Bird watching is like hunting or fishing, but with one key difference: you don’t have to kill anything to enjoy it.
“I know several guys back in Pennsylvania who were fishermen or hunters,” Ted Drozdowski said. “They put down the gun or the pole and took up bird watching.”
A bird watcher for 23 years, Drozdowski is a member of the Fort Worth Audobon Society and helps organize bird-watching events for Ellis County. That’s why he’s hosted a Big Sit competition on Saturday from his house near Lake Waxahachie.
In his early 20s, Drozdowski was canoeing when he noticed a flock of birds flying past the river he was rowing on. After he saw them, he got a camera, took some pictures and started tracking the birds with his binoculars.
“I was interested in what they were, what their names were, where they go, what they do,” he said. “That kind of got me started.”
An international birdwatching competition hosted internationally every year, the Big Sit, is held annually on the second weekend of October. Participants are required to select a time and day, measure a 17-foot diameter circle and bird-watch in that spot for 12 hours.
“We start in the dark because there are nocturnal birds, and that’s when you hear owls,” Drozdowski explained.
Drozdowski said points are earned from identifying different bird species. Even though his group keeps track of how many birds they recognize, the total is not included in the final tally. The Big Sit measures explicitly how many species that are identified in the 12-hour period.
“A bald eagle is as good as a pigeon,” he explained. “They both count as one species in the Big Sit. You see a blue jay, that’s another species. You see a cardinal, that’s another one. So on and so forth.”
To identify a species, Drozdowski said you don’t always have to see them. In fact, species are frequently identified through sound as opposed to sight.
“If I hear an owl at 4 a.m. in the morning, but I never see or hear it again, the owl counts,” he explains. “For a lot of us, we can go into the woods in the spring, and we don’t need to see the birds — we can tell you what’s in there just by the sound they’re making.”
Even with that caveat, Drozdowski said bird watchers always have to be on their toes.
“You gotta keep an eye on the lake,” he said. “You gotta keep an eye on the sky. You gotta keep your eye on the trees. You gotta keep your eye on everything. We’re covering 360 degrees in every direction.”
Last year, the Waxahachie bird-watching team placed in the top-10 nationally in the highest circle counts in the "Bird Watcher’s Digest" magazine. The Waxahachie team identified 72 species last year, contributing to Texas’ state total of 178. According to the "Bird Watcher’s Digest," Texas recorded the most species out of any other state last year.
Drozdowski said "Bird Watcher’s Digest" coined the Big Sit as “The Bird-Watchers Tailgate.” However, Drozdowski noted bird-watching has been staggering in popularity recently.
“If you look back at the data when 'Bird Watcher’s Digest' first started doing it, they used to get like 220, 240 circles worldwide,” he explained. “Now they’re getting like 130, 140.”
Drozdowski said he doesn’t understand why, either. Surrounded by a group of people talking, laughing and eating all while sharing stories and looking for birds is quite enjoyable for Drozdowski.
“It’s like trying to catch the big one in fishing, or trying to hunt that big buck you always dreamed of,” he said. “For us, it isn’t about finding a big bird; it’s about finding a rare one. There are birds that migrate through Ellis County that have never been found before. But we know they come through. They have to because of their migratory patterns.”
“All you need is binoculars and a circle, and you can have a Big Sit anywhere,” he said.
To find out more about the Big Sit, email Drozdowski at email@example.com.
David Dunn, @DavidDunnInTX