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A tailgate party for birders: "Big Sit" unites bird watchers

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A tailgate party for birders: "Big Sit" unites bird watchers

At the end of nearly five miles of gravel road within Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, a group of “birders” pointed tripod-mounted spotting scopes and Swarovski binoculars toward the marsh.

They are members of the Columbia Audubon Society (CAS), and they were participating in their second annual “Big Sit.”

Sometimes called a “tailgate party for birders,” the Big Sit is hosted by Bird Watcher’s Digest. It’s a noncompetitive bird-watching event that features teams from all over the world including Vietnam, the Netherlands and Guatemala. The rules of the Big Sit are simple: designate a 17-ft. circle, sit inside of it for 24 hours, and count as many birds and species as you see or hear.

The Columbia Audubon Society’s team is called “The Blue Birds” — Missouri’s state bird — and its members view the event as mostly social. They participated for 12 hours, from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., on Sunday.

Lottie Bushmann cooks bratwurst

Lottie Bushmann cooks bratwurst for Big Sit participants on Sunday at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area. Participants brought food for the group to share as they spend their day at Eagle Bluffs.

“It’s fun, it’s sociable, and it gets you out in nature,” said Eric Wood, who has been a CAS member for 10 years and now holds a lifetime membership.

Some birders perched in the back of a blue Subaru and covered their tripod mounted spotting scopes with plastic bags. Lottie Bushmann grilled brats in between bird sightings for a potluck style lunch under a khaki tent erected to shield birders from the morning drizzle. As the bird-watchers chatted over lunch, binoculars hanging from their necks, the sound of birdcalls filled the air around them.

John Besser watches swamp sparrows

John Besser, president of the Columbia Audubon Society, watches swamp sparrows dart over the water during the Big Sit on Sunday at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area. From 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., bird enthusiasts recorded how many species of birds they spotted.

The borders of the circle were loosely defined, mostly by the bulbous end of a remote cul-de-sac located deep in the conservation area. The location, according to CAS President John Besser, was strategically chosen because of the variety of habitats visible from it. To the north, a marshy expanse acted as a stage to the red-winged blackbirds, coots, turkey vultures and various other bird species that were active. To the south, a grove of trees allowed potential woodland bird sightings. To the east, a wall of bluffs framed the wetlands below.

Laura Hillman scans the wetlands for birds

Laura Hillman scans the wetlands for birds on Sunday at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area. Hillman started bird-watching 32 years ago when she moved to Columbia and is a former president of the Columbia Audubon Society.

In addition to being great fun for birders, the Big Sit also acts as an international citizen science project. Once the Big Sit is over, Wood said he will report the CAS findings to Bird Watcher’s Digest, who then submit it to eBird, a database of bird “distribution, abundance, habitat use and trends” managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Last year, 530 species were reported by 143 circles worldwide.

At one point, Besser pulled out his phone and played a bird call from an app. The harsh chirping pierced the stillness of the wetlands and was quickly answered by birds not visible from the circle. He uses the mobile version of “The Sibley Guide to Birds” when he goes birding, which provides information about more than 800 species of birds. It includes illustrations of birds perched and in-flight, maps of regional variation and several audio files of calls for individual birds.

Some bird-watchers, however, worry about the impact pre-recorded bird calls can have on habitats.

Donna Brunet, a wildlife photographer and birder, said if too many songs are played, it can cause birds stress; in some cases it could drive them out of their territories.

“If anything, I’d rather make the mistake of being cautious,” Brunet said.

By noon, The Blue Birds team had already documented over 30 species of birds including coots, Great Blue Herons, pelicans, grackles, Northern Harrier Hawks, sparrows, swallows, geese and turkey vultures. By the end of the day, the team spotted a total of 55 species.

Bill Mees looks through his binoculars

Bill Mees looks through his binoculars on Sunday at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area. Mees is the current vice president of the Columbia Audubon Society.  

Judy Lincoln pointed to coots running along the water in the distance. She said coots are a kind of chicken/duck hybrid that have lobed feet instead of webbed, which is why they run across the water.

While the Big Sit is noncompetitive, there is a chance to win “The Golden Bird Award,” according to the Bird Watcher’s Digest. The New Haven Bird Club randomly selects a North American species, and teams that spotted the bird are entered into a drawing. The chosen team wins $500 and can donate it to the conservation cause of its choice.

Supervising editor is Claire Mitzel: news@columbiamissourian.com, 882-5720.

  • Spring 2019 state government reporter. I am a junior studying data journalism. I can be reached by email at ashlynohara@mail.missouri.edu or on Twitter at @ashlyn_ohara.

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