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A slower approach to bird-watching

Bird watchers gather along the shore of Arrowwood Lake for the annual Big Sit! Keith Corliss1 / 2
One of 62 species seen from the 17-foot diameter circle last Sunday at Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge. This was a cooperative pectoral sandpiper. Keith Corliss2 / 2

I'm typically not a person to sit still when it comes to being in the out-of-doors. Fly-fishing was a sport which occupied a significant portion of my personal time earlier in life. Rare was the instance when I wasn't continually working up or down a river. So it is with birding; non-stop walking or driving is pretty much my modus operandi, slowing only to scan surroundings before moving on. For this reason I'm not sure I would be a very effective bowhunter if it meant sitting in a blind for hours at a time. Yet there is something in the air this time of year which seems to lend itself to, well, slowing down a bit.

Following a hectic summer where we dwellers of the upper Great Plains try to pack as much fun and activity into that brief three-month period with its long days and short nights, it's somewhat restful to get back to a more normal schedule with school and work come fall. Now with most of October behind us, lengthening evenings are lending themselves to an ever quieter existence. The current pace of life, I would argue, has noticeably slowed for most of us, even birdwatchers.

I'm not exactly sure what it was that first generated the idea of a Big Sit! among the members of the New Haven (Conn.) Bird Club in the early 1990s, but I'd like to think it had something to do with the desire to take a deep breath this time of year and, while not completely abandoning one's passion, relaxing. They must have known they were onto something, however, as the group trademarked the title, Big Sit!

The Big Sit! is an annual non-competitive event held at various locations in every U. S. state and a number of countries around the world. As the name implies, participants anchor themselves to a piece of earth, in this case a defined 17-foot diameter circle, and simply count the number of bird species heard or seen from there over a midnight-to-midnight period on the second weekend in October. Results are turned in to

It can be as elaborate or a simple as desired. An individual could do one in her own back yard or a group could hold one on the roof of the HoDo, it matters not. The staff at Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge north of Jamestown has held a Big Sit! for several years running. The thought of doing that one had interested me but a variety of conflicts had kept me from ever taking part. Until this year.

I couldn't have asked for a more comfortable experience as that which took place last Sunday. The weather cooperated fully with bright sun, little wind, and mild temperatures. Sited at the edge of woods on the east shore of Arrowwood Lake across from the newly constructed refuge headquarters, Arrowwood personnel had flagged the requisite circle.

It was far from austere however. Nearby was a fire providing warmth and hot coffee, donuts and all manner of goodies were stacked in the large tent, and comfortable fold-up chairs were arrayed around the fire. Spotting scopes and binoculars were even available for those who needed them.

Being immersed in this passion for so many years, it should come as little surprise that I knew quite a few of the attendees. Corey had come from Bismarck, Paulette and Stacy were there from the refuge, Dan made it up from Jamestown, and Rick and Carol were there representing the Fargo area with me. Even fellow West Fargo native John Hoganson had come from Bismarck, currently the state paleontologist. It was similar, in a way, to tailgating, with food, drinks, and friends rallying around a common interest. In this case it wasn't football, though, it was birds.

Right away Stacy spotted a brown creeper in a nearby tree, a species that had not been seen during previous years and so began a banner day. Huge flocks of red-winged blackbirds coursed overhead. Hundreds of canvasbacks and ruddy ducks dotted the lake along with several huge tundra swans. A small number of migrating northern harriers were noted moving along with the northwest breeze.

I have to admit that, despite the fact I wasn't moving around a whole lot, it was a lot of fun. I just had to recognize this was different, that I wasn't on a mission to cover a lot of ground. It was one part social, one part eating, one part birds, and that's okay. Even then, by day's end a total of 62 species were tallied, a record high for the Arrowwood Big Sit! Will I be back next year? Absolutely.