Refuge Notebook: Sitting in the name of science

Posted: Friday, November 26, 2010

Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and the Keen Eye Peninsula Birders birding club sponsored the Kenai Refuge's first "Big Sit." A Big Sit, popularly known to birders as "birding's most sedentary event," is a birding activity where participants record all the bird species they see or hear while within a 17-foot diameter circle during the course of one day, sometimes a full 24 hours. Often though, the activity is conducted for less than the full 24 hours, as in the case of the Kenai Refuge Big Sit.

Kenai Refuge Staff Photo
Kenai Refuge Staff Photo
Participants in the Oct.10 Big Sit pause for a group photo at the Lower Skilak Lake boat launch. This bird watching event was the first Big Sit on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. It was coordinated with hundreds of other Big Sits around the Lower-48. Twenty-six bird species were recorded in an 11-hour period.

Like the Christmas Bird Count and the Great Backyard Bird Count, the Big Sit is a national, annual, citizen-science based conservation effort focused on censusing birds.

Participants typically bring binoculars, spotting scopes, lawn chairs, food, drink, and in Alaska -- warm clothing, for a long day of birding and yes -- lounging. The event was held Oct. 10 from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., roughly sunrise to sunset, at the Lower Skilak Lake Boat Launch. This annual fall birding event kicked off National Wildlife Refuge Week (Oct. 10-16).

The Lower Skilak Lake Boat Launch was the chosen venue for the event primarily because it provided a suitable vantage point from which a variety of migrant waterfowl could be observed congregating at and adjacent to the outlet of Skilak Lake. It was also chosen because it is easily accessible to the public and it experiences much public use well into October. This is ideal for exposing the Big Sit to the broader public which is generally unaware of this relatively small but growing national birding event.

As an avid birder I must admit that Oct. 10 is not the ideal time for observing maximum avian diversity or abundance on the Kenai Peninsula. Just about any time between May through September would yield far more impressive results. But at lower latitudes early October is a very productive period since migratory birds are streaming in from the north, making for very busy, very diverse, and ultimately very entertaining birding.

The day of the Kenai Refuge Big Sit dawned mostly clear and windless. Despite a morning low of 23 degrees the weather looked promising. Scanning the flat, waveless west end of Skilak Lake, loose flocks of distant waterfowl and gulls were evident, while in the nearby forest the early morning stirrings of our resident woodland birds were detected. The first few hours made for lively birding as new species were detected at regular and frequent intervals. By late afternoon, as the temperature peaked at 44 F, activity was noticeably slowing and toward the end of the day no new bird species had been seen or heard for what seemed like an interminable period.

During the 11-hour Kenai Refuge Big Sit 20 people enjoyed exceptionally good weather and at times very entertaining birding. Out on the waters of Skilak Lake itself, participants tallied 5 Trumpeter Swan, 190 Greater Scaup, 5 Bufflehead, 4 Common Merganser, 3 Red-breasted Merganser, 6 Pacific Loon, 5 Common Loon, 2 Horned Grebe, 3 Red-necked Grebe, 5 Double-crested Cormorant, 4 Bald Eagle, 60 Bonaparte's Gull, 5 Mew Gull, 30 Herring Gull, and 20 Glaucous-winged Gull.

On land, participants observed 1 American Three-toed Woodpecker, 4 Gray Jay, 3 Black-billed Magpie, 5 Common Raven, 6 Black-capped Chickadee, 7 Boreal Chickadee, 3 Golden-crowned Kinglet, 5 Pine Grosbeak, 3 White-winged Crossbill, 50 Common Redpoll, and 1 Pine Siskin.

Spruce Grouse, Northern Goshawk, Great Horned Owl, and Red-breasted Nuthatch were also observed nearby but were not countable because they were not observed within the 17-foot count circle.

While the 26 bird species detected from one vantage point in Alaska in early October may seem impressive to some, consider that the Cape May, New Jersey Big Sit on the very same day recorded 139 species! Despite our comparatively modest results please keep in mind that the Kenai Refuge Big Sit was the only participating Big Sit in all of Alaska and thus tallied all the bird species for the aggregate state Big Sit species list. And it is suspected that the Kenai Refuge Big Sit may be the first registered and reported Alaska Big Sit in the history of the 16-year old national event.

Though most Big Sits take place each year on one designated day in early October, Big Sits can be conducted any time of year. I suspect that a Big Sit held at the same Lower Skilak Lake Boat Launch in late May to early June might yield a list of 60 or even 70 bird species. Anyone up for a Big Sit next spring?

Toby Burke is a Refuge biological technician who is intrigued by the status and distribution of Alaska and Kenai Peninsula birds and enjoys birding with his wife and family.

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To report unusual bird sightings or hear what local birders have been seeing, call the Central Peninsula Bird Hotline at 262-2300. Previous Refuge Notebook articles can be viewed on the refuge website

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