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Audubon Society's Big Sit: "Like Tailgating for Birders"

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Sebastián Martinez
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KBIA

Every year on the second weekend of October, birders and bird-watchers across the country demarcate a 17-foot wide circle, set up shop within it, and bird watch from dawn to dusk. Countless chapters of the National Audubon Society organize the event, appropriately titled the Big Sit. Birders chat, knit and even barbecue during the event, all while keeping a count of all the different birds they see.

Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Chariton County has played host to the Grand River Audubon Society’s big sit for more than two decades. With two large bodies of water, a mixture of wetlands, prairie and cropland, the refuge provides habitat for a wide variety of birds, and an ideal location for what one member of the society described as, “tailgating for birders.” 

Terry McNeely is a corrections officer and society member who organized the Swan Lake Big Sit. "We just be patient, for anything that comes through, some days it’s busy sometimes it’s slow and just conversation," McNeely explained.

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Credit Sebastián Martinez / KBIA
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KBIA
The birders kept a list of all the different species of birds they saw throughout the day.

Zeb Yoko works at the refuge. "I got into birding because I wanted to work in conservation, and I’d tag along with one of my professors for a while," he said. Yoko said, "I kind of got thrust into it, it’s really fun and it’s such a neat community too."

Birds swooped and circled out above an open field. McNeely explained, "Most of the birds flying out right now are tree swallows and barn swallows. A few red-wing blackbirds." 

The behavior is common for the time of day, McNeely said. "They’re hunting, they’re hunting lunch. But they’re hunting insects that are flying out there, over what little water there is, I’m assuming there’s some kind of flying insect out there."

Brent Galliart got into birding through a friend. "He was starting to point the birds out that he was seeing and hearing and that caught my interest, and because we’re good friends we’ve just shared the hobby."

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Credit Sebastián Martinez / KBIA
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KBIA
The birders demarcated a 17-foot circle with flour to bird-watch within.

"Once you do it the more you kind of get hooked on it. It’s kind of like a disease," Galliart said.

For McNeely, "It’s something that you can stop. It’s like I told my son, it’s something that you can stop anytime, and pick it right back up and go on." 

Sebastián Martínez Valdivia is a health reporter and documentary filmmaker who focuses on access to care in rural and immigrant communities. A native Spanish speaker and lifelong Missouri resident, Sebastián is interested in the often overlooked and under-covered world of immigrant life in the rural midwest. He has a bachelor's degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Missouri and a master's degree in documentary journalism at the same institution. Aside from public health, his other interests include conservation, climate change and ecology.