Double-crested Cormorant. Photo by P. Vankevich
Double-crested Cormorant

For Ocracoke news, click here.

Text and photos by Peter Vankevich

Ocracoke islanders live closely with wildlife, and birds are probably the island’s most visible fauna.

At the end of each year, volunteers gather to conduct a bird census on Ocracoke and Portsmouth islands in what is known as the Christmas Bird Count. This is the longest running wildlife census in the nation. These counts occur every year throughout North America and now far beyond from Dec. 14 to Jan. 5.

This year, the local counts will be held on Dec. 30 on Portsmouth and Dec. 31 on Ocracoke.
Islanders and visitors interested in helping with this project are welcome to spend a winter’s day or two tallying the large variety of bird species here.

The first Ocracoke count was in 1981 and Portsmouth, 1988. Last year, 69 species were reported on Ocracoke, a relatively low number from years past. Surprisingly, Portsmouth Island had more species, 74, the first time that this has happened.

Lesser Black-backed gulls
Lesser Black-backed gulls

2004 was a good bird year for the region when both of these counts reported their highest species numbers, Ocracoke 102 and Portsmouth, 81.

Finding, identifying and counting the individual birds can be a challenge, and participants who are familiar with the species of the region are needed. But everyone is welcome to help out and beginners are assigned to experienced observers.

To do these counts, small teams are formed and assigned various areas on the island to tally both the species observed and the numbers.

Sometimes, as in the case of Double-crested Cormorants, estimates are made as they may be streaming in the thousands, especially in the early morning.

Christmas bird counters waiting for boat to Portsmouth Island. Photo by P. Vankevich
Christmas bird counters waiting for boat to Portsmouth Island.

How many birds reported from year-to-year depend on the number of participants and especially the weather. High winds, rain, fog and even snow can result in a decrease of birds observed as they will hunker down.

As an example, Eurasian Collared-Doves, which appeared on the island some 12 years ago, are now common year-round residents in the village. They do not, however, like high winds and will avoid their normal, highly visible perches on power lines and high branches during a big blow.

Interesting species on these two counts include Northern Gannets, Red-throated and Common Loons, Lesser Black-backed Gulls, Red knots, Peregrine Falcons and the ubiquitous Yellow-rumped aka Myrtle Warbler.

The tallying ends with a pot luck dinner Dec. 31 to share in camaraderie and learn how many species were recorded including any rare birds for the region.

Begun in 1900 in an effort to counteract what then was the Christmas bird hunt, The Christmas Bird Count is the longest-running, nationwide wildlife census.

To see where and when Christmas Bird Counts occur in North Carolina, click here.

To participate in these two counts, contact Peter Vankevich, 202 468-287, or email:

Swamp Sparrow
Peregrine Falcon on Portsmouth Island Christmas Bird Count
Peregrine Falcon on Portsmouth Island Christmas Bird Count 
Marbled Godwit. Photo by P. Vankevich
Marbled Godwit
Eastern Towhee with pale eye photographed on Ocracoke. Photo by P. Vankevich
Eastern Towhee with pale eye photographed on Ocracoke
Female Common Eider photographed in Silver Lake harbor on Ocracoke
Female common eider photographed in Silver Lake harbor on Ocracoke
Yellow-rumped aka Myrtle Warbler
Eurasian Collard-Dove. Phofo by P. Vankevich
Eurasian Collard-Dove
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