Birds

Portsmouth Island Christmas Bird Count ends the year

One of two Bald Eagles seen on the Portsmouth Island, NC, 2018 Christmas Bird Count. This one perched on the life-saving station. Photo by P. Vankevich

One of two Bald Eagles seen during the Portsmouth Island Christmas Bird Count. This one is perched on the life-saving station. Photo by P. Vankevich

For more on the last day of 2018 on Portsmouth Island, click here 

By Peter Vankevich

For many of us, there is always a moment of excitement when taking a boat from Ocracoke to Portsmouth village. Perhaps even more so in the winter when the village, with its stark beauty, will be absent of folks and the only sounds one hears are exclusive to nature — wind or the clucking call of a Clapper Rail.

Common Yellowthroat. Photo by Jeff Beane

Despite its isolation, Portsmouth is a great place to conduct a winter bird census. That is, if you can get there. High winds and adverse weather like last year, can prevent a boat piloted by one of the Austins who run Portsmouth Island Boat Tours from making the trip. With good fortune, on Dec. 31, the weather was seasonally perfect. Temperatures in the 50s heading into the low 60s and barely noticeable winds made ideal conditions for counting.

From Ocracoke, 22 observers headed over in the early morning. In addition to Donald Austin shepherding most of the participants, new islander Richard Waldrop took some of us in his boat, the Kraft Salt. Despite the federal government shutdown, it was still possible to visit, but there would be no NPS staff available to provide support. Portsmouth village is the most northern area of the Cape Lookout National Seashore and Ocracoke Island is the southern point of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. In the past, Cape Lookout has provided a truck to cover several miles of the beach, but not this year.

Spreading out in four teams, most covered the village and a few ventured through several hundred yards of water and marsh grass to make it to the beach and dunes.

Some of the participants of the Portsmouth Island 2018 Christmas Bird Count. Front from left Don White, Rosa Patton, Ron Rozzelle, Hal Broadfoot, Peter Vankevich, Minna Willey and Haven Wiley. In back: Janeen Vanhooke and Elizabeth Cisne

The highlight was two adult Bald Eagles seen together perched on the rescue building and in trees near Ocracoke Inlet. Although often seen in the winter farther up the banks in the Bodie/Pea Island areas, this is only the third time (2009/2014) they have been reported on Portsmouth since the count began.

The Outer Banks has one of the world’s highest concentrations of wintering Double-crested Cormorants and unlike most species, only estimates are possible. On this day 65,000 was the estimate. By mid-afternoon with the count winding down, 59 species were reported.

Two common birds, House Sparrows and Rock Pigeons, have never been reported. A small number of European Starlings that perch on the church and other buildings and trees in the village, however, have been reported on every count, except for this year. Whether they have left permanently is worth noting for those on future visits.

Begun in 1900 by noted American ornithologist Frank Chapman, the Christmas Bird Count is the world’s longest running wildlife census. It started 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.  Chapman proposed counting birds on Christmas instead of killing them.

Twenty-seven observers took part in the first count in 25 locations in the United States and Canada, and the event has grown ever since. A record 2,585 counts were submitted last year to the 118th CBC database from the United States, Canada, Latin America, the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands with a record number of nearly 77,000 participants. These reports are searchable online. The most recent count period was from Dec. 14 through Jan. 5. The Ocracoke Island CBC took place on Dec. 30 and 80 species were tallied.

The George Dixon House. Photo: P. Vankevich

The Portsmouth CBC began in 1988 and just a few times, including last year, it did not take place due to adverse weather conditions.

The presence of birds and the ability to see them–especially on 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 numbers of species tallied, and this information is included in the official reports.

Here is the list of birds and their numbers for the Dec. 31, 2018 count:
Brant 122
American Black Duck 11
Mallard 7
Green-winged Teal 2
Redhead 2,000
Surf Scoter 2
Bufflehead 21
Red-breasted Merganser 1
Common Loon 3
Northern Gannet 931
Double-crested Cormorant 65,000
Brown Pelican 931
American Bittern
Great Blue Heron 5
Great Egret 1
Snowy Egret 1
Tricolored Heron 3
White Ibis 19
Osprey 1
Northern Harrier 6
Bald Eagle 2
Clapper Rail 11
Virginia Rail 1
Am. Oystercatcher 27
Black-bellied Plover 16
Greater Yellowlegs 2
Willet 3
Lesser Yellowlegs 8
Dunlin 116
Western Sandpiper 2
Ring-billed Gull 436
Herring Gull 272
Lesser Black-backed Gull 1
Great Black-backed Gull 80
Forster’s Tern 4
Royal Tern 55
Belted Kingfisher 6
Red-bellied Woodpecker 3
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 1
Northern Flicker 29
Merlin 2
American Crow 1
Sedge Wren 16
Marsh Wren 5
Carolina Wren 16
Golden-crowned Kinglet 1
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 1
American Robin 127
Gray Catbird 20
Northern Mockingbird 9
Common Yellowthroat 11
Palm Warbler 5
Yellow-rumped Warbler  573
Savannah Sparrow (Ipswich) 1
Song Sparrow 7
Swamp Sparrow 11
Eastern Towhee 32
Eastern Meadowlark 8
Boat-tailed Grackle 1

Boat captain Donald Austin is a big fan of the Ocracoke Dolphins, the school’s basketball teams. Photo: P. Vankevich