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Editor’s note: This story has been updated on Jan. 9, 2018
By Peter Vankevich
Cold, windy weather at dawn on Dec. 30 kept birds hunkered down for the annual Ocracoke Christmas Bird Count.
Nevertheless, 20 or so observers persisted, and by the end of the day had documented 80 species. Last year, 83 species were reported and 69 the previous year.
The Ocracoke census, conducted over a 24-hour period, has run every year since it began in 1981. All of the bird counts and historical results are compiled by the National Audubon Society and can be accessed here.
Observers, many who have been participating for years, headed out to their assigned areas: the village, the entire beach, South Point Road, the north end and both sides of the island along route 12 from the Hatteras village into the village.
This year, there was a noticeable absence of shorebirds on the beach that day. Normally, there are plenty of Sanderlings, Willets, Black-bellied Plover and Red Knots. Offshore there were good numbers of Northern Gannets, Double-crested Cormorants and three species of gulls.
Because Ocracoke is a narrow barrier island, about 15 miles in length, birds come and go, often depending on sufficient food sources and adverse weather.
Newcomers, Janeen Vanhooke from Elmhurst, Illinois, and Elizabeth Cisne from Lincoln, Nebraska, visitors for the week, were seen with binoculars checking out Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warblers two days earlier and were invited to help out. After their morning walk on South Point Road, in the afternoon they literally chilled out on the observation tower of their rented house in Widgeon Woods near the light house.
“Janeen and I thoroughly enjoyed our vacation on Ocracoke Island,” said Elizabeth Cisne. “A chance encounter with Peter led to us extending our stay an additional day to participate in the bird count. We were thrilled to contribute our tally, which, to our surprise and delight, included a Clapper Rail and a juvenile Black-crowned Night-Heron. We hope to be back next year.”
Islanders Susse and Tom Wright managed to find six American Oystercatchers and a Killdeer in the Springer’s Point area. So a few shorebirds made the list.
Lee Kimball and Tucker Scully from Washington, DC and who have a house here, who have been participating for years and cover the areas from the pony pasture to the campground and Hammock Hills. They found a Prairie Warbler as did Jeff Beane, Stephanie Horton and Lloyd Lewis around the British Cemetery. Prairie Warblers nest on the island but are rare this time of the year.
The Pamlico Sound was extremely low, causing duck-hunting guides difficulties in getting to their stake-out areas. When the edges of the water are exposed as it was that day, normally shorebirds would be seen, but none were out there either. The next day, a prized large shorebird, the Marbled Godwit, did show up, but made the status of a “count week” bird.
Rita Thiel, on Back Road, had been seeing a Ruby-throated Hummingbird at a feeder in her backyard, and it, fortunately, was seen by several observers.
Veterans Jeff Beane, Stephanie Horton and Lloyd Lewis covered the village and counted 105 Eurasian Collared-doves and 187 Mallard Ducks. Both of these numbers are lower than what are in the village year-round these days.
Hal Broadfoot and Ron Rozzelle, covering the north end, found Clapper and Virginia Rails among other species.
Three other newcomers, Katie Winslett, Danny Smith and new islander Richard Taylor helped me with the coverage of the beach, dunes and offshore birds.
Visitors to Ocracoke from spring into fall may be surprised that Laughing Gulls are not particularly hardy bird as usually just a few are still around at this time of the year. This time, however, not one was reported. Forster’s and Royal Terns are almost always present in small numbers, but they, too, were basking no doubt in balmier waters farther south as none were reported. It’s possible that a land bird such the Orange-crowned Warbler could be here but out of sight, and Laughing Gulls and terns would probably have been observed if present.
Beane, who is the Collections Manager of Herpetology at the N.C. Museum of Natural Science in Raleigh offered his views on the value of these counts:
“I do four CBCs every year, and these two Coastal ones (Ocracoke and Portsmouth) are always my favorites.
“I think most people tend to view the CBCs the wrong way—they look at them as competitions, and think that if they get low species diversity or low numbers, or if they don’t find anything rare, unusual, or exciting, they have had a ‘bad count.’ The purpose of the CBC is to count what’s there—not to look for what isn’t, not to do ‘better’ than the year before, not to score on rare birds. If a team covers their area thoroughly and counts what they observe to the best of their ability, they have had a ‘good count,’ regardless of weather, numbers, or other results.
“The counts are intended to show trends of bird diversity and abundance over time—some years some species are rare or absent and other years those same species may be present or abundant. That is why the counts are valuable—the consistency in which they are done and sheer volume of data compiled over many years. This corrects for bad weather and other factors that vary from year to year.
“The counts are also social events, and there is no reason they should not be, as long as the participants focus on doing the best they can to identify and count the species in their area of coverage.”
Normally, the Portsmouth Island Christmas Bird Count runs the day before and includes many of the Ocracoke birders as participants. This year, that count was canceled due to not being able to get over, but both counts are typically scheduled at the end of December each year.
As a follow up, many shore birds did show up on the beach over the next several days and were also seen in good numbers at Springer’s Point. Twenty species were seen on the three days on either side of the count day and are listed below as count week birds. One was a highly unusual Baltimore Oriole.
The following birds were reported:
American Black Duck
Green-winged Teal (American)
Great Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron
Great Black-backed Gull
Great Horned Owl
Count Week birds are those observed three days on either side of the count day: