The (Kunkletown) Big Sit!

On Sunday, October 9, 2011, I conducted my annual “big sit” in my yard. The Big Sit! is a birding event run by Bird Watcher’s Digest, where people from around the world each pick a spot, set up a circle, and stay within that circle for 24 hours and count birds. I have participated in this event for a few years now, and set my personal record of 70 species in 2009. Here is my report from this year’s big sit:

A little before midnight, Stephen Kloiber arrived at my house and we headed out to the sitting spot. The air was fairly warm, and several katydids called from the trees behind us. As midnight arrived, we stood silently, pointing our ears towards the shining moon and listened. For a while, we heard nothing. Finally, about half-an-hour into the day, we heard a call from the valley below. The call was distant, but it was clear that this was a Barred Owl – our first species of the day. A little while later, a startled mockingbird called from somewhere along the field edge, but soon quieted down once again leaving us in the dark.

As the morning progressed, the air became colder and damper. The hope of a flight call from above kept us outside, and we were rewarded. Between one and two o’clock, we heard a fairly regular, but sparse flight overhead. The first calls were from Swainson’s Thrush. Next the short, lisping call of a Savannah Sparrow, then another. More Swainson’s, a Chipping Sparrow, an Indigo Bunting. Somewhere between flight calls, Stephen and I heard a distant call from the west. A few seconds later the bird called again, this time the hooting was cleared: Great Horned Owl, check.

Much of the pre-dawn morning was very, very slow. We heard a few more of the previously mentioned species. Around 4 o’clock, I picked out a high, slightly rising call of a Grasshopper Sparrow. By 4:30, we were shivering, so we headed inside for a quick break. We warmed up with warm apple cider, then headed back out for more birding.

As the sky began to brighten, our list stood at 11 species. Soon, however, birds began waking up all around us. White-throated Sparrows chirped and sang from the treeline across the meadow and a couple of towhees called along the forest edge. Stephen ran up to his car to grab his scope and binocular, and as he did, an Eastern Screech-Owl (a species that we had somehow missed earlier in the morning) started calling. The bird was near his car, so I could see him rushing back to try and get the bird from the circle in case I hadn’t heard it. Luckily, I was able to hear the tremolo even from across the field.

The sun continued to rise into the sky and birds became more active. Yellow-rumped Warblers, American Robins, and Blue Jays flew overhead, both kinglet species called from the woods behind the sitting spot, a House Wren chattered from a patch of goldenrod, woodpeckers (in the form of Pileated, Hairy, Red-bellied, and Northern Flicker) called from all around. Sparrows gathered in the goldenrod patches in front of us. At one point, a Swamp Sparrow popped up fairly close allowing great looks.


Numerous Yellow-rumped Warblers flew overhead in the morning

While scanning the skies for new birds, I spotted a fast flying bird headed towards the Kittatinny Ridge. I watched the light-colored bird as it turned around – Rock Pigeon! Most birders would probably not find this species particularly exciting or worth an exclamation point, but this is an uncommon species in the yard, so an important species to get on the big sit.

A little before eight o’clock, we had our first Sharp-shined Hawk of the day. This species, the mascot for our big sit team, The Shadow Mountain Sharp-shins, would turn out to be the most abundant raptor of the day with a total of 89 seen over the course of the daylight hours. While I was watching a Sharp-shin overhead, Stephen spotted a Nashville Warbler on the other side of the field. Soon after Stephen got the warbler, I spotted a Lincoln’s Sparrow that had popped up in the goldenrod patch near the circle. The sparrow chipped a few times before disappearing into the dense grass and weeds.


One of two Lincoln’s Sparrows on The Big Sit! This one never left the cover of this shrub.

Dan Kunkle arrived around 10:30am while were were experiencing somewhat of a late-morning “lull.” We had a few raptors on our list at this point, but hoped that Dan could help us pick out a few more from the deep blue sky, and that he did! With his help, we added several new raptors to the list including a fast-flying Peregrine Falcon. Dan also managed to spot a Red-breasted Nuthatch that zipped overhead flying north.


Sharp-shinned Hawks, the bird for which the Shadow Mountain Sharp-shins are named, passed overhead all day long

After Dan left, I spotted a group of about 30 Turkey Vultures to the south. Stephen got on the group and we watched as the birds moved north. These vultures seemed to mark the start of a raptor rush, because soon after we watched an adult male Northern Harrier fly southwest past the circle and after that, two immature Bald Eagles flew directly overhead. Not long after the eagles circled overhead, I heard a Common Raven croaking from somewhere to the west and Stephen and I spotted a Red-shouldered Hawk circling over my house. Just after the “flurry” of activity dissipated, Terry Master and my mom came down to the circle. Although they had just missed an awesome show of birds, we soon found two more Bald Eagles, several Black Vultures, and more Common Ravens than I have ever seen from my yard at once!


One of four Bald Eagles for the day. Two flew directly overhead!

Unfortunately, by 2:30pm, I was the only one left in the circle. For the rest of the afternoon, Sharp-shinned Hawks streamed overhead, but no new birds appeared. Later on, as the sun was setting, I kept an eye out for any new birds in the final burst of avian activity for the day. Groups of robins and crows gathered in the sky and in the trees, and small flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds passed overhead. One of these blackbird flocks held a Rusty Blackbird, the first new species since about one in the afternoon. Unfortunately, it soon became too dark to see anything and the katydid chorus was too loud to hear any owls or flight calls, so I headed inside for some much needed sleep.


Moon rising not long after sunset

Around 10:30pm and after a three hour nap, I headed back out to the circle for the remainder of the day. The cold air had quieted the insects, but the birds were not calling. When my watched beeped at midnight, the day’s list stood at 68 species, two less than the record set two years ago, but two more than last year. Even though we didn’t break the record for my yard, everyone who came saw some good birds and certainly had fun!


The List:

Canada Goose 34
Black Vulture 24
Turkey Vulture 87
Osprey 1
Bald Eagle 4
Northern Harrier 1
Sharp-shinned Hawk 89
Cooper’s Hawk 5
Red-shouldered Hawk 1
Red-tailed Hawk 17
American Kestrel 8
Merlin 2
Peregrine Falcon 1
Rock Pigeon 2
Mourning Dove 3
Eastern Screech-Owl 2
Great Horned Owl 2
Barred Owl 2
Red-bellied Woodpecker 8
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 1
Downy Woodpecker 2
Hairy Woodpecker 1
Northern Flicker 8
Pileated Woodpecker 3
Eastern Phoebe 3
Blue Jay 65
American Crow 207
Common Raven 9
Black-capped Chickadee 6
Tufted Titmouse 4
Red-breasted Nuthatch 1
White-breasted Nuthatch 2
Carolina Wren 2
House Wren 1
Golden-crowned Kinglet 3
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 4
Eastern Bluebird 4
Swainson’s Thrush 12
Hermit Thrush 8
Wood Thrush 1
American Robin 222
Gray Catbird 8
Northern Mockingbird 2
European Starling 34
Cedar Waxwing 78
Nashville Warbler 1
Blackpoll Warbler 1
Yellow-rumped Warbler 36
Black-throated Green Warbler 4
Eastern Towhee 3
Chipping Sparrow 9
Field Sparrow 3
Savannah Sparrow 5
Grasshopper Sparrow 1
Song Sparrow 11
Lincoln’s Sparrow 2
Swamp Sparrow 2
White-throated Sparrow 10
Dark-eyed Junco 1
Northern Cardinal 2
Indigo Bunting 1
Bobolink 1
Red-winged Blackbird 12
Rusty Blackbird 1
Purple Finch 1
House Finch 8
American Goldfinch 7
House Sparrow 3