Birders invited to pull up a chair for Big Sit atop Cantigny's Butterfly Hill
There are many ways to birdwatch, making the hobby accessible for just about everybody. It's one of the best things about birding -- you can do it anywhere, at any time.
I treasure the time on my patio watching and listening for whatever comes by. Migrating common nighthawks in the evening grabbed my attention in recent weeks. Now I'm back on morning call, searching for fall warblers.
Traditional bird walks are fine -- I eagerly attend them, and sometimes lead them. But observing birds from a single position can be equally rewarding and fun.
Two years ago, in partnership with the DuPage Birding Club, Cantigny Park in Wheaton held its inaugural Big Sit. About 30 birders, coming and going throughout a full morning, spotted 43 species from our lookout atop Butterfly Hill. We had to cancel the 2020 Big Sit, but we're doing it again on Saturday, Sept. 11. Grab a chair and come on up!
Big Sitting is a thing, trust me. The New Haven Bird Club in Connecticut came up with the idea in 1993 and even trademarked the name. Big Sits are now frequently used as fundraisers for bird conservation and related causes, with donors pledging a certain amount per species. The events are often a popular sideshow at birding festivals, too.
To be official, a few Big Sit rules apply: the count must be conducted from within a 17-foot diameter circle, and species must be identified by the observers over a continuous period, sometimes 24 hours! It's a stationary version of a Big Day, but a lot easier on the legs and better for the environment than driving from place to place.
At Cantigny, we don't go all day, and we are a little loose about the 17-foot rule. Socializing is welcomed, and so are homemade brownies and other snacks. It's a serious endeavor, though, as we strain to see or hear as many kinds of birds as possible. Every birder has a chance to help grow the list.
Maximizing a Big Sit count begins with a strategic location. Cantigny is blessed with an ideal spot, and Butterfly Hill did not even exist until three years ago. The hill originated from truckloads of displaced soil during the park's recent renovation.
Hauling the dirt off-site would have been expensive and wasteful, plus Cantigny wanted to create a scenic overlook. Park visitors now have a nice view of the Cantigny golf course, not to mention the giant butterfly-shaped flower bed behind the first green that inspired the hill's name.
Most importantly for bird-watchers, the view from Butterfly Hill features multiple habitats, including grassland, scrub, oak savanna, pond, and wetland. Birders are nearly eye-level with the crowns of mature oaks behind the First Division Museum. And, of course, open sky -- critical for spotting all manner of fly-bys, from hummingbirds to turkey vultures.
Stationary birding naturally appeals to birders with limited mobility, and to people who just prefer a less vigorous birding experience in a social setting. So, in addition to Big Sits, there are little sits.
The DuPage Birding Club this year supplemented its already robust field trip schedule with "bird sits" at venues around the county. These are two-hour BYOC (bring your own chair) outings, currently limited to 10 participants, and non-club members are welcome. You can find out more at dupagebirding.org.
Highly specialized watch parties are out there too, and good seats are available. In 2018, I wrote about Kane County Audubon's annual Chimney Swift Sit. I'll never forget watching 2,000 chimney swifts swirl into their nighttime roost, a smokestack at Abbott Middle School in Elgin.
The mesmerizing process began at dusk before several dozen birders in folding chairs. Curious neighbors came out to see what we were watching. When the last bird dropped into the old pipe about 20 minutes later, we clapped as if we'd just witnessed the best fireworks show ever.
The sedentary events I've described are for all birders, but they also fill a niche within a growing movement called Birdability, which strives to make birding and nature more accessible. Virginia Rose, a wheelchair-bound dynamo from Austin, Texas, is Birdability's founder and head cheerleader. She's all about creating no-barriers, away-from-home birding opportunities for people with disabilities (birdability.org).
As I read several inspiring stories about Virginia, it occurred to me that Cantigny would score high on the Birdability scale. The park offers wide, hard-surface pathways with gentle grades; ramps; and ample seating in the gardens. Wheelchairs and binoculars are available for borrowing.
In August, we dipped our toes in the water, hosting a small group of limited-mobility birders for two hours of slow and easy birding. We spotted 18 species in the gardens near the Visitors Center.
The participants appreciated a walk tailored to their needs -- topped by a dazzling Baltimore oriole that appeared just before we disbanded.
Cantigny is making Birdability walks a regular part of its birding program. The next outing is on Sept. 24. For more information, visit Cantigny.org.
• Jeff Reiter's column appears regularly in Neighbor. He is senior manager of communications at Cantigny Park.