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By Connie Leinbach
Jack Rogers, a high-school student from South Carolina, loves bird watching for the simple thrill of seeing something he’s never seen before.
Rogers, 16, of Mount Pleasant, S.C., was among five teenagers who joined about 20 adults New Year’s weekend for the annual Christmas Bird Count on Ocracoke and Portsmouth islands.
Accompanying Rogers were Matt Janson, 18, of Charlotte, Marky Mutchler, 17, of Kansas City, Mo., and Martina Nordstrand, 18, of Indian Trail, Union County.
The four had met at a birding camp and are well versed in birding information, easily conversing like experts.
“My favorite thing to do is practice birding by ear,” Rogers said, explaining that more often birds can be identified by their calls since they may not be easily seen while they are flitting about in trees and shrubs.
All four agreed that knowing bird calls may be more crucial than actually seeing a particular bird.
Their group leader, Peter Vankevich, who organizes the count each year, was amazed at their expertise.
“We pulled into the Hammock Hills parking lot and on the sandy road to the sound, they heard an orange-crowned warbler,” Vankevich said. Everyone jumped out of the jeep to try to spot the bird they’d just heard. Within moments, the bird appeared giving all a view.
A target species for the annual count, this bird is not seen every year, and then only in small numbers.
Soon after seeing the Orange-crowned Warbler, Rogers yelled he had heard an Audubon’s Warbler.
“This is the Western sub-species of the Yellow-rumped Warbler,” Rogers said. “And it’s a great bird for the East.” Rogers recorded the call on his smart phone.
He knows whereof he speaks since his great-grandfather was an ornithologist at the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge in Laurel, Md.
His grandfather Robert Stewart was head of the Fish and Wildlife Service in Louisiana who specialized in marsh studies.
“We’ve lost thousands of miles of coastline and ducks,” said Rogers, who hopes to follow in his elders’ footsteps to someday work as a biologist, preferably in Central America where rare birds are in still present in decent numbers.
Rogers and his birding buddies do a lot of listening for birds.
“My favorite thing is birding by ear,” he said. He and the others had bird call apps on their phones that help with field identification.
Knowing these calls can make the difference in identifying unusual species.
“I saw a Pine Siskin!” Mutchler interjected.
This is a rare bird for Ocracoke, and Mutchler said she heard it first—in a pine tree outside the Bluff Shoals Motel the day before the count day, where the four were staying.
Contrary to the idea that all birds go to sleep at night, nighttime is also a good time for listening for nocturnal flight calls, Rogers said.
“Birds can fly a lot farther in the night,” he said. “There are no predators at night hunting them.”
Mutchler met Rogers at Camp Colorado in Estes Park. She’s been birding since she was 5 years old, which was an outgrowth of a prior interest.
“I started with snakes at age 4,” she said, when she attended a snake party at a local sanctuary.
“I love all these things people don’t pay attention to,” she said about her nature passions.
She quickly outgrew snakes and focused her interest on birds, also parlaying that interest into colored pencil drawings of some of her favorite species, photos of which she has on her iPhone.
“I’ve been doing art as long as I’ve been interested in birds,” Mutchler said.
Janson was making his fourth trip to Ocracoke for bird watching, the most memorable one having been in the winter of 2014 when two snowy owls—typically denizens of the far north—made rare sojourns on Ocracoke.
At that time, around 300 people made winter trips to Ocracoke to see this owl which some ornithologists speculated came here after an unusually successful nesting season forced many first-year birds out of the adults’ territory and farther south for food. While here, Janson helped islanders Merle and her husband acclaimed storyteller Don Davis who had recently visited his school, see one of the owls.
A longtime birder, Janson has participated in the Christmas Bird Count in Charlotte for four years and persuaded his friends to make the trip to Ocracoke for this year’s count.
During the count, both islands are divided up and teams take various sections to ensure adequate coverage and avoid double counting species. The youths had the beach area from South Point to the airport. This includes the daunting task of counting the thousands of Double-crested Cormorants present this time of the year, which is not done by counting each bird but making very educated estimates.
“We’ve been birding for a while and know what (the various species) abundance is,” Janson said.
For example, they know that robins usually hang together in flocks about 50 while cormorants can number in the tens of thousands.
Norstrand said what piqued her interest in birds was seeing a photo in 2013 of a purple gallinule—a colorful bird found in Florida.
“I told myself I was going to find one,” she said. During a trip to Lake Okeechobee in Florida, she happened up a pond full of water lilies.
“And there were two of them,” she said.
The gallinule is just one of her four “spark” birds, as she calls them, or birds she is on a quest to find. The others are a peregrine falcon, a tropic bird, which sometimes can be spotted off Cape Hatteras, and a green jay.
Lily Gracovetsky, 17, of Montreal, Canada, though not a birder, joined the other young friends for her first birding sessions ever.
“I enjoyed how unusual and unknown it was,” she said enthousiastically after a day of birding on Ocracoke and next day on Portsmouth. “I learned from everyone.”
She even saw a bald eagle—an unusual bird for Ocracoke.
Vankevich said that along with the youths, about 20 adults—some islanders and several from North Carolina, Virginia and Washington, D.C.—participated in the count.
After the second day of counting on Portsmouth, the group gathered to make an official tally of all the species. The count numbers are recorded at a social that features vegetarian chili, key lime pie and clam chowder.
Unofficially, 83 species were recorded on Ocracoke, up from 69 last year, Vankevich said. Portsmouth had 62 species.
Perhaps the high winds in the preceding days caused the local shorebirds to depart the islands as the numbers of Willets, Sanderlings and Black-bellied Plover, were down. No Red knots were reported, though they have been recently seen on the island. On the other hand, a record number of 46 Red-breasted Nuthatches were reported. The previous high number was 41 in 2011.
Counting birds provides important scientific data, Vankevich said. Historical results can be searched here.
“You do your best to find as many species as you can,” he said. “If you don’t find a species or get low numbers, over time that may be an indication that they may be in decline. That’s why we need this data–high, average and low.”