My Column: October Big Day
Remembering a 2004 Big Sit

Two Earlier 40+ species Hour on the Towers

Sept. 9  was the 32nd anniversary of the  record-setting Hour on the Tower, a record matched 19 years ago in October. I wrote about the notorious tie score in my journal at the time in 2003 ....

Here's a recap (some things have changed):

Sunday, Oct. 5, 2003

By Seymour Drakes 

It’s called the Hour on the Tower, and here’s how it works. Img161Every Sunday morning from 8 to 9, July through October, an informal group of birders meets at the Celery Farm Natural Area in Allendale to see how many species of birds they can see in exactly one hour.

For experienced birders, the Hour is a great way to get fresh air, flex one’s eyeballs, see some nifty birds, and avoid chores. For neophytes, it’s a great way to learn bird identification, hear bad jokes, and ... avoid chores.

Some Hours are better than others, and the one on Oct. 5 had the makings of a classic. The day before, birder savant and ring leader Stiles Thomas surveyed the abundant waterfowl on Lake Appert and proclaimed that this Sunday offered a shot at besting the record for most species seen during one Hour.

The record was not exactly chopped (Canada goose) liver. It had stood for more than 13 years, ever since the all-star team of Charles Mayhood, Mr. Thomas, and Gordon Schultze -– “in our prime,” Mr. Thomas quickly noted –- saw or heard 42 species between droll jokes one magical September Sunday.

For an idea of how awesome this is, consider that a crack team of birders recently perched on the Pirie Platform for 12 hours for the Big Sit and saw a total of 56 species – or just 14 more species in 12 times as much time.

(Editor’s note: This is why the event is the Big Sit and not the Big Watch.)

Yet few could have guessed how this Hour would turn out.

Here’s how the 2003 hour went down.

Mr. Thomas, ever the field marshal, decided the best strategy for this Sunday in 2003 was to use the record-setting Pirie Platform. After all, ducks are the main course on Lake Appert’s menu this time of year, and there’s only one place, a quarter rotation around the lake, to really see ducks.

Anyone arriving at the Pirie Platform at 8 a.m. on this day was late. By then, the platform was so crowded it could have been called Sardinia. The hard-core birders – binoculars and high-powered spotting scopes in tow – had arrived much earlier and had begun their warmups.

If they weren’t doing index-finger stretches, they were checking wind speed and direction or practicing their tripod pivots.

On the waters of Lake Appert, sitting ducks awaited by the dozen, a veritable avian armada. When the clock started, birders started naming waterfowl by the binocularful – Green-winged Teal, Wigeons, Mallards, Pied-billed Grebes, Wood Ducks, Mute Swans, Ruddies, Shovelers, dreaded Canada Geese, you name it. The birders espied hawks as well – a Red-tail, a Kestrel, a Northern Harrier. It would be only a matter of time before they saw the resident Osprey, as predictable as a kingfisher on a Wood-Duck box.

By 8:30, the count was well past 20, and Mr. Thomas’ prediction of a record was looming large. Sure, one of the Eagle-eared birders had heard Coots and Mockingbirds that mere mortals had missed – unconfirmed and thus uncounted – but the A-Team was on a roll. And so what if a Nuthatch sighting couldn’t be confirmed? The crack squad was picking off birds like a Cooper’s Hawk at a feeder.

As the hour wound down, the count was up to 40 – just two shy of the record. The final countdown was on. Binoculars frantically scoured the horizon, combed the treetops, and scrutinized the shoreline. Zippo.

Under a minute left. Nothing. The clock ticked down, to an empty sky. Then, in the last seconds ... could it be? Yes, a Sharpie arrived just in time to be counted. Moments later, time was up. The birders were one bird short of the record: 41 bird species, plus a wayward raccoon for good measure.

Seconds later, the resident Osprey arrived, too late to count.

As the birders headed for the parking lot, Mr. Thomas soon heard the call of the taunting Mockingbird (sounding especially mocking). A stop at the Warden’s Watch produced two Coots and a Nuthatch.

Those additional birds – birds heard but not confirmed, plus the Osprey who had been atypically late – would have brought the total to a record-smashing 45.

Too bad that birds don’t know from clocks.


As it turned out, too bad that birders don’t know from counting.

For posterity’s sake, this lesser yellow scribe thought it would be instructive to print the record-setting list from 1990, along with the list from October 5, 2003.

What exotic birds were seen? What birds were seen both years? And, curiously, what common birds – like Wagtails, Manikins, and Auks – had managed to elude the birders’ watchful eyes?

Then came the bombshell: As this journalist transcribed the list, he discovered that the anonymous bird counter on that 1990 Sunday had done the unthinkable. He had counted the same species twice. It is bad enough to count one’s chickens before they hatch; to count one’s chickens inaccurately after they’ve hatched is simply not done.

That’s the way life works. Sometimes things aren’t always what they were cracked up to be. The 1990 record was actually 41 species, and the 2003 upstart team had tied it – albeit with twice as many eyes.

Thus, instead of trudging from the platform with those so-close-yet-so-far grimaces, the October 5 birders could have been celebrating and giving each other medium-fives (high-fives being reserved only for record-setting performances).

The alleged record-setting 42 species, 9/9/90:

Observers: Charles Mayhood, Gordon Schultze, Stiles Thomas

1. Moorhen 2. Green-winged Teal 3. American Crow 4. Wood Duck 5. Blue-winged Teal 6. Great Blue Heron 7. Northern Flicker 8. Belted Kingfisher 9. Eastern Kingbird 10. Eastern Phoebe 11. Gadwall 12. Barn Swallow 13. Goldfinch 14. Killdeer 15. Blue Jay 16. Great Blue Heron 17. Eastern Screech Owl 18. Black-capped Chickadee 19. American Kestrel 20. Downy Woodpecker 21. Gray Catbird 22. Mallard 23. Common Grackle 24. Starling 25. Yellow-Throat 26. Osprey 27. Mourning Dove 28. House Finch 29. Song Sparrow 30. Canada Goose 31. Black-Crowned Night Heron 32. American Robin 33. Rose-breasted Grosbeak 34. Chimney Swift 35. Great Egret 36. Cedar Waxwing 37. Widgeon 38. Sandpiper 39. Am. Black Duck 40. Sharp-Shinned Hawk 41. Mockingbird 42. Bobolink.

The record-tying Hour of 41 species 10/5/2003

Observers: Malcolm Chesworth, Rob Fanning, Karul Kassel, David Leeman, Stiles Thomas, Kevin Watson, et al.

  1. Mourning Dove 2. Starling 3. Gadwall 4. White-throated Sparrow 5. Gray Catbird 6. Downy Woodpecker 7. Mute Swan 8. DC Cormorant 9. American Widgeon 10. Wood Duck 11. Northern Shoveler 12. Canada Goose 13. Eastern Phoebe14. Palm Warbler 15. Red-winged Blackbird 16.Common Grackle 17. Red-tailed Hawk 18. Cooper's Hawk 19.Ring-billed Gull 20. Winter Wren 21. Tufted Titmouse 22. Carolina Wren 23. American Crow 24. Kestrel 25. Black-capped Chickadee 26. American Goldfinch 27. Northern Harrier 28. Red-bellied Woodpecker 29. Northern Flicker 30. Northern Cardinal31. Green-winged Teal 32. Mallard 33. Pied-billed Grebe 34. House Sparrow 36. Chimney Swift 37. Swamp Sparrow 38. Great Blue Heron 39. Belted Kingfisher 40. Ruddy Duck 41. Sharp-shinned Hawk.

    Duplicates from both hours (21): Green-winged Teal, American Crow, Mourning Dove, Wood Duck, Great Blue Heron, Belted Kingfisher, Canada Goose, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Wigeon, Gray Catbird, Common Grackle, Northern Flicker, Eastern Phoebe, Gadwall, Goldfinch, Black-capped Chickadee, Kestrel, Downy Woodpecker, Mallard, Chimney Swift, Great White-Crowned Thomas.