William & Mary

W&M Bird Club watches for passerines and passers-by

  • At the Big Sit:
    At the Big Sit:  Macy Calder ’21 tries out binoculars as W&M Bird Club Treasurer Matthew Cohen ’19 explains that you don’t have to actually sit for a new bird species to count, but you must be within a circle around the table.  Photo by Joseph McClain
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Noon was approaching, there were 26 birds on the board and Matthew Cohen ’19 was holding down the fort at the Big Sit all by himself.

“Most of the members are in class right now,” explained Cohen, the treasurer of the Bird Club of William & Mary. The 2017 Big Sit, on Oct. 6, was the club’s third annual event.

A Big Sit is a sedentary version of a Big Day, he said. A Virginia Big Day would see teams of birders tearing around commonwealth avian hot spots, trying to log as many species as possible.

In addition to the annual Big Sit event, Cohen explained that the club hosts frequent bird walks on and around campus, usually attended by a dozen or so birders.

“We go around campus a lot,” he said. “We might start at the amphitheater and walk around Lake Matoaka when it’s super-birdy. Or we might walk around campus, the Sunken Garden.”

The club drew a chalk circle around one of the umbrella tables on the Sadler Terrace and set up shop with a spotting scope, binoculars, checklists and a whiteboard. The idea, he said, was to see how many species of birds could be spotted — or heard — from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

“You have to be inside this circle for it to count,” Cohen said. For instance, a teal or mallard on the pond at nearby Crim Dell only becomes fair game if it flew up above the surrounding trees.

 Most of the morning sightings were common yard birds —northern cardinal, American robin, Carolina wren and such — but there was a pine warbler and a tree swallow on the pre-noon board as well.

Bird Club President Megan Massa ’ 18 said the highlight of the day was a sighting of two bald eagles — likely a mated pair — over Zable Stadium.

“They rode the heat from the asphalt until they were so high up we could barely see them!” she said.

 “Other exciting sightings from the day were some chimney swifts, which should be migrating out of Williamsburg soon, fluttering in the sky,” she added.

Cohen acknowledged that busy Sadler Terrace is not the ideal venue to maximize a 12-hour list of birds on campus. “It’s not the best spot, really. I hear some chickadees out there,” he said. “But we really do this for the publicity.”

The Bird Club was doing pretty well with publicity. Several people came by to check out the sighting board and peer through the spotting scope. The club had a contest to guess the number of bird species in Virginia as well as the number of species recorded on campus. Winner gets a Wawa gift card.

The Bird Club’s checklist notes that total of 164 bird species have been historically recorded on the William & Mary campus. Massa said the total count for Big Sit 2017 was 31 birds, down from last year’s tally of 37 species spotted. But bird 31 was a good one.

“The final bird of the day, eastern wood-pewee, appeared as we were starting to clean up. it was hunting insects from a dead branch far from our circle,” Massa said. “Big Sit allows you to leave the circle to confirm an observation, so we all ran over to get a better look.”