Area birders unite for international 'Big Sit' event at Heinz Wildlife Refuge

Molly Daly
October 13, 2019 - 5:15 pm
Area birders come together at John Heinz Wildlife Refuge for the Big Sit event, held simultaneously in 44 countries.

Molly Daly/KYW Newsradio

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Local birders converged on the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in an annual international birding event called the Big Sit, arguably the most sedentary event in birding, traditionally held on the second Sunday in October. 

The toughest part of the Big Sit at Heinz may be making the nearly mile-long walk from the refuge parking lot to the two story observation platform, more a square than the prescribed 17-foot diameter counting circle. 

"You need to be in one place all day to see or hear birds," said Debbie Beer, who has led the event at Heinz since 2010. "Audio counts, too. We heard a great horned owl right before 6 a.m. It's the honor system for reporting birds, but we ourselves say that we need at least two people to corroborate a sighting."

But the owl was late to the party, preceded by a mallard, a great blue heron, and a Canada goose.

The refuge's mixed habitat attracts a wide range of birds.

"Our average is about 75 species. We have a cumulative list of 127, which is an amazing number," Beer said. "All the sightings that we record go into eBird, which is the world's largest wildlife database, so we're really counting trends, whether species are increasing or decreasing."

Robin Irizarry spotted the day's most exciting find: the notoriously shy yellow-billed cuckoo.

"And the fact that we had two of them out in the open, visible from the platform, that was a big treat," he said. "And it was a bird that we had never observed during the Big Sit." 

Irizarry found the human sightings pretty noteworthy, too.

"I know it's supposed to be very scientific and thorough in finding all the birds," said Irizarry, "but it's also a great time to catch up with a lot of great people here."