Numbers were up this year for both the winged and nonwinged at the second annual Big Sit birding event Oct. 17 at Coldwater Spring in the Mississippi National River & Recreation Area in Minneapolis.

More than 100 birders participated, compared to last year’s 60. They chatted over beers and kept watch on the oak savanna, where flocks of cedar waxwings whirled by and eastern bluebirds fed on grasshoppers.

“Birding can be fun,” said park ranger Sharon Stiteler, aka “Birdchick,” local birding enthusiast, author, blogger and podcaster. “And it can be a party.”

A core group of birders stayed most of the day, ducking out ­occasionally for food or beer runs.

The official goal of the Big Sit, a nationwide event, is to tally the different species spotted or heard from within a 17-foot diameter circle over a 24-hour period and submit results to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird database.

Many in attendance frequent the “Birds and Beers” events that Stiteler started in 2007, which members say have become almost too popular. (She hopes someone will start one in St. Paul to spread out the crowd.) They chat regularly on social networking. They fly to bird festivals together.

More concerned with fun than strict adherence to rules, Stiteler planned the Big Sit from dawn to dusk and encouraged groups of birders to trek outside the circle and down to the Mississippi River, where they scared up such birds as the hermit thrush, orange-crowned warbler and ruby-crowned kinglet. She brought devices for attaching phones to telescopes for digiscoping, and children checked out mallard and turkey vulture skulls.

Total bird count: 49 (compared to last year’s 37)

Some of this year’s birders:


Sue Keator, Edina

Age: 50s

Day job: Retired

Birding background: Birding since age 6, Keator said her family always kept field guides and binoculars on the table. She volunteers at the wildlife rehabilitation center in Roseville, where she feeds songbirds in the avian nursery, often orphaned because storms knocked down nests. “To see the birds up close in the hand, to hear the sounds they make, it helps you to be a better birder,” she said. When undergoing chemotherapy this spring slowed her down, she took to car birding.

Favorite birding locations: Car birding on Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge’s wildlife drive (Zimmerman, Minn.), where redheaded woodpeckers can be spotted in the restored oak savanna. Watching great blue herons and egrets on Melody Lake in her backyard in Edina. The old Cedar Avenue Bridge in the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Westwood Hills Nature Center (St. Louis Park), and Veterans Memorial Park (Richfield).

Favorite bird(s): Chickadees. “They’re kind of overlooked. They’re inquisitive. They’re very tame. Anything that can live outside in the winter in Minnesota … They’re just so amazing.”

Big Sit experience: Second. “It’s more fun to watch with someone else,” she said. “Two sets of eyes are better.”

• • •

Alex Sundvall, St. Louis Park

Age: 18

Day job: Wildlife biology major who has done fieldwork with the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

Birding background: Since a kindergarten field trip at which they released a dark-eyed junco.

Big Sit experience: First. “This is basically my kind of thing,” he said.

Favorite birding locations: Westwood Hills Nature Center (St. Louis Park), Afton State Park, Murphy-Hanrehan Park Reserve.

Favorite bird(s): The bowerbird, found in Australia; the whooping crane.

Birding tips: Buy a “Birds of Minnesota” field guide.

• • •

Deb Nicholson, Edina

Age: Mid-60s

Day job: Retired pediatrician

Birding background: A professor talked her into taking his ornithology course when she was a biology major at Bowdin College. “Since then, I don’t go anyplace without my binoculars.”

Favorite birding locations: Wilkey Unit on the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge (MVNWR). Her cabin in Outing, Minn., where she can watch waves of migrating warblers in May and keep tabs on a nearby bald eagle nest. “They bring in squirrels and snakes and big fish to feed their babies,” she said.

Favorite bird(s): Red-breasted nuthatch

Big Sit experience: Second

• • •

Tony Lau, Otsego

Age: 49

Day job: Coborns Delivers

Birding background: A longtime backyard birder who has been actively birding for two years. Worked for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe doing DNR bird surveys. Built a housing system for purple martins in his backyard, where 75 pair live.

Favorite birding locations: Duluth, Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge.

Favorite bird(s): Clark’s nutcracker

• • •

Craig Mullenbach, Shoreview

Day job: In between jobs, which, he said, is nice during migration season, because he can get up early and take photos.

Birding background: His birding started when he got his camera a few years ago. “Birds are what live around here, so that’s what I photograph.”

Favorite birding locations: His backyard in Shoreview, Crex Meadows Wildlife Refuge (Grantsburg, Wis.) for the migrating sandhill cranes; the Sax-Zim bog near Cotton, Minn., for boreal chickadees.

Favorite bird(s): Black-capped chickadee

Big Sit experience: First

Birding tips: “Learn how to sit still. You’ll be surprised at what will come up to you.”

• • •

Wendy Root, Forest Lake

Age: 36

Day job: Mother

Birding background: Started birding three years ago. “I saw birds that were a different color than brown,” she said, “and I thought, I want to know what that is.”

Favorite bird(s): Sparrows and warblers.

Big Sit experience: First. She liked it because “more experienced ears and eyes pick up on things I would miss.”

Birding tips: Check out bird guides at the library. Join birding groups on Facebook.

• • •

Pete Nichols, Cottage Grove

Age: 39

Day job: Philosophy professor at the ­University of St. Thomas

Birding background: Was into birding as a child and got back into it in 2008. Operates Facebook groups for Minnesota Birding and Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union.

Big Sit experience: Second

Favorite birding locations: Afton State Park, because it’s not as popular as some other places and there’s more chance to see rare varieties. Great Cloud Dunes, near Cottage Grove: “One of the best spots in the state for sparrows,” he said.

Favorite bird(s): Warblers

Birding tips: Learn the vocalizations. “You find so many more birds when you know what to listen for,” he said.

• • •

Sharon Stiteler, Minneapolis

Age: 41

Day job: Park ranger, writer, speaker

Birding background: At 7, saw a picture of a pileated woodpecker in “The Wonder of Birds,” and was hooked. (She later met one of the book’s authors at a bird festival, a 70-year-old ornithologist who designed her sandhill crane tattoo.) Her mother brought her on bird-watching trips if she got good grades. She admitted to once dating someone because his family had good bird-watching property.

Big Sit experience: “This has been my dream to run events like this. I like to help the birding community get to know each other.”

Favorite birding locations: Nationally, Rio Grande Valley in Texas, where migrating species from this area mix with Mexican species. In Minnesota, MVNWR and Coldwater Spring.

Favorite bird(s): Pileated woodpecker

Birding tips: Check out birding apps like the Merlin Bird ID. “Enjoy birds however you want to,” she said. Also, “if you have a choice between laundry and birds, it’s always birds.”


Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.