Around 11:50pm on October 9, 2010, my family and I headed out to The Big Sit! spot as the Shadow Mountain Sharp-shins. At midnight, we began listening for any birds that might be calling at that early hour of the morning. In a matter of minutes, we heard the first species of the day, Canada Goose. After about ten minutes, my tired brother and mother headed back to the house. My dad stayed out long enough to hear a Great Horned Owl calling to the east. Not long after, my dad retreated to the comforts of a heated house. Now I was alone in the pitch-black darkness. I could hear several large groups of deer walking around me, but all I could see were the gorgeous stars including 18 shooting stars.
For over an hour and a half, my list stood at two species (and the temperature dropped to 34 degrees). In the days before, flight calls had been fairly audible and numerous. Apparently this morning was different despite the nice northwest breeze. At one point, just as I was slipping off into sleep, I heard a flight call from somewhere overhead. As I jumped up and listened intently, I heard the short, descending call again. Savannah Sparrow! As I was up, I heard a cardinal that must have been disturbed from its roost. Just before I sat down again, I heard a fairly close flight call. A soon as my brain could comprehend what I had just heard; I knew that the high-pitched rising call was that of a Grasshopper Sparrow.
The next few hours were slow, but I managed to get several Eastern Screech-Owls. At one point, I heard the Whoooo? of a Barred Owl in the valley below. About ten seconds later, another owl responded with a full Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you alllll? Soon, both owls were in a frenzy, each trying to figure out who was preparing the other’s meal. Not long after the Barreds started up, three Great Horned Owls also began hooting. For about ten minutes, a cacophony of owls arose from the foggy hollow and drifted up to the ridge top.
As the sky began to brighten, I was awaiting a large number of flight calls like I had heard the morning before. Although I did hear several Hermit Thrushes and one Swainson’s, I did not hear a single Gray-cheeked Thrush or anything else for that matter. Before long, the birds in the bushes around me began to wake up and start chipping. Between this time and sunrise, the Autumn Olives to the north of the spot were filled with sparrows, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and various other songbirds.
Not long after, I began seeing the first signs of “morning flight”, which is when nocturnal migrating birds continue flying for some reason. Some other birds, especially the finches, began their diurnal migrations at this time. American Robins, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and Purple Finches dominated the flight, with Blue Jays and Cedar Waxwings also showing strongly. A few surprises flew over during morning flight including the day’s only Blackpoll Warbler and one of only two Pine Siskins seen during the day. These songbirds were not the only birds flying early in the morning. Several raptors, including a Merlin and several Sharp-shinned Hawks, also got an early start to their migration.
While the birds were active in the sky, there were also lots of birds on the ground. Around 7:30, a few family members joined me in the circle to enjoy these birds. As soon as my mom arrived, I noticed a small group of sparrows in the goldenrod a few yards from the circle. We watched as several Dark-eyed Juncos, Song Sparrows, and two Swamp Sparrows ate seeds from the large patch of Solidago. Soon after, I spotted a sparrow sitting on a small shrub. My mom and I got on the bird, which turned out to be a Lincoln’s Sparrow. This was not only an exciting species to find for The Big Sit, but also a “lifer” for my mom. After calming down from the excitement of a good bird, my mom spotted a flying woodpecker. I am not sure how she managed to see the bird, as it was across the field. However, I managed to get on the bird and followed it as it flew from east to west. Without my mom’s keep eyes, I may have missed that Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.
For the rest of the morning, I was alone in the circle. I tried to pick out new species, but the birds seemed to have stopped. However this was short lived. Around noon, Brandon Everett, a fellow young bird enthusiast, arrived to help look for birds. Not long after his arrival, we spotted a small raptor overhead. We (which included me, Brandon, and my brother, Joren) all got on the bird and identified it as an American Kestrel, a new bird for the day. Within a few minutes, several more new species showed up including Cooper’s Hawk, Black Vulture, Northern Harrier, and a distant immature Bald Eagle.
Not long after we had spotted the eagle flying along the Kittatinny Ridge, birder and friend Barbara Malt arrived. She was interested in finding raptors, so we scanned the sky in hopes of finding some. Sharp-shinned Hawks were numerous and fun to watch as they flapped, glided, and soared their way down the ridge. We managed to find several more Red-tailed and Cooper’s Hawks. With a spotting scope, I scanned the Kittatinny, and found a Red-shouldered Hawk and another immature Bald Eagle. The others were able to get on the eagle as it soared our direction than turned and headed back towards the ridge.
As the sun set, I hoped for another push of birds. My mom joined me around this time, and soon spotted an Osprey directly overhead. After the excitement of getting a great look at the large raptor, my mom headed inside. Since I was tired from being awake since midnight, I only stayed out for another hour and a half or so. However, this time period was fairly productive. At one point, I spotted a pair of flying Mallards, a species I had missed earlier in the day. After the Mallards, large flocks of American Robins and American Crows began grouping up and flying around. In one large robin flock, I spotted a single Red-winged Blackbird, another bird I had somehow missed earlier. As I was packing my backpack and getting ready to head inside, I saw two more blackbirds flying overhead. With only a quick glimpse, I assumed they were more Red-winged Blackbirds, but I decided to take a closer look. However, I was wrong with my initial identification. Instead, the two birds were Rusty Blackbirds! I snapped a few pictures then headed inside.
I had finished with 66 species, only four short of last year’s record. During the day I tallied 1,132 individual birds including an impressive 113 Purple Finches and 104 Yellow-rumped Warblers. Below is the total list of birds found during The Big Sit:
Canada Goose 50 Mallard 2 Wild Turkey 1 Black Vulture 5 Turkey Vulture 42 Osprey 1 Bald Eagle 2 Northern Harrier 1 Sharp-shinned Hawk 25 Cooper's Hawk 3 Red-shouldered Hawk 1 Red-tailed Hawk 23 American Kestrel 1 Merlin 2 Rock Pigeon 1 Mourning Dove 2 Eastern Screech-Owl 3 Great Horned Owl 3 Barred Owl 2 Red-bellied Woodpecker 7 Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 2 Downy Woodpecker 2 Hairy Woodpecker 2 Northern Flicker 4 Pileated Woodpecker 4 Eastern Phoebe 2 Blue-headed Vireo 4 Blue Jay 156 American Crow 85 Common Raven 3 Black-capped Chickadee 12 Tufted Titmouse 2 Red-breasted Nuthatch 1 White-breasted Nuthatch 6 Carolina Wren 3 Golden-crowned Kinglet 2 Ruby-crowned Kinglet 5 Eastern Bluebird 9 Swainson's Thrush 1 Hermit Thrush 10 American Robin 169 Gray Catbird 6 Northern Mockingbird 4 European Starling 15 Cedar Waxwing 116 Yellow-rumped Warbler 104 Palm Warbler 1 Blackpoll Warbler 1 Eastern Towhee 2 Chipping Sparrow 16 Field Sparrow 4 Savannah Sparrow 1 Grasshopper Sparrow 1 Song Sparrow 9 Lincoln's Sparrow 1 Swamp Sparrow 1 White-throated Sparrow 18 Dark-eyed Junco 11 Northern Cardinal 8 Red-winged Blackbird 1 Rusty Blackbird 2 Purple Finch 113 House Finch 18 Pine Siskin 2 American Goldfinch 12 House Sparrow 4