The Big Sit!

The Big Sit! 2016 at the AWNC

The Asa Wright Nature Centre, Caligo Ventures & Martyn Kenefick team up again for The Big Sit!

By Martyn Kenefick

Martyn Kenefick

I guess the format of Birdwatcher’s Digest‘s The Big Sit! worldwide bird survey is pretty well known by now. On one designated day every year, you bird-watch from dawn till dusk at one particular site never straying outside of a five meter radius and document the number of species you see or hear. This year, the event took place on the weekend of 8 – 9 October. We chose the Saturday.

The Big Sit! 2016 at the AWNC
Oilbird by Mike Boyce

4.30am – the start of The Big Sit! vigil. The sky clear, with stars aplenty and not a breath of wind. Yesterday, a Spectacled Owl called repeatedly from in front of the balcony between 5.00 – 5.30am. The noise is like someone wobbling a piece of hardboard. But yesterday doesn’t count. It needed to call this morning … and its silence was deafening!! That early alarm call in my room was still welcome though, the first Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl began its repetitive hooting at 5.15am and, shortly after Richard from Houston Audubon joined me, an Oilbird flew across straight in front of us and disappeared in the direction of Dunston Cave.

Around 5.40am, with more than a hint of light in the sky and as Randall was replenishing the fruit and sugar water feeders, the early bird risers began a breakfast frenzy. By 6.00am, the species tally was already 18. Amongst the seven species of hummingbird on view were both Tufted Coquette and Long-billed Starthroat. In addition, the voices of Little Tinamou, White-bellied Antbird, Trinidad Motmot, and Bright-rumped Attila announced their presence for the register.

The Big Sit! 2016 at the Asa Wright Nature Centre
Ann Sealey on the AWNC Verandah

By 7.00am, with both Ann and Mukesh together with Lynn and Johnnie from Caligo joining the team, the running species total had reached 44, including Asa Wright favourites such as Bearded Bellbird, Great Antshrike, Squirrel Cuckoo, and male Blue Dacnis. Another two hummingbirds, White-necked Jacobin and Little Hermit were also documented as late attendees.

It is obviously impossible to keep this kind of pace going and during the next two hours, despite being joined by Johanne, our Education Officer and guides Elsa, Barry, and Caleb, we only amassed a further 17 species including Channel-billed Toucan, Guianan Trogon, and Black-faced Antthrush. A calling Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl attracted the attention of both a pair of Black-tailed Tityra and scolding Golden-fronted Greenlet, whilst overhead the warming air allowed both White and Common Black Hawks to stretch their wings together with a whole host of Chestnut-collared, Band-rumped, and Gray-rumped Swifts.

The Big Sit! 2016 at the AWNC
Ornate Hawk-Eagle by Weislawa Haber

Then the fun and drama started. I do not believe that there is anywhere else in Trinidad where, from one position, you can watch both Black and Ornate Hawk-Eagles. At 9.10 an adult Ornate accompanied a thermal of five Turkey Vultures, admittedly always distant but quite identifiable. Not to be outdone, only 25 minutes later, two adult Black Hawk-Eagles took to the air much, much closer to the balcony with a third bird, possibly a juvenile, calling from dense cover on our eastern ridge.

Only four more species were added in the period up until noon. Gray-lined and Zone-tailed Hawks and Short-tailed Swift and a female Green-backed Trogon, which came in to feed on the ripe Jamoon fruiting tree.

Following a rather shy female Red-legged Honeycreeper feeding in a Trema tree, we reached last year’s total of 69 species at 12.57pm with a somewhat distant calling Golden-Olive Woodpecker. No more than five minutes later, the sound of a Lineated Woodpecker announced the equaling of our current record of 70 species in 2014 and then, almost immediately, the record was smashed when an obliging Forest Elaenia arrived right in front of us.

Everyone who has birded tropical forest knows all too well that species diversity takes a tumble during the afternoon hours. Heavy showers of rain also limit what you can see. So it was that by 2.10pm, having added both Lilac-tailed Parrotlet and a soaring Magnificent Frigatebird, we finally amassed a new Asa Wright The Big Sit! record of 73 species. I stuck it out until 5.30pm but other than wonderful repeat fly-bys of one of the Black Hawk-Eagles, there was nothing further to trouble the notebook.

The Big Sit! 2016 at the AWNC
Our view from the AWNC Verandah for The Big Sit! 2016

We will do it all again at next year’s The Big Sit! – 73 is beatable, and 13 hours watching from within a five metre circle is even fun. Thank you Asa Wright for the endless cups of coffee.

Postscript – 7.00am the day after – adult Gray-headed Kite flew down the valley – why didn’t it do that yesterday!?

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