Ocracoke nature, flora & fauna

Christmas Bird Count the oldest wildlife census in the world

Eastern Towhee. Photo by P. Vankevich

Eastern Towhee. Photo by P. Vankevich

We don’t need too much birdlore, do we,

To tell a flamingo from a towhee;

Yet I cannot, and never will,
Unless the silly birds stand still. 

-Ogden Nash

By Peter Vankevich

Birders and would-be birders can close out the year by participating in the Ocracoke Christmas Bird Count (CBC) Dec. 31. The more adventurous can also help out with the Portsmouth Island count the day before.

Each count takes place in an established 15-mile wide diameter circle, and is organized by a count compiler. The volunteers are assigned areas to cover and count every bird they see or hear all day. It’s not just a species tally–all birds are counted all day, giving an indication of the total number of birds in the circle that day.

Having started in 1900, the CBC is the world’s longest running wildlife census. It began in opposition to a tradition popular in the 19th-century called Christmas “side hunts” where people competed to see how many birds they could kill, regardless of whether they could be used for food.

American ornithologist Frank Chapman, founder of Bird-Lore (which became Audubon magazine), proposed counting birds on Christmas instead of killing them. That year, 27 observers took part in the first count in 25 places in the United States and Canada, and the event has grown ever since.

Female Common Eider. Unusual winter visitor seen in Silver Lake Harbor on a Christmas Bird Count. Photo by P. Vankevich

Female Common Eider. Unusual winter visitor seen in Silver Lake Harbor on a Christmas Bird Count. Photo by P. Vankevich

 

Last year, there were a record-breaking 2,462 counts in the United States, Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean with more than 72,000 participants. More than 68 million birds were reported, which, according to the sponsoring National Audubon Society, is a ballpark average over the past quarter century,

The Ocracoke count began in 1981; Portsmouth’s in 1988.  Over the years there have been approximately 20 participants for each count. Several who live on the mainland and Virginia/Washington DC area return each year.

The presence of birds and the ability to see them–especially i barrier islands–can vary from day-to-day. Weather, including high winds, rain and fog, as well as the number of observers, can have an impact on the number of species tallied, and this information is included in the official reports.

Last year,  the two counts were lower than usual with 72 species seen on Ocracoke and 54 on Portsmouth. A good year on Ocracoke would have species numbers in the low 90s and in the low 70s for Portsmouth.

Due to the high numbers of double-crested cormorants (which can vary by the tens of thousands, as opposed to American Kestrels, which can vary from none to 12), the total number of birds reported from year to year requires some scrutiny.

All are invited to participate, including novices. If you are a beginning birder, you will be able to join a group that includes at least one experienced birder.

To participate, contact the compiler, Peter Vankevich, at  petevankevich@gmail.com, or text/cell 202-468-2871.

To read an earlier article, click here 

Christmas Bird Count participants. Photo by P. Vankevich

Christmas Bird Count participants. Photo by P. Vankevich

American Bittern. Photo by P. Vankevich

American Bittern. Photo by P. Vankevich

Tricolored Heron . Photo by P. Vankevich

Tricolored Heron . Photo by P. Vankevich

Northern Gannets and Double-crested Cormoratns on Ocracoke. Photo by P. Vankevich

Northern Gannets and Double-crested Cormoratns on Ocracoke. Photo by P. Vankevich

1 reply »

  1. Peter, thanks for this fascinating history! I had no idea of the origin of the bird count. Love it! Also love your excellent bird photos, hard to pick a favorite, but that one of the Common Elder is pretty exquisite, including the lighting and the soft movement of the water. . .