The Big Summer Solstice Sit

Great-crested Flycatcher, Myiarchus crinitus


The Big Sit is another of the plethora of birding games created to keep us birders out of trouble.  It’s a “competition” apparently conceived years ago by the Birding Club of New Haven, Connecticut and has since spread worldwide.  For you non-birders, let me explain.  You choose a circle 17 feet in diameter where you feel you’ll see a lot of different birds (who knows why they chose 17 feet), and take one day to identify  every bird species you see or hear while you’re in that circle. You can’t change the circle location but can leave for food or bathroom breaks.  Some try it solo while others cram as many birders and scopes into the circle as possible, creating a “tail-gate party for birders”.

Eastern Bluebird, Sialia sialis (click on photos to zoom)

I decided the summer solstice, June 21 and the longest day of the year, would be the perfect time for a personal Big Sit.  Not one to be constrained by rules I made some significant modifications for this event.  Forget the 17 foot circle.  I expanded the territory to include my entire yard taking advantage of the hedgerow and neighbor’s pond to the east, the tidal wetlands and cove to the north, and the river and disappearing Chesapeake islands to the west.  I chose sunrise to sunset (no nighttime owling) and for the initial attempt decided to go it alone.

Bald Eagle on Hambleton Island, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

The night before I filled the feeders, cleaned the baths, and put fresh sugar water in the hummingbird’s feeder.  Sunrise at 5:43AM found me sitting in the waterside yard with binoculars, scope, and camera primed and ready.  The first bird was a gently cooing Mourning Dove, a good start.  You have a preconceived notion of potential sightings for the day; 20 to 25 species that you expect to see, another 20 to 25 that you might see if lucky, and 9,950 others that you won’t see.

Carolina Chickadee, Poecile carolinensis

So  why would one even attempt a caper such as this?  It is quiet and contemplative birding performed in a comfortable sitting position.  I scattered Adirondack chairs around the property, strategically located in the shade and targeting all the prime habitats.  No traipsing through the swamp or woods today, but rather sitting with a cool Lemonade on-the-rocks and waiting for the birds to come to me.  The first 15 species were seen quickly, probably in the first 30 minutes, but then things quieted down and I settled in for a long enjoyable day, moving on to the next chair every half hour.

House Finch, Carpodacus mexicanus

There was plenty of time to observe bird behavior; it’s not just about the count.  It became quickly apparent that my yard was not a peaceful bird nirvana, but rather a tumultuous territory in turmoil. They were squawking, chasing, and fighting, hell-bent on protecting their nesting sites and fledglings.  The growling Mockingbirds were the most aggressive, but I even observed Bluebirds attacking Starlings and Tree Swallows taking on Fish Crows.  The Grackles showed up in large numbers, like a mob, clearly up to no good, while the Finches kept their heads down at the feeders.  No one seemed content or safe.

Tree Swallow, Tachycineta bicolor

When not fighting off other birds the adults were busy at nesting, feeding chicks, and giving early-bird instructions to their young.  I saw Bluebirds using my Martin house and Tree Swallows in the Bluebird house.  An adult Fish Crow was seen feeding a full-grown juvenile on the neighbor’s dock, an Osprey flew to the nesting platform with a headless fish, and the parent Bluebird was teaching its juveniles to drink from my gutters.  The European Starling had finally given up trying to build a nest in my boat lift motor and had wisely moved its digs off-shore to the vacant channel marker.

Snowy Egret, Egret thula

Around lunchtime a Chesapeake Bay thunderstorm roared through, giving me a short break.  The afternoon was hot and humid and the birding slowed way down with my count stuck in the low 20’s.  That’s when you have to get creative.  I remembered that a Snowy Egret usually fished under the base of the dock and a trip there did not disappoint.  Likewise, I had seen a Brown Thrasher last week in the hedgerow and sure enough, there he was again thrashing in the undergrowth.  By supper time the count was only 26, but I could not turn down an invitation for dinner at an air-conditioned Italian restaurant in town; as long as I could return to the task at hand for one final push before sunset.

Green Heron, Butorides virescens

A common bird I had still not seen was the Carolina Chickadee, so I resorted to playing its song along the hedgerow, a technique allowed by my rules.  Sure enough, there he was within seconds. The Great-crested Flycatcher tune yielded similar results.  One last binocular search of the far shore of the cove revealed a fishing Green Heron, somewhat unusual for my patch.  Just at sunset I thought I heard the high trill of a Cedar Waxwing in the tall Loblolly Pines, and sure enough there he was posing right above in great light for the best picture of the day.  The last bird, number 31, was an Eastern Kingbird, wary of the patrolling Mockingbirds and defending himself on a distant maple at sunset, 8:35PM.

Cedar Waxwing, Bombycilla cedrorum

If you google “Big Sit” you’ll be directed to an English site where they have set a Guinness World Record for the largest number of dogs sitting voluntarily and simultaneously.  The English love their dogs, but also their birds.  You’ll also find the site for the formal birding Big Sit, held this year during fall migration, October 7 & 8 and hosted by the folks at Bird Watchers Digest,  You can register, follow their rules, and submit your results as citizen scientists, adding to our understanding of bird population trends.  You’ll also have a great day.