea is to pick out a 17ft diameter circle to spend the day in and count as many birds as you and your team can see and/or hear from within that circle. This is the third year in a row that I have chosen to organize a Big Sit at the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch in Bedford County, PA and it was full of surprises and we ended up with a decent total of 50 species (eBird list), making it a success. Doing a Big Sit at a hawkwatch has a lot of benefits; hawk watches are well-known migration corridors used by both raptor and non-raptor migrants, they usually have a really good view of the surrounding area, and there are usually a lot of fun people around to help out.
We had originally planned on doing the Big Sit on Sunday the 14th, but due to weather predictions we decided we should do it on Saturday, which ended up being a great choice. During the night we had a cold, steady southeast wind that picked up once the sun rose, and then switched to a solid and moderately strong east wind. Cloud cover was a little less than we had hoped for, but with all the birders present, we hardly missed a bird.
We started the Big Sit by owl banding with Dave Darney. Dave has been owl banding at the Allegheny Front for a number of years and we have been fortunate enough to get to know Dave well over the past 3 years. We managed to capture an incredible 27 Northern Saw-whet Owls during the night (15 were actually captured during the Big Sit, between 12am and sunrise)! It is predicted to be a really good year for saw-whets, and 27 owls proved that, considering how early in the season it is. All but four of the 27 owls were hatch year birds, a sure sign of a saw-whet invasion (two birds were recaptures, one from this site last year and another from somewhere else).
We all kept our ears open for any other birds vocalizing throughout the night and heard an Eastern Screech-Owl on numerous occasions. We had heard a Barred Owl call once around 10:00pm on Friday, but it never called on Saturday during the sit. We also never heard a Great Horned Owl, a species we have not had trouble with in past years. There were no clouds at all, giving passerine migrants a chance to fly at high altitudes, making it difficult to detect flight calls. The only species we picked up by flight call was a single Gray-cheeked Thrush.
As the sun rose over Bedford County Josh, Ian, and Alex began searching and listening for new species. Anna was cold and tired from a full night of owl banding and took refuge inside the car, watching out the windows. Eastern Towhees called around us but surprisingly were not joined by White-throated Sparrows, Song Sparrows, or Gray Catbirds which we have had in past years. In fact, we never found any of those three species the entire day, something we attributed to the bitter cold wind whipping in from the east which possibly forced the smaller birds into warmer areas away from the edge of the Allegheny Front. Flocks of American Crows woke up from their roosts along the ridge and moved through the area, calling. Small flocks of Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Golden and Ruby-crowned Kinglets moved through the treetops, foraging. A few Yellow-rumped Warblers flew past, landing in the trees briefly (the only warbler species seen all day, sadly). The first surprise of the morning was a single, flyover Pine Siskin that we saw briefly and heard calling. It has been well established that this winter will be a siskin invasion, but having one fly over during our Big Sit would be hit or miss. We shouldn’t have worried though, because by the end of the day we counted 10 siskins total. Soon after the siskins we had our first Cedar Waxwings, American Goldfinches, American Robins, and Blue Jays of the day. The Blue Jay migration past the Front was slower than past years with only around 40 birds passing throughout the day.
Another great thing about doing a Big Sit at a hawk watch is being able to use a spotting scope and scan the valley below you for distant birds that wouldn’t normally be found on the ridge top. This method is particularly good to use at the Allegheny Front because you have an incredible view of Bedford County down below you – a mosaic of forest and farmland. Using a scope to scan the valley paid off on a few occasions throughout the day. Anna found a group of 13 Wild Turkeys foraging in a field and later in the day Alex found 3 Mourning Doves perched on a telephone wire. We never had any flyover Eastern Bluebirds, but sure enough, there were a few perched just below the watch on power lines the next morning when we were leaving. Good finds towards the end of the day included three Ruffed Grouse that flushed off the hillside near the hawk watch, and a large flock of about 500 Common Grackles heading to roost in the valley.
Around 8:00am, Sharp-shinned Hawks and Red-tailed Hawks began migrating past the hawk watch. These two species dominated the raptor flight for the rest of the day. Because the wind was so strong, migrant raptors stayed low to the ridge, which provided great photo opportunities. Many raptors dove at the decoy owl mounted on a pole, bringing them in even closer.
Surprisingly we only had one kestrel for the day and both Osprey and Northern Harrier never made an appearance. The best raptor of the day (in my opinion) was a juvenile Golden Eagle that passed low over the hawk watch, and then soared nearby. We even had a distant look at a local Black Vulture, a species that is not a very common sight at most hawk watches in western Pennsylvania and a great pick-up for the Big Sit.
The afternoon hours were a little slow as far as picking up new Big Sit species went, but the raptors continued a steady push past the hawk watch. The final tally for migrant raptors was 143 including 69 Red-tailed Hawks, 48 Sharp-shinned Hawks, 14 Cooper’s Hawks, 2 Bald Eagles, 1 Golden Eagle, 5 Merlin, 1 American Kestrel, and 2 Peregrine Falcons – quite a diverse assortment of raptors, exactly what you need on a Big Sit day.
At 10:30am things really got nuts. I was standing, scanning for raptors when I spotted an odd thrush fly in and land just out of view. I ran over to get a better look, and perched in the open was a stunning Townsend’s Solitaire!! This was the 11th or 12th record for Pennsylvania and the first for Bedford County. More information about finding the solitaire can be found at this link.
During the last hour of sunlight, we searched hard to find new species to add to our list. We were stuck at 47 and really wanted to get to 50. Anna spotted a distant flock of Common Grackles down in the valley, we flushed a few Ruffed Grouse, and right before dark Ian picked out a flyover pair of Wood Ducks! Once it got dark, we tried listening carefully for Barred or Great Horned Owls while we set up the nets for another night of owl banding. Sadly, we couldn’t find any more species but were happy with our total of 50. This is the third year we have done a Big Sit at the Front and we did pretty much average this year – 2010 we had 56 species (eBird list), 2011 we had 41 species (eBird list).
Thanks to everyone that helped out during our sit and we hope to see you all again next year!