Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory

Cutright Bird Club, Observatory team up for successful 13th annual Big Sit at Forest Beach 


Photo by Kate Redmond
Big Sitters standing on the Bill Cowart Hawk Watching Platform on Oct. 9 (left to right) were Kathy Gallick, Carl Schwartz, Anita Carpenter, Bettie Harriman, Mike Wanger and photo-shy Marilyn Bontly.

By Carl Schwartz
NJCBC Program Chair
WGLBBO Board Member

The Noel J. Cutright Bird Club, in cooperation with the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory, held its 13th annual Big Sit! at Forest Beach Migratory Preserve, five miles north of Port Washington, on Saturday, Oct. 9.

The count officially began at 6:26 a.m., about a half hour before sunrise. It was both dark and foggy which made it a little tricky maneuvering the food and scope laden golf cart out of the former Squires Country Club’s Caddyshack garage and down Country Club Road and onto a path out toward  the Bill Cowart Memorial Hawk Watch Platform at the northeast corner of the preserve.

We had let it be known that if the simple joy of birding were not enough to attract participation, those arriving for the early morning shift would find bagels and donuts on hand. Apparently, that was not sufficient to attract a crowd but what we lacked in the quantity of birders we made up in quality. First to join me on the platform was Marilyn Bontly. The two of us birded alone for several hours before the arrival of former WSO president and WGLBBO board member Bettie Harriman and columnist Anita Carpenter, who drove down from Oshkosh. A short time later we were joined by eBird reviewer Mike Wanger, bird club stalwart and Habitat Healer Kathy Gallick and Kate Redmond, who has spent more hours on the hawk watching platform doing just that than anybody else associated with the observatory.

The temperature hovered around 60 degrees and the fog remained quite heavy for several hours before gradually lifting around 9:30 but then drifting back around 11 as the wind switched around to the southeast.

There actually was a dawn chorus -- made up mostly of sparrows singing their weak fall songs accompanied by an abundance of chip notes. The chorus was noisiest between 6:15 and 6:45 with sunrise coming at 6:58. It would have been nice if Kate's late husband, Noel Cutright, had been on hand to decipher some of these calls. (It was Noel who launched this Big Sit! back in 2009 so the Riveredge Bird Club could support the Observatory.) But then Marilyn remembered we had the next best thing, and we fired up the Merlin app on her phone and identified the presence of several birds (Lincoln’s Sparrow and Hermit Thrush) we probably would have missed. And I must say we were impressed with its spot-on identification of many other species we were hearing.

Around 11 a.m. we were joined by about 10 WSO members from a rescheduled field trip to Harrington Beach State Park that was rained out the previous weekend. Not only did they help us find a few more birds, they also greatly reduced the burden of carrying home leftover donuts and bagels.

Shortly after noon several of us had to leave to deal with other business, including leading a field trip for “Love Our Great Lakes Day” in Port Washington. Kate stayed behind until 2 p.m. to continue her hawk watch while adding three additional species to our morning total. Our final total was 47:

Highlights included seven species of sparrows (but only one warbler) and a significant migration of Blue Jays. The 500+ we recorded paled in comparison with the more than 2,300 recorded from the platform the previous day.

Here is our tally in eBird:
Canada Goose  150
Wood Duck  3
Mallard  5
Wild Turkey  10
Pied-billed Grebe  1
Mourning Dove  3
Sora  1
Sandhill Crane  2
Killdeer  4
Herring Gull  3
Turkey Vulture  1
Sharp-shinned Hawk  7
Cooper's Hawk  1
Red-tailed Hawk  2
Belted Kingfisher  1
Red-headed Woodpecker  1
Red-bellied Woodpecker  2
Downy Woodpecker  2
Hairy Woodpecker  1
American Kestrel  1
Merlin  2
Peregrine Falcon  2
Blue Jay  520
American Crow  14
Black-capped Chickadee  2
Ruby-crowned Kinglet  1
Golden-crowned Kinglet  4
Red-breasted Nuthatch  1
Brown Creeper  1
Winter Wren  2
European Starling  2
Brown Thrasher  1
Hermit Thrush  1
American Robin  9
House Finch  3
American Goldfinch  13
Field Sparrow  2
Dark-eyed Junco  5
White-crowned Sparrow  7
White-throated Sparrow  5
Song Sparrow  7
Lincoln's Sparrow  1
Swamp Sparrow  2
Eastern Towhee  4
Red-winged Blackbird  250
Palm Warbler  10
Northern Cardinal  1

Big Sit! events are held at multiple locations each fall in Wisconsin as part of an annual, international, noncompetitive birding event held during the second weekend in October. The Big Sit! is like a Big Day or a birdathon in that the object is to tally as many species as can be seen or heard within 24 hours while staying inside a real or imaginary circle 17 feet in diameter and recording them via eBird. The hawk watch platform is almost perfectly-sized for this event.

The high Big Sit count at Forest Beach was 70 species in 2014; and in 2018, 66 species were recorded. Since 2007, birders have recorded a total of 262 species at Forest Beach, with 13 of them new just in the last five years: Blue Grosbeak, Spotted Towhee, White-eyed Vireo, Grasshopper Sparrow, Common Raven, Trumpeter Swan, Swainson’s Hawk, Bell’s Vireo, Iceland Gull, Brewer’s Blackbird, Eurasian Collared Dove, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher and Eastern Whip-poor-will.

Forest Beach is owned and managed by the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust and is the former site of the Old Squires Country Club. The club’s old pro shop formerly housed the Observatory, whose mission is to advance knowledge of bird populations and their conservation through coordinated research, monitoring and education.

The 116-acre site is one of the largest tracts of open land remaining in Ozaukee County along Lake Michigan. Its geography - and the extensive habitat development and creation of 27 wetlands begun in 2009 -- have achieved a significant part of Cutright's vision for the Preserve: diverse habitat, abundant seed and invertebrate sources for migratory birds. It’s large species list demonstrates what excellent stopover habitat makes possible: a place for a diverse group of migratory birds to rest and refuel – as well as a wonderful place to stage a Big Sit.