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BIG SIT at Heinz Refuge, October 11, 2020

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Oct 11, 2020 | by Adrian Binns

On Sunday, October 11, I joined fellow Philly birders for the Big Sit at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge. It was the 11th one at this location since 2007, and a unique experience in many ways. The covid-19 pandemic significantly curbed public engagement, as group capacity was reduced to 8 people at one time, instead of the 100+ birders and visitors that participate in other years.

The early-morning shift entered the Refuge at 5am, and were setup and counting very quickly. Our location atop the 2-story open observation deck affords great views of 200-acre water impoundment, marshlands and trees. The weather overall was good, with temperatures in the low 60’s F, and light westerly winds.

Big Sit (really, a big stand)

The first species – Canada Goose – was logged at 5:21 by sound, followed quickly by Wood Duck, Mallard, and Green-winged Teal. A Great Horned Owl flight silhouette was illuminated by light pollution of the nearby airport and urban landscape. Nearly a dozen Common Nighthawks put on quite a show at first light.

Common Nighthawk

Rob Fergus brought his “professional equipment” (traffic cone) to listen for pre-dawn nocturnal flight calls, which added two new species – Gray-cheeked/Bicknell’s and Swainson’s Thrush – to our cumulative Big Sit total.

Listening for nocturnal flight call (the professional way)

Waterfowl were well represented with Pied-billed Grebe, Blue-winged Teal, Gadwall, American Black Duck, Mallard, Northern Pintail, American Wigeon and of course many Wood Duck. The star was a male Eurasian Wigeon, seen briefly with it’s American mates at 1:35 pm, as they paddled in a frustratingly invisible area behind phragmites.

Yellow-rumped Warblers (Myrtles) were numerous in the trees next to the observation deck, along with two Cape May and Palm Warblers, Northern Waterthrush and Common Yellowthroat.

Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler

We enjoyed seeing all the expected raptor species – American Kestrel, Merlin, Peregrine, Bald Eagle, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks. Ospreys were sighted several times, and a lone Northern Harrier flew over low and close at 12:34; these two species are not always tallied at the Heinz Big Sit.

This fall has been good for irruptive species so far, so it was not a surprise to tick small groups of Pine Siskins and a close vocal Red-breasted Nuthatch; neither had been recorded in at least 8 years.

Common Raven was first found on our Big Sit in 2018, and now seen regularly in the city; today we watched a pair fly across the water impoundment at close range. It was good to tick Rusty Blackbird and flyby Pectoral Sandpipers.

Big Sitters!

In spite of a few misses – both kinglets, Carolina Chickadee, Black Vulture and a few others – we ended with an impressive 77 species, tied with 2011 and 2012 for the third-highest total, out of 11 Big Sits at Heinz Refuge. The cumulative list of 130 species reflects tremendous avian diversity that depends upon healthy natural resources of this urban oasis.

Thanks to Refuge staff, organizer Debbie Beer, and many friends and supporters for another wonderful Big Sit at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge. I’m already looking forward to next October!

Debbie Beer – Big Sit organizer

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