By Jenny Neyman
According to the official rules, the Big Sit bird-a-thon is a noncompetitive event.
Still, that didn’t stop the Keen Eye Birders from hypothesizing ways to distinguish themselves from the participating groups in 41 other states across the country, as well as seven other countries, all seeking to identify as many birds as possible from a 17-foot-diamater circle in a one-day event over the weekend.
The Keen Eye Birders designated their viewing circle on the shore of Skilak Lake, at the Lower Skilak Boat Launch. Though they kept eyes, binoculars and ears peeled during their vigil, from 7:45 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, there are only so many species to be seen in Alaska this time of year, when many migratory birds have already headed south.
“There are some (species) left in Alaska. A lot of the waterfowl are still here — they’re leaving now — and the trumpeter swans are coming through,” said Ken Tarbox of the Keen Eye Birders, at about 1 p.m. Saturday. “We’ve got 23 species so far, but there will be places in the Lower 48 that will have 100-some species.”
Alaska Big Sit participants may not have much chance of posting the highest number of species identified on the designated day — held annually the second weekend of October, with groups choosing either Saturday or Sunday to participate — but they might separate themselves in other ways.
For instance, they perhaps have seen the most dogs in one day, situated, as they were, at the edge of a boat launch with consistent traffic of
sportfishermen launching boats throughout the day, most with a four-legged passenger in their party.
“We’re just sitting here, watching the people, boats and dogs, and some birds,” Tarbox said.
They could very well be the only participating group to get snowed on, as flakes began to fall in the afternoon.
They might be the only group to have a bird nearly land on one of the birdwatchers, when a pair of gray jays — known for their boldness in filching
picnic crumbs and food scraps from campers — found the cookies lying out next to Tarbox’s chair a little too tempting to resist. One dive-bombed the cookie container from its perch atop a sign just behind the birding group, and only aborted its descent at the last second when its trajectory took it a little too close to Tarbox’s head and shoulder.
And they’ve got a good shot at having the youngest participant.
“We’re claiming the youngest birder on the Big Sit day this year, nationwide. We’ve got one born there on Sept. 27, so we put binoculars to her eyes,” Tarbox said.
“I don’t know, Ken. If you make that a competition, you’ll have women giving birth,” said Toby Burke, a biologist with the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, which jointly sponsors the Skilak Lake Big Sit event with the Keen Eye Birders. His baby daughter was the youngster of mention. “Do you really want to encourage that?”
Even though the international Big Sit event doesn’t give prizes to groups for recording firsts, onlies or mosts, it’s difficult to pluck all the sense of friendly competition out of birders. That’s part of the fun of birding, after all — seeing how many species one can identify, whether it’s from casual backyard surveys, far-ranging birding expeditions or a lifelong, travel-, time- and expense-intensive passion to add to one’s “life list” of bird sightings.
“I enjoy the people, I enjoy being out and I enjoy just learning more about birds. You’re never too old to learn,” said Linda Story, of Soldotna, who has been involved with the Keen Eye Birders since the group’s inception about 10 years ago.
She classifies herself as a novice birder, primarily watching the visitors to her bird feeders at home. But she enjoys any opportunity to participate in birding group outings and events, like the Big Sit, she said.
“I love going and watching birds. I’m not someone who keeps a list or does that sort of thing, but hanging out with this bunch, I get more and more interested,” she said.
The Big Sit was started by the New Haven, Conn., Bird Club group 20 years ago, and has since spread worldwide, now organized by Bird Watcher’s Digest and sponsored by Swarovski Optik. Any group — a previously existing organization or an informal group of friends organized just for a Big Sit — can register to participate on the Big Sit website. On the day of the event, the group designates a 17-foot circle anywhere they like — from wildlife refuges, as with the event in the refuge’s Skilak Recreation Area, to backyards. Participants can come and go as they please, but must always observe from the circle. They keep watch to identify as many bird species as they can, then submit their findings to the Big Sit website.
With current technology, results are available the same day they’re posted, and some participants tweet their finds instantaneously. After the Big Sit event, one of the identified bird species will be selected by random drawing to be the designated “golden bird.” Then one participating group of those that reported the species will be selected by another random drawing to be awarded a $500 prize.
It’s billed as “birding’s most sedentary event.” The social aspect of the event is important. “It’s like a tailgate party for birders,” proclaims the Big Sit website.
“It’s encouraging people to get out and bird in the fall,” Tarbox said.
Birding can be a year-round activity, even in Alaska, even in inclement weather. The Keen Eye Birders and refuge have been participating in the Big Sit since 2010. Last year a blanket of fog didn’t lift until 3 p.m., Burke said.
“But we still had a lot of birds,” Tarbox pointed out.
This year, the temperature started around 23 degrees and rose to a high of 37.
“At 8 o’clock it was just Toby and I, and then about 9, 9:30 we had a couple people start to show up,” Tarbox said.
Throughout the day, 25 adults and 30 kids ventured to the Big Sit circle to help add to the species list.
“And that doesn’t count the people launching boats. All the fishermen were coming over, especially the people from out of town, wanting to know what we’re doing,” Tarbox said.
The refuge also organized a kids’ event at 1:30 p.m. at the boat launch, to encourage families to come out and participate. There were bird-related crafts,
a bird bingo event to train kids to use binoculars, and a bird relay race where teams learned attributes of their designated bird by emulating how they walk, fly and eat.
“A lot of people come to bird on refuge, so it’s kind of ideal to be able to support that for our community and our local kids who don’t necessarily always get out here,” said Leah Eskelin, a park ranger with the refuge. “We always like seeing people being able to come out and enjoy the refuge lands. We get a lot of people coming to the refuge headquarters in Soldotna, so it’s pretty special to have something that’s out in the Skilak Recreation Area.”
Dispensers of hot chocolate a coffee were ready to fortify the kids and adults in case they needed any protection from what could have been a chilly day, what with the Big Sit being held in October.
“It’s great timing for the Lower 48 but not necessarily the best birding time here. But we’re Alaskans. We can bundle up and get out, and what a beautiful day anyway,” Eskelin said.
The kids flocking around the activity area were fluffed up in hats, boots, warm jackets, snow pants and other winter attire and took to the activities like ducks to water — just like the ducks many kids spotted on the lake.
Cousins Navy Poage, a sixth-grader from Funny River, and Shealice Lambert, a fourth-grader, of Kenai, made bird feeders, found all the species needed to fill out their bird bingo card and flapped and hopped their way through the relay. Navy is partial to golden eagles, she said.
“It’s their color, and they’re big,” she said.
Shealice prefers ravens.
“’Cause they look cool and they’re black,” she said.
The kids birding event kicks off other events as part of National Wildlife Refuge Week, and Eskelin said that a Spooky Season event is being planned at refuge headquarters in Soldotna for Oct. 27.
“People have fears based on what they don’t know, so this is all about embracing those nighttime animals — owls and bats and spiders — and learning about them,” she said. “It’s not a Halloween thing or costume thing, it’s really just about education, when things get dark and people don’t know what’s out there.”
By the end of the Big Sit event, participating birders had a pretty good idea of what was out around the Skilak area.
Snowfall in the afternoon reduced visibility, and a cold wind kicking up from the north sank the temperature back down into the 20s by the time the
birders called it a day around 5 p.m. Still, they recorded 30 species — more than the 26 the year before. Seven species noted this year were not seen in the 2010 or 2011 Big Sit surveys, including mallards. Some of the more-notable bird sightings were a yellow-rumped warbler and ruby-crowned kinglet. Beyond weather fauna, however, a harbor seal hanging out near the boat launch most the day drew a lot of attention.
Primarily, the Big Sit is meant to be a fun event, but there’s an element of function to it, too, in recording so many bird sightings from so many places all in the same weekend.
“Everybody’s kind of getting a synoptic overview of where bird distributions is right now. So you get kind of that viewpoint,” Tarbox said.