By Stacey Sutton
Fans of our feathered friends are all a-frenzy with anticipation for the 115th National Christmas Bird Count coming up here Dec 29 and 30. Folks young and old, will be donning mittens, scarves, possibly raincoats and their favorite pair of binoculars to survey the local bird populations both on Ocracoke and Portsmouth Islands.
The Christmas Bird Count (CBC), the longest running nationwide wildlife census in the United States, is held from Dec. 14 to Jan. 5 every year. The purpose of the CBC is to “study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America,” according to the National Audubon Society website. The primary goal of the event is to provide data that will aid in conserving and protecting bird populations. However, the data have also been used to detect changes in weather patterns as well as locations of serious environmental contamination. For example, if a lake consistently has a large duck population but the CBC folks find the lake to be duck-deficient, scientists will first look at the larger geographic area to see if other nearby CBC sites also reported lower duck numbers. If duck demographics are normal in nearby areas, scientists will then check the water for contamination.
Each count location is a 15-mile wide circle. There are over 2,300 circles across the United States and while more circles can be added, the location must have volunteers who are willing to do the work. Every circle has a lead, known as the compiler, who is in charge of things such as; choosing the specific date of his/her count during the given timeframe, arranging logistics, and compiling and sending in the data. Once the date has been set, volunteers are assigned to different zones within the count circle. They then walk their zone and note what species and how many of each species they see or hear for the same few hours as everyone else in their count circle. At the end of the day, the numbers from each volunteer are tallied and sent in to the national headquarters.
The compiler for Ocracoke and Portsmouth Islands is Peter Vankevich. Not only did Vankevich help establish the CBC on the islands, he also hasn’t missed a single bird count since the first counts took place; 1981 for Ocracoke and 1988 for Portsmouth Island. The two islands have an average of 20 volunteers every year.
One local resident, Pat Garber, who has been participating since the 1990’s, is committed to contributing to the citizen science aspect of the CBC. Vankevich stated that there are approximately 70 species reported for Portsmouth Island and in the high 80’s for Ocracoke Island, but he has seen fluctuations in the numbers for each species over the years.
Several of the repeat counters travel from places like Raleigh and Fayetteville in order to participate.
“The CBC is the oldest and largest wildlife survey in the world, and I consider it an honor to participate in it,” said returning volunteer Jeff Beane, who travels to Ocracoke from Raleigh for the annual event. He’s not the only one to travel several hours to get here just to participate. Hal Broadfoot Jr. comes from Fayetteville every year not only to assist with the count, but also to spend time with fellow birders from Ocracoke.
“The people associated with Peter’s counts are among the best birders and nicest people I know,” he said. He also agrees that…”it’s nice to immerse yourself in a group of people who share your passion.”
When asked why he loves birding, Beane explained that: “Birds were one of the most noticeable and observable to me when I was a child first learning to detect and make observations about my surroundings. Because of their colors, diurnal behavior, and abundance, they were one of the first things that caught my attention any time I would do so much as look out a window. I have always paid attention to birds. To ask why I like birds would be to ask why I like water.”
As for Broadfoot: “I like that birds fly, which means they can show up almost anywhere…Birds connect me to geography, geology, history, natural history, politics, weather, literature, popular culture, legend and myth.”
One of the benefits to participating in the Portsmouth Island bird count, which will be held Monday, Dec. 29 this year, is that volunteers get to go to the island transported by captains, Rudy and Donald Austin of Austin Boat Tours. This time of the year there are no tourists and more importantly few, if any mosquitos. There is a nominal fee that will cover the boat ride to the island, but for the experience of getting to visit the island’s wilderness at a time when most people don’t get to, it seems to be worth it. Because of the added logistics necessary to get to Portsmouth Island, volunteers must contact Peter Vankevich by Sunday in order to confirm a place on the boat. Volunteers will meet at the National Park Service dock at 7:30 a.m. and should bring binoculars. Many participants also bring cameras and get beautiful photos.
Several of the returning birders also say they enjoy the chili/key lime pie dinner hosted by Vankevich at the end of the bird count which has been dubbed the ‘Tally Rally’ during which volunteers feast and talk birds and the memorable experiences they’ve had over the years, while also going over the numbers for the two islands.