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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Ely’s Big Chill

Cold wind, flurries greet Ely enthusiasts for a full-day bird

Keith Vandervort
Posted 10/17/18

ELY – Just after daybreak last Sunday morning, under a slate-gray sky, a visitor to the Shagawa Lake boat landing found a dedicated bird watcher sitting in a chair, binoculars in hand, spotting …

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Ely’s Big Chill

Cold wind, flurries greet Ely enthusiasts for a full-day bird


ELY – Just after daybreak last Sunday morning, under a slate-gray sky, a visitor to the Shagawa Lake boat landing found a dedicated bird watcher sitting in a chair, binoculars in hand, spotting scope nearby, and a table full of bird books spread out in front of him.

He was all by himself, bundled up in layers against a persistent northwest wind with temperatures hovering just below freezing. One could see his breath as he talked. Any Ely-area resident with even a passing interest in bird watching would have recognized him. Bill Tefft flashed a big smile, as the visitor remarked that he looked kind of lonely.

“Not at all,” he said. “I spotted as many as 13 species since sunrise, but a few of those I just heard because it was too dark to see anything yet.”

Tefft, along with several other Ely Field Naturalists, spent the day at the boat landing they call their Boreal Birdometers Count Station participating in The Big Sit.

The Big Sit is an annual, international, noncompetitive birding event hosted by Bird Watcher’s Digest and founded by the New Haven, Conn., Bird Club. At 8 a.m., Tefft looked more like he was at a tailgate party for a sporting event, only he was there on the wrong day.

“I expect more people later on,” he said. “We always hope that we will hit a good point in the fall migration to see birds on the lake, in the air and around the wooded edges of the public access,” Tefft said.

Tefft provided this summary. “This year with cloudy skies, temperatures in the low 30-degree F range, and constant winds from the WNW at 10 to 15 mph, a hearty band of counters grew in number and enthusiasm through the twelve hours of counting,” he said.

Ely Field Naturalists members came and went during the day and not only conducted the bird count but also discussed upcoming fall and winter bird feeding strategies. “Ten people conducted most of the counting, but an additional 15 people visited to see how the count was going or to supply the counters with some hot chocolate,” he said. All together, the counters recorded 25 species (see list).

“We talked about the Christmas Bird Count and other bird count activities, but the discussions often centered upon the activity of the birds observed, and in particular we talked about loon observations from last summer,” he said. “Sherry Abts, who lives down the shore, keeps an eye on Shagawa Lake all season. She aided in determining age, and helped in our understanding of the loons that were present throughout the day.”

Cormorants, ring-billed gulls and Bonaparte’s gulls were feeding just offshore and their food-gathering methods were displayed, he added. “The lesser yellowlegs and greater yellowlegs were an entirely unexpected species of sandpipers for this late in the fall. The American pipit came and provided close examination as it explored the boat ramp for food items.”

The other main group of birds was feeding throughout the day at the array of 12 bird-feeding locations around the boat launch with most of the activity at sunflower seeds in feeders and mixed seed spread on the ground, according to Tefft. “There was a great opportunity to look at various sparrow species and to examine the differences in color among the large group of rusty blackbirds,” he said.

“An additional activity during the afternoon was netting aquatic invertebrates from the shallow shoreline and looking at them under a tabletop microscope. Caddis flies, mayflies, beetles, and other findings drew exclamations and excitement and a desire to schedule a field naturalist aquatic invertebrate workshop in 2019,” he said.

Everyone is welcome

The Big Sit bird count is always conducted each year at the beginning of October to take advantage of the fall migration. 

“Our location each year is at the public water access just east of Grand Ely Lodge on the south shore of Shagawa Lake in Ely,” Tefft said. “The idea is to find a good spot for bird watching—preferably one with good views of a variety of habitats and lots of birds. Last year an eagle came and snatched the snowshoe hare that was put out. We recorded 25 species last year.”

While The Big Sit is non-competitive, every team that observes the year’s “Golden Bird” has a chance to win $500. Swarovski Optik annually sponsors The Golden Bird Award and all Big Sit teams are eligible. A North American bird species is selected randomly by the New Haven Bird Club at its December meeting. All Big Sit teams that spotted that bird are placed in a hat for a random drawing. The team that wins The Golden Bird Award receives $500 from Swarovski, which can be donated to a conservation cause or project of its choice.

Big Sit events took place all over the world last Sunday, including Guatemala, India, the Netherlands, England, Vietnam, and New Zealand, Tefft said. “We can usually count on warmer weather this time of year. You just never know.”


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