It was a brisk morning with winds that easily cut past layers of clothing. It’s a good thing I brought a blanket, I thought to myself as I got out of my car and gulped down the last of my coffee. I began to approach Lake St. Clair Metropark’s Observation Deck.
|Big Sit circle, complete with gear|
It was just 9 o’clock in the morning, but this is late for birders. I braced myself for jokes about my arrival time, and sure enough was greeted with, “Welcome to the afternoon shift, Andrea!” The space was already peppered with equipment: Swarovski spotting scopes, binoculars, cameras, lawn chairs, and an impressive lineup of blue coolers. The “morning shift” consisted of about 8-10 bundled-up birders, most of whom had been there since around 6am.
It was The Big Sit 2015, a yearly, international birding event hosted by Bird Watcher’s Digest. The purpose of The Big Sit is to stay in one spot from dawn until dusk, counting the species of birds observed from that spot. At the end of the day, teams’ lists are shared and compared through the BWD website (click link for details).
When I joined the circle that morning, team “Metro Munchers” had already listed over 40 bird species, more than 2/3 of the species that would be recorded for the entire day. Later, I would ask team captain Joanna where the team name came from, to which she would shrug and reply with a smile, “Because we eat a lot!”
It quickly became apparent that this was a birding event unlike any I had attended. Birding requires silence and focus. However, when birders gather together, these stretches of silence are punctuated by storytelling, fact sharing, and jokes that are often incredibly corny and bird related. The difference was that at The Big Sit, the joking and laughter seemed to be the highlights, with an occasional serious break to study a passing bird. I remember one moment stopping mid-laugh, my face going instantly serious as my eyes caught the movement of a bird in the distance. It dove down over the Phragmites before disappearing into the trees, giving us just enough time to conclude it was a Peregrine Falcon.
|Kitesurfers at Lake St. Clair Metropark|
For most of the day, I never picked up my binoculars, satisfied instead with the company of the birders standing next to me. We were unchecked and unfiltered, sharing snacks and swapping stories. The group changed throughout the day, some joining later, some leaving early. The birders were as varied as the birds themselves with men and women ranging in age from 14 to 87. The eldest of the group was sure to point out the simple but undeniable sentiment, “Birders have more fun!”
As the day progressed, the sun warmed my face until it started to peel. When the birding was dull, our attention wandered to other things. Kiteboarders and windsurfers crowded the bay, entertaining us with aerial tricks. A Common Buckeye graced us with its presence, providing the best photo opp. of the day.
Passersby would occasionally stop at our circle and ask what we were doing. One woman wanted to know about a large dark, duck-like bird she had seen sitting in a tree making strange pig-like noises. We collectively suggested a Double-crested Cormorant. As if to help us make our case, a Double-crested Cormorant then flew overhead! I pointed up and asked the lady, “Do you mean that bird?” She nodded with a smile and continued along the path.
|Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia)|
As dusk approached, we got another decent push of birds, bringing our count to 62. People began to pack up their gear and their chairs, which reminded me that I had ironically never once sat down in mine. Birders dispersed one by one until there were just two of us left. Kevin and I lingered near our cars, reminiscing over the day’s events, when out of the darkness came the call of a lone Great Horned Owl, which became the last bird to be counted for the day.