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Big Sit experience redefines yard work
Birding while stationary can be oddly entertaining.
Birders from across the state participated in a Big Sit this past weekend. If you don’t know what a Big Sit is, it’s when birders sit or stand in a 17-foot circle and identify as many species as possible during a specific time period. While not part of a team, I took the opportunity to sit in my backyard as part of the sit for the second consecutive year. I jotted down the following notes to document the experience.
We’re looking live at the backyard. It’s very still, it’s dark, and it’s 66 degrees. It really is amazing how quiet it can be even in the city limits of Chicago.
An American Robin calls nyuk nyuk in the distance and becomes the first species of the day.
A Blue Jay calls very loudly, and another responds from across the neighborhood. I wonder if these birds were siblings from a brood this summer.
I haven’t staked out an official 17-foot perimeter but have a general sense of the boundaries, you’ll have to trust me. By the way, the Big Sit rules were altered during the pandemic, when a 20-foot circle was allowed for social distancing reasons.
Whit. First Swainson’s Thrush of the day. They’re actually one of the more common species here for the next couple weeks.
All Swainson’s Thrushes at the moment. Hearing and seeing at least three.
Someone fires up a motorcycle a couple blocks away. The loud engine reverberates off siding and shingles from here to Morton Grove. Did you know that Harley Davidson deliberately engineers their motorcycles to be louder? That’s because people don’t want to ride quiet motorcycles, they want to ride loud motorcycles. You see, riding a Harley is an experience that provides intangible benefits beyond transportation.
House Sparrow becomes the sixth species of the day. A pleasant surprise that it has taken this long to record one of the buggers.
I hear Nashville Warbler call notes and breathe a sign of relief that I won’t strike out on wood warblers.
It’s shaping up to be a beautiful sunrise! Flecks of blue sky appear between layer of golden clouds.
Things are picking up now. An Eastern Pewee becomes the first flycatcher of the day. I add Cedar Waxwing, American Goldfinch, and Common Grackle.
An unidentified warbler appears in the neighbor’s elm. It sticks to the treetops in dim light. No one said this would be easy.
Nine Cedar Waxwings fly over, likely the same nine I saw six days ago doing the same thing.
A calling Canada Goose becomes the first waterbird of the day. A Great Blue Heron becomes the second, three minutes later, flying high above the North Branch of the Chicago River.
Two House Finches fly over. This is a perplexing species around here. I recall them being so plentiful during boyhood. But here they are shy and elusive.
First bird actually in the 17-foot circle! An American Goldfinch on a clump of coneflower. Goldfinches breed later than most species, so juveniles seem to be everywhere at this time of year.
A squirrel the neighborhood kids call Blackberry ambles along a power line with a huge acorn in its mouth. It’s been a bumper crop for acorns this year, and a good time to be a member of family Sciuridae.
Common Grackles alight at the top of the nearest Honey Locust, as they’ve been wont to do since February. Now they are dropping into the mid-level of the tree, and I realize they’re looking for cicadas (with some success) on the smaller branches. Such resourceful birds.
A drab warbler with wing bars appears in the elm. This almost certainly is a Bay-breasted Warbler or a Blackpoll Warbler, which look nearly identical at this time of year. I lean toward Blackpoll because there isn’t even a tinge of rust on its flanks. Then it lands on a power line right above me and “in the cylinder” of the 17-foot circle. I picture the imaginary 17-foot diameter cylinder extending to the heavens.
I realize that the backyard grass really needs mowing. I’ve fallen victim to the lawncare-industrial complex and become a grass lawn conformist. Whether this grass actually gets mowed makes no material difference in my life, yet I’ll fret over it and make sure it is manicured by the end of the weekend. Somehow Victorian conceptions of natural beauty have so permeated our lives that a tidy green lawn has become a symbol of pride. But I digress.
The pewee is back. Honestly, I am relieved that it isn’t an Empidonax flycatcher, the befuddling genus that is almost impossible to identify to species.
Three robins sit quietly on the telephone wires. They strike me as pensive.
By the way, my goal is to get to 25 species. I plan to stay outside until 11 a.m., then linger around the circle later in the day to see if anything interesting happens.
A female American Redstart in the elm. A nice addition!
The Blackpoll Warbler is back. Still no sign of rusty flanks, and I wonder whether the Bay-breasted Warbler named after bay seasoning.
A pair of robins square off on the roof of the neighbor’s garage. I’m not sure what they’re so fired up about. A week ago 10 robins landed in our fairly small backyard, poking around an area where an opossum tore up the grass (long story).
Here we go. Someone’s cranking up a lawnmower, the pull-start kind with a gas engine. Sigh. Again, the lawncare-military-industrial complex at work. We’re beholden to our lawns. Lawns are the opiates of the masses. If we put a tenth of the time and money we put into lawns toward something positive like education, society would be far better off.
It’s funny but not a single honeybee has appeared on the nearest prairie plantings. I know they will as the day wears on.
White-breasted Nuthatch calling! They’re always a joy. Now we’ll see if we get one of its compatriots, the Red-breasted Nuthatch.
Back from a breakfast break. A piece of toast with Muenster cheese and sliced garlic sausage (yum). Now I’m checking area rare bird alerts because American Flamingos were seen in Wisconsin yesterday (!). There’s been chatter that they’ll move through Illinois next, and this would be a species that I’d drop off everything to see.
Three American Crows fly over. They’re no guarantee in this neighborhood, so this is exciting. They seem to prefer the most urban of habitats, attesting to their wily ways around humans.
I’m taking stock of my list. I’m at 22 species. The biggest omissions so far are Black-capped Chickadee, Hairy Woodpecker, Ring-billed Gull, and Rock Pigeon. Then there’s another tier of about five species that I’d consider uncommon, but not out of the realm of possibility.
It’s getting warmer now, and the honeybees are out. A redstart is still in the tree, calling. A couple butterflies wander by. It’s gotten much quieter.
Now it’s really slow. It’s a balmy day for September, no cold fronts, no northwest winds. Birds just aren’t moving much.
A Northern Flicker flies over, becoming species #23.
The Blackpoll Warbler has returned. But things are clearly slowing down now. And a thought crosses my mind. It’s time to mow the lawn.
Postscript: A Hairy Woodpecker arrived in the Honey Locust at 6:07 p.m., and an immature Cooper’s Hawk flew by, chasing a potential prey item, at 6:37 p.m. I reached 25 species, folks!
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