Refuge invites bird lovers to come out for a ‘Big Sit’As fall starts closing down activity at Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge, one last chance for area residents to get into wildlife watching is the Big Sit! Oct. 12 kicking off National Wildlife Refuge Week. The Big Sit! is all about sitting and looking for birds during a 24-hour period. Paulette Scherr, wildlife biologist at Arrowwood, said it’s simple. All that’s needed is a lawn chair, binoculars and a field guide for identifying birds, plus snacks. But don’t arrive at the refuge before 7:30 a.m. as it’s tough to spot birds in the dark and the refuge staff won’t be ready.
By: Toni Pirkl, The Jamestown Sun
As fall starts closing down activity at Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge, one last chance for area residents to get into wildlife watching is the Big Sit! Oct. 12 kicking off National Wildlife Refuge Week.
The Big Sit! is all about sitting and looking for birds during a 24-hour period. Paulette Scherr, wildlife biologist at Arrowwood, said it’s simple. All that’s needed is a lawn chair, binoculars and a field guide for identifying birds, plus snacks. But don’t arrive at the refuge before 7:30 a.m. as it’s tough to spot birds in the dark and the refuge staff won’t be ready.
“The Big Sit! started on the East Coast as a way to do some bird watching without having to run around,” Scherr said. “You just sit back and bird watch.”
The international event is hosted by “Bird Watcher’s Digest” and its editor, Bill Thompson III, who is also a mainstay at the Potholes and Prairie Birding Festival here. The object is to identify as many species as possible from sunup to sundown while in the circle.
What circle? That’s the catch. Birders have to be in the 17-foot diameter circle to “legally” identify a bird. So, if the birder sees a bird while outside the circle, he or she has to get at least one toe in before officially seeing and identifying it. Arrowwood staff will provide the circle at the Warbler Woodland Wildlife Viewing Area across the lake from the visitor’s center. And there’s no limit to the number of wildlife watchers who can be part of the circle. There will be a campfire, grills going and activities for children on the grounds.
“It’s called a tailgate party for birders. Basically, it’s a social event,” Scherr said. “It’s just fun. People can leave the circle, but you have to run back and sight the bird while in the circle.”
Last year was the first time Arrowwood held a Big Sit! and Scherr said 11 people participated. More than 50 bird species were counted and reported to the Web site. Considering that October is not the busiest season for birds at the refuge, Scherr believed they did pretty well.
“By October we have a lot of birds gone,” she said.
Scherr said they’d be baiting the viewing area to entice birds at the refuge closer to the circle. She takes weekly surveys of bird migration in and out of the refuge. She said it’s a little too early for migrating waterfowl. Those birds will wait until a big enough weather event in Canada drives them down, usually late October, early November. However, the sandhill cranes are arriving and the hawks are still migrating through the refuge.
“And I saw a young bald eagle last week,” she said. “So there are good numbers of birds out there.”
Much of the reason for the good numbers is the changes in Arrowwood Lake. Last summer, the refuge began drawing down the level of the lake to encourage a more marsh-like shoreline, interspersed with mud flats and deeper water areas. The intent was to return the lake to its natural cycle of dry and flood. At the same time the draw down has allowed shallow water vegetation to grow providing food for a larger variety and different species of birds.
“The numbers of waterfowl, shorebirds, ducks and geese have increased tremendously at the lake,” said Kim Hanson, project leader for the Arrowwood Refuge Complex.
The draw down was the last step in a $10 million U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reclamation project that has taken nearly 15 years to complete. The object was to restore Arrowwood Lake, Mud Lake, Jim Lake and Depuy Marsh to their original condition, which was interrupted by the creation of Jamestown Reservoir. Water backed up into the refuge from the reservoir, raising lake levels and destroying the shallower marshier habitat for wildlife the refuge was created to manage.
The reclamation plan is to allow Arrowwood to fill each spring through runoff, then send water via a bypass channel into the different units — Mud Lake, Jim Lake and Depuy Marsh as needed — or allow it to flow on into Jamestown Reservoir.
“The bypass channel has allowed us to manage the lake at a much lower level,” Hanson said. “Fluctuations in water levels throughout the season make the wetlands much more productive. Water deeper than two feet isn’t as useful for vegetation growth.”
Visitor numbers have been down a little this year, which Hanson attributes to gas prices. But as its last official activity the refuge will celebrate National Wildlife Refuge Week Oct 12-18. This year is the 50th anniversary of the Small Wetlands Acquisition Program, which helped permanently protect the habitat for North American waterfowl. Funding for 5.2 million acres of waterfowl production areas came through the creation of the federal Duck Stamp Program, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.
Sun reporter Toni Pirkl can be reached at (701) 952-8453 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org