Off the Trail: Oct. 18, 2018

October 19, 2018 GMT

This past Sunday, I had the opportunity to witness a state record.

The “Big Sit” is a friendly competition across the world with the object of tallying as many bird species as can be seen or heard within 24 hours — with a catch. The bird species must be heard or seen from within a stationary 17-foot circle. Any birds seen or heard outside the circle cannot be counted unless they can be confirmed from within the circle.

A few of these circles were happening in Illinois, but the best birding spot participating was at the Sue and Wes Dixon Waterfowl Refuge at Hennepin — about 100 miles west of Kankakee.

The hardcore team this year made up of Jeff Skrentny, Larry “Skillethead” Krutulis, Tom Lally and Krzysztof Kurylowicz started counting at 5:30 a.m. Sunday. I got down there from the Kankakee area at 7:30 a.m., packing with me local birder Bronson Ratcliff. The team was joined later by Vera and Dave Miller.

Not too long after Bronson and I arrived, the team already had recorded 60 species. The 2017 count was 93. The 2018 Big Sit was on.

When I heard about the Big Sit many months ago, I thought it would be fun but might get boring after a few hours, I was wrong. The running joke was that it should really be called “The Big Stand” because the action was so lively, we rarely actually sat.

Binoculars and spotting scopes pointed in all directions, with eyes scanning each potential bird or branch movement. As a casual birder, I was amazed at the locked-in skills of these veterans. Someone would shout out, “I’ve got warblers over here” and immediately everybody would shift focus. The next moment, a sound of a Sora calling in the cattails, and everyone would go quiet. With each new bird confirmed, the tally climbed along with the laughs and high fives.

October is a good time for this type of bird survey because many species are migrating through Illinois from up north. We saw pelicans, snow geese, five sparrows, five warblers, three owl species and, the highlight for me, the loud call of a pileated woodpecker.

The Sue and Wes Dixon Waterfowl Refuge is a prime spot for a Big Sit because of the many different habitats converging together. The Wetlands Initiative (site owner) has restored a large lake with marsh and wet prairie vegetation in the front that we could see out in front of us. Behind the circle was an oak woodland and a sand prairie just down the trail. Lots of options for birds.

This was the fourth year in a row this group of birders has been using the site for their Big Sit circle.

The final total after 12½ hours of birding from before dawn until after sunset was 102 species. This new benchmark for Illinois, bested last years record by nine. Currently, totals from around North America still are coming in but even so, it is likely the 102 will stand as one of the highest this year.

The full list of species recorded and general information can be found online at https://bit.ly/2Oyjr5h. birdwatchersdigest.com/bwdsite/connect/bigsit/bigsit-2018/stats.php?find_type=circle&find=MMJM