Oct. 9 was World Migratory Bird Day and subsequently, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s “Big Day.” On their website, “Big Days” are described as a “24-hour opportunity to celebrate birds near and far.”
To tell the truth, this type of celebration is yet another excuse for birders to leave their families at home to do the weekend chores while they go out birding. Yes, we may be contributing to the world’s database of biodiversity and populations, but that is second to trying to find more species than the other person, while avoiding raking leaves.
I like to celebrate as much as anyone, so I decided to join the Ocean State Bird Club’s “Big Sit” being held at Beavertail State Park. The club is a wonderful group of folks from southeastern New England who enjoy studying birds through lectures, events and field trips. Open to anyone, it is a great way to meet new people and see more birds.
The Big Sit is an annual club tradition that involves getting up very early in the morning, driving to Beavertail and setting up a spotting scope on the edge of parking lot 3. There are a few rules listed on thebigsit.org, the most important being that you are limited to staying within a circle 17 feet in diameter. You can put as many people, binoculars and telescopes as you want in that circle, but you can only count birds that are visible from that spot.
The sit begins at 5 a.m. and lasts until 10 a.m., so club president, Dan Berard, and board member, Tom Youngkin, along with a few other hardy souls, were there ready to go. I managed to roll out of bed and get over there by 7 a.m. with my chair, binoculars and notebook.
I was really looking forward to sitting while birding, but after a few minutes I realized that no one else was in a chair. They were all standing at the edge of the parking lot, turning this way and that, looking through binoculars and scopes. Apparently, unless you have a very tall swivel chair, sitting is not a very efficient way to spend a Big Sit.
Parking lot 3 is on the east side of Beavertail State Park with a great view of the lighthouse and the Atlantic Ocean. I could see Castle Hill and Brenton Point, as well as the Block Island wind turbines through the mist. I could also feel the cold wind blowing from the northeast under the cloudy skies and went back to my car for another layer of clothing.
Fall migration is in full swing in September and October, so there are birds headed out from Rhode Island, as well as birds moving into our area for the winter. Berard pointed out long strings of double-crested cormorants over the water that will winter in the southern U.S., as well as a few great cormorants that nest from Maine north to west Greenland who are just coming back to our area for the next few months.
He also spotted common loons and black scoters that may stay here all winter, and we all waved goodbye to an osprey and two Caspian terns headed south.
In between all the herring and great black-back gulls, he also found a northern gannet. The northern gannet is a large heavy- bodied seabird with a six-foot wingspan and a dagger-like bill. The adults are all white, with black wingtips and yellow on the head, and they are beautiful to behold in good light. When the winds are right, Beavertail is a good place to watch gannets as they dive headfirst into the water for fish.
In addition to seabirds, Berard, Youngkin and the other dozen birders that showed up were looking for land birds in the long row of small trees and shrubs adjacent to the west side of the parking lot. “When songbirds are heading south over Beavertail, they get to the lighthouse and turn around because they don’t want to cross the water,” Berard said.
The shrubby areas provide shelter and food as they circle back around, making it a good spot for birders to catch glimpses of sparrows, warblers, woodpeckers and more.
With the strong wind, the land birds were not plentiful, but the birders did see and hear song and savannah sparrows, blackpoll, palm and yellow-rumped warblers, northern flickers and an American pipit. I spotted a Cooper’s hawk over the trees, which was probably looking for breakfast in the form of a smaller feathered creature.
While I always love looking at birds, the best part of the Big Sit was reacquainting with folks who I had not seen in a long while and even meeting a few new people. It was a chance to catch up on the news, both good and bad, share information and learn a few things about birds that I didn’t know before. Like many bird species, birders are social creatures who thrive when in the presence of others who share our passion for all things avian.
Note on bird feeding: The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management has lifted the recommended ban on bird feeding that was put in place due to the mysterious bird illness that appeared in the mid-Atlantic states during the breeding season. While it is still not known what caused the illness that killed hundreds of young birds, scientists have proposed that it was linked to the emergence of the 17-year cicada in that region. Please always keep your feeders and bird baths clean.
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