By Connie Leinbach
For Lloyd Lewis of Mayo, Md., being a bird watcher takes him to locations all over the world.
“Birding puts me in different habitats,” he said after he and more than a dozen others came to Ocracoke for the annual Christmas Bird Count, a nationwide event at the end of December.
“I go to mountains, seashores, wetlands,” Lewis continued. “I love being outdoors.”
A retired oceanographer/engineer, birding is a natural offshoot to his scientific career. He has done birding trips in remote parts of South America and Asia.
He recently returned from a trip birding in the Danube River delta of Romania with a group of about 12 birders from the United States and Scotland.
“It’s an internationally known biospheric reserve for wetland birds,” Lewis said about the trip. “We saw 180 species in 10 days.”
Romania, he explained, is a poor country after having been liberated of the Soviet Union, and they went back to agriculture as a base economy.
They recognized the importance of this delta region for birding and fishing, he said.
“They developed a small tourist industry around birding in this delta,” he said.
He is going to Cuba in April for birding and diving, and in November plans to go to Gambia, Africa, to observe that continent’s many indigenous species.
Tourism officials in these locales are learning the value of teaching their local folks to be guides for their unique natural treasures.
While Lewis and several others in the bird-count group were advanced birders, Dan Whittle and his wife, Jane, of Carrboro, are frequent visitors to the island but novice bird watchers who joined the group in their treks about Ocracoke and Portsmouth.
“I’m a perpetual beginner,” Dan said. “We know birders,” he said about his limited knowledge of the field and how he joined the bird count group.
A lawyer with the Environmental Defense Fund in Raleigh, Dan works with the Southeast Oceans Program and has helped rebuild fisheries and habitat along the North Carolina coast down to Florida and also in Cuba.
“After the BP oil spill (in the Gulf of Mexico), I worked to bring the two governments together,” he said.
“Cuba is the crown jewel of the Caribbean,” he said adding that he is helping them sustain their fish populations and coral reefs. “They have corals you don’t have in Florida.”
He is working with Cuban officials to rebuild a balance of economic growth and environmental protection.
According to Peter Vankevich, who organized the count on both islands, this year’s counts tallied 75 species for Ocracoke. A highlight of the count was a huge flock of an estimated 3,500 Redhead ducks and 1,000 Brandt out in the Pamlico Sound, and about 2,000 shorebirds at South Point consisting primarily of Dunlin along with Western Sandpipers, Sanderlings, Red Knots and Willets.
Portsmouth had 73 species, he said. That count was about average since it began in 1988 in species recorded, but up substantially from last year’s nearly record low of 54. The highest number of species reported was 102 on Ocracoke in 2005 and 89 in 1990 for Portsmouth.
In December 2013, islander Kelley Shinn discovered a Snowy Owl and promptly commandeered part-time islander Lisa Day Eiland to photograph it.
A few days later during the Christmas Count, Hal Broadfoot of Fayetteville was observing a Snowy Owl in the late afternoon at the South Point when a second owl flew in and landed next to it. Thus, Ocracoke had the distinction of recording two of the rarest state birds on a single count.
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.