The Big Sit to benefit Shawangunk Grasslands, one of our top birding spots

A short-eared owl hunting over the Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge in Ulster County recently. These owls and other raptors winter at the Refuge, which is the only National Wildlife Refuge in the mid-Hudson Valley. (photo by Deb Tracey-Kral)

A short-eared owl hunting over the Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge in Ulster County recently. These owls and other raptors winter at the Refuge, which is the only National Wildlife Refuge in the mid-Hudson Valley. (photo by Deb Tracey-Kral)

There’s a fine line to observe when it comes to preserving a natural habitat, says Mark DeDea, president of the John Burroughs Natural History Society. “You want the place to be enjoyed, but you also want the animals to have as natural an existence there as they can.” If there is too much commercialization of a site, it can ruin its beauty and threaten its existence; but as DeDea notes, “Educating people to the value of a place means that it doesn’t get developed.”

Take the Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge in Ulster County, for example. The casual daytripper who pulls into the parking lot may just see a field, and not even realize that the former airport in Galeville – a one-time training ground for cadets from West Point – is a rare habitat. “There was a period of time there where it looked like the property was no longer going to be maintained as a grasslands, but sold off to developers to be turned into a golf course and condos,” says DeDea. “A lot of people pushed for it to be maintained as a grasslands, and fortunately it was transferred to the Department of the Interior, who have kept it as a unique habitat for the sake of birds and other wildlife there. They’ve also made some trails, and done some work to bring back native grass species and wildflowers, so it’s becoming quite a nice place for people interested in butterflying.”

One of the state’s top areas for observing grassland migratory birds, the Shawangunk Grasslands Refuge attracts several species that use the location as a nesting, wintering or migratory stopover. Wildlife to look for there includes wintering raptors like short-eared owls, rough-legged hawks, the Northern Harrier and breeders like Savannah and Grasshopper Sparows, bobolinks and Eastern Meadowlarks. But there has never been a visitors’ center established there, or much signage to speak of. And while the site is beloved by birders who converge on the spot from all over the tri-state area, it’s hardly known by anyone else.

So the John Burroughs Natural History Society (JBNHS) will conduct “The JBNHS Big Sit,” a 24-hour Ulster County-wide fundraiser on Saturday, May 7 from midnight to midnight, with proceeds going to support the Shawangunk Grasslands. The JBNHS Big Sit allows birders to test their birding knowledge while seeing who can raise the most money for the Wildlife Refuge. The idea is to record the number of bird species seen and/or heard from within a 17-foot-diameter circle. (The event is modeled on the Big Sit established by Bird Watcher’s Digest, whose rules don’t explain the curiously odd number selected for the diameter of the circle; even DeDea doesn’t know where that came from.)

Participants will spend up to 24 hours in an area that has a diversity of habitat in line of sight and earshot, pledging an amount that they will donate per species observed. Suggested amounts range between 25 cents and a dollar. Observers can come and go in shifts or stay for the entire 24 hours. A typical sit location will likely identify between 50 and 75 species during the course of a full day. The total number of cumulative species recorded from all locations in the county will be used in calculating pledge donations. The proceeds will go toward building a gazebo at the Shawangunk Grasslands Refuge to allow birders a break from the sun or wind, and interpretive signage will be installed so that visitors realize what a hidden treasure they’ve encountered.

Participants can choose their own site or visit one already established. There will be a drop-in site on the Lenape Trail at Kingston Point led by DeDea (e-mail [email protected] for details) and another at the Vly on West Camp Road with JBNHS member Peter Schoenberger (e-mail [email protected] for this one, but only if interested in doing the full 24 hours). To choose a different location, contact Donna Seymour at [email protected] for more details.

“We’re kind of hoping someone will choose to man the observation deck at the Shawangunk Grasslands,” says DeDea. “Since our fundraising efforts are for the benefit of the Refuge there, we hope maybe somebody that resides in the southern portion of Ulster County will have a team there during the course of the day.”

The Shawangunk Grasslands Refuge is never going to be a huge attraction like the ones out West, he adds – it’s a little more than 500 acres in size – “and we don’t want thousands of people visiting every day, disturbing the birds that breed there. But it’s a place of value. And we’d like to get that out there on the front burner, because each time an old farm goes under, it’s obviously shovel-ready for development. A flat habitat that doesn’t require deforestation or a lot of grading will always be desirable for developers. And we have to keep as many of these large tracts of land, these habitats, as we can.”


JBNHS Big Sit, Saturday, May 7, midnight-midnight; John Burroughs Natural History Society,,

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