Tales from the Benton County Big Sit

By Sarah Toner 7 Dec 2016

LtoR: Kai Frueh, Ben Frueh, Isaac Denzer. Photo by Kai Frueh

Isaac Denzer and Kai Frueh are young birders from Oregon. Kai is currently a 14 year-old birder interested in carbon-free birding, bird photography, and observing bird behavior. He won a scholarship to and attended the 2016 Western Field Ornithologists conference. Isaac is a 13 year-old birder interested in bird photography and sketching. He attended the 2015 Western Field Ornithologists conference and is an active member of his local Audubon Society. Both Isaac and Kai actively eBird and upload their photos to the Macaulay Library on their birding outings.

 In mid-May this year, during a big day in Benton County, Oregon, we came up with the idea to start a big sit in the area. We hadn’t had too much previous experience with big sits; the only one we knew of at the time was one conducted by the Malheur Field Station, in Malheur NWR in eastern Oregon. We had wanted to start some sort of fundraiser to help bird conservation, and a big sit seemed perfect: it didn’t require any environmental impact, seeing as we would not be using any motor-powered vehicles, and people could come and donate or help us spot some birds! We had been thinking about something like a birdathon, possibly on bikes, but a big sit seemed like a much better option.

The first priority was to decide on a good location within Benton County. We ruled out the local parks and sewage ponds because they either didn’t have enough habitat diversity visible from within a 17 ft diameter circle or didn’t have any shelter. Therefore, we decided instead that somewhere in William L. Finley NWR, the county’s one National Wildlife Refuge, would probably be the most strategic location. The refuge has three blinds (which are all well covered): one at McFadden Marsh on the south side of the refuge and two at Cabell Marsh, which is in the middle of the refuge. Both marshes have similar habitat diversity, but Cabell always tends to be the more productive of the two, so we picked what we thought to be the best of the two blinds at Cabell. We also had to pick a good date for the sit. Mid-September seemed like the best time, because in western Oregon it’s one of the peak migration times for many species of birds. And, of course, the sit would have to be on a weekend, so we picked Saturday the 17th of September.

American White Pelican by Kai Frueh

American White Pelican by Kai Frueh

Next, we needed to ask the refuge staff at William L. Finley NWR if we could hold the sit at the refuge, so we sent them an email asking them. While we waited for a reply, we picked four causes to donate to. We decided to donate to three organizations within the state and one that had a broader focus. The local organizations were Friends of the Willamette Valley NWR Complex, Friends of Malheur NWR, and the Audubon Society of Corvallis, while the Cornell Lab of Ornithology was our pick for the national organization. Soon, one of the refuge managers for William L. Finley NWR responded to our email and said that we could hold the big sit at the refuge!

Our next challenge was to figure out a good time frame for the sit, seeing as the refuge is only open from dawn to dusk. Because we didn’t want to have to get a special use permit to go into the refuge at night, we picked 6:35 am-7:35 pm, for a 13 hour sit!

We came up with the Benton County Big Sit as the name for our sit, created an email address for it, and started designing a poster to advertise it. Once the poster was complete, we put an article about the sit into the newsletter of the Audubon Society of Corvallis, our local Audubon Society, and posted about the sit to several birding email lists.

California Quail by Isaac Denzer/Macaulay Library

California Quail by Isaac Denzer/Macaulay Library

Within a couple of days, we started receiving pledges. We used our big sit email to send pledge sheets to people who asked for them; using those sheets, people could either donate a fixed amount of money ($20 seemed the most popular donation), or they could pledge a certain amount of money per species. We even got three pledges for $2 a bird! We kept on getting lots of pledges through the remainder of the summer and the beginning of the fall. The day of the sit was coming, and conveniently the Corvallis Audubon was having a meeting on the 15th, two days before the sit, so we went to the meeting and, with the help of a couple of other people, managed to raise about $700 for the sit!

Finally, the 17th of September arrived. We got up at about 5:30 am and were driving into the refuge by 6:20. As we were heading to Cabell Marsh, we noticed a bunch of official big sit signs put up by one of the refuge staff. We arrived at the blind and started counting birds at exactly 6:35. Kai’s younger brother Ben, who is also a birder, came in with us and stayed the rest of the day. Soon after we started counting birds, the three of us were joined by another young birder, Jacob Mathison, who stayed for about two-thirds of the sit.

Pectoral Sandpiper by Kai Frueh

Pectoral Sandpiper by Kai Frueh

We had checked the marsh a week prior to the sit and had been disappointed that there were no mudflats at the marsh, but to our delight there was a five-foot wide mudflat at the far end of the marsh! Throughout the day it produced six species of shorebird, including a Pectoral Sandpiper, an uncommon species in the county. The first four hours of the sit were certainly the most productive, and we managed to tally about 65 species in that time.

The blind wasn’t quite 17 ft in diameter, so we could scan the sky for flyovers from the boardwalk that led into the blind. In addition, only one person in the count circle had to see a bird for it to count on the official list, so a few of us could stand outside the circle and point out birds to the person who had stayed in the blind. The only bird missed by anyone who stayed in the blind was Fox Sparrow. Frustratingly, it was the only Fox Sparrow that showed up during the whole day, and we couldn’t count it.

We had about 20 people stop by through the day, including some of the county’s best birders! One guy spotted a group of Savannah Sparrows across the marsh, and a couple of us managed to get on them and add them to our sit total. From about noon to three in the afternoon, the birding was pretty dull, and we only added four new species. Even though the birding was pretty boring, a bunch of people stopped by around this time, including someone from the refuge who wanted to take our photo for the refuge newsletter. As it got closer to dark, the birding improved slightly, and we added species to the list quite a bit faster than during the first part of the afternoon.

Just thirty seconds before the sit ended, a large flock of dabbling ducks suddenly flew in. We hastily scoped through them and found the first Northern Shoveler of the day! The Shoveler was the last and 71st bird for the sit. Seventy-one species is a good number from one location in the county at any time of year.

American Bittern by Isaac Denzer/Macaulay Library.

American Bittern by Isaac Denzer/Macaulay Library.

Bird highlights from the day included a late American Bittern that we spotted at about noon (which stayed around for the rest of the day), a small flock of American White Pelicans that swam right by the blind and let us get some excellent photos, the aforementioned Pectoral Sandpiper on the mudflat, and three rather late Cliff Swallows. We used eBird to record our sightings; a full species list from the day, including photos, can be seen here.

We had a payment system ready before the sit, but at the last minute it failed, so the Corvallis Audubon Society kindly took checks for us. After a few weeks and some last-minute pledges, the Audubon Society of Corvallis made out four checks, one for each organization, and to our delight, we found that we had raised a total of $2722, which meant $680.50 for each conservation organization! The Benton County Big Sit was a great success, and we hope to make it an annual event in order to continue helping more conservation efforts!

We would be happy to help others start big sits! If you have any questions, please email us at Bentoncountybigsit@gmail.com.

-Sarah Toner