Ring-billed Gulls seen on Ocracoke. Photo by Amy Thompson

By Peter Vankevich

Conducting outdoor bird censuses at the end of December can be a challenge, normally due to the specter of horrible weather. The Portsmouth and Ocracoke island Christmas Bird Counts (CBC) that took place on their end-of-the year dates, Dec. 30 and 31 got done, though Ocracoke’s weather was not ideal.

The counts, like hundreds of others throughout the country, had to take place during a pandemic. Here, there were fewer observers than normal and most of them covered areas alone or as couples. Participants had to wear masks and practice social distancing when among others.

Normally, there is a tally-rally party to compile the results from the teams, but that fun bit of camaraderie was canceled.

The Christmas Bird Count, sponsored and coordinated by the National Audubon Society, is one of the longest-running wildlife censuses in the world. Each individual count takes place in a 15-mile-wide circle.

Participants tally all birds seen or heard that day—not just the species but total numbers to provide a clear idea of the health of that population.

Last year, the 120th Audubon CBC, included a record-setting 2,646 count circles, with 1,992 counts in the United States, 469 in Canada and 185 in Latin America, the Caribbean, Bermuda and the Pacific Islands. That was the tenth-straight year of record-breaking counts. In total, 81,601 observers out in the field and watching feeders tallied up more than 42 million birds representing more than 2,500 different species—around one-quarter of the world’s known avifauna. Unfortunately, this total of birds represents around 6 million fewer total birds than 2018.

Observers getting their field assignments at the Portsmouth Village Visitors Center. Photo by Jeff Beane

Cape Lookout National Superintendent Jeff West welcomed the Portsmouth participants at the Visitors Center in the village. Two Cape Lookout staffers, Chelsey Stephenson and Karen Altman, covered areas south of the village.

For the Portsmouth count, the weather was seasonably pleasant, a bit cold, mostly sunny with little wind. This location is one of the known locations for wintering American Oystercatchers and 41 were tallied. An unusual sighting for this count were 12 American White Pelicans. These birds have been wintering in the Pea Island Wildlife Refuge in good numbers for many years, but rarely are seen on Ocracoke or Portsmouth.

The following day on Ocracoke, observers faced a formidable opponent sustained winds up to 20 mph. High winds cause many birds to hunker down, making them harder to count. That factor and only about half the usual number of observers resulted in a lower number of both species and their numbers than usual.

Nevertheless, there were some interesting reports including two Ruby-throated Hummingbirds at a feeder in the village, a Peregrine Falcon, and a Common Eider in the Silver Lake Harbor. A good number of Brown Pelicans, 1170 reported, are still around. Most pelicans are farther south this time of the year.

Absent on the beach and the South Point flat were the usually high number of shorebirds. When tallying the species, birds can be entered as count-week observations. These are species not found on the count date but that are seen around the date of the count. Many of the shorebirds, such as Willets, did show up during this period that were not seen on the count day.

The Ocracoke count has run since 1982 and the Portsmouth since 1988

Common Eider in Silver Lake Harbor on Ocracoke. Photo by Jeff Beane

Ocracoke Island Christmas Bird Count results, Dec. 31, 2020:
Note: CW signifies count week and is for species that were not seen on the count date but within from 3 days before to 3 days after the official date. The number of count week species seen is not included.
Canada Goose 75
Mallard 35
Green-winged Teal 16
Redhead 200
Common Eider 1
Black Scoter CW
Bufflehead 253
Hooded Merganser 2
Red-breasted Merganser 17
Common Loon 9
Pied-billed Grebe 27
Horned Grebe CW
Northern Gannet 23
Double-crested Cormorant 2300
Brown Pelican 261
American Bittern 2
Great Blue Heron 14
Great Egret 12
Little Blue Heron CW
Tricolored Heron 22
Black-crowned Night-Heron 4
White Ibis 7
Northern Harrier 1
Cooper’s Hawk 1
Bald Eagle CW
Clapper Rail 7
Virginia Rail 3
American Oystercatcher CW
Black-bellied Plover 13
Willet CW
Ruddy Turnstone 2
Sanderling 189
Wilson’s Snipe CW
Laughing Gull 45
Ring-billed Gull 576
Herring Gull 247
Lesser Black-backed Gull 2
Great Black-backed Gull 70
Royal Tern 1
Eurasian Collared-Dove 82
Mourning Dove 98
Ruby-throated Hummingbird 2
Belted Kingfisher 10
Red-bellied Woodpecker 2
Northern Flicker 9
American Kestrel 1
Merlin 3
Peregrine Falcon 1
Eastern Phoebe 3
Red-breasted Nuthatch 7
Sedge Wren 3
Marsh Wren 1
Carolina Wren 19
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 5
American Robin 104
Gray Catbird 18
Northern Mockingbird 21
European Starling 221
Orange-crowned Warbler CW
Common Yellowthroat 1
Palm Warbler 4
Pine Warbler 1
Yellow-rumped Warbler 429
Prairie Warbler 1
Nelson’s Sparrow 1
Nelson’s/Saltmarsh Sparrow 1
Seaside Sparrow 1
Savannah Sparrow 5
Savannah Sparrow (Ipswich) 2
Song Sparrow 6
Swamp Sparrow 1
Eastern Towhee 3
Northern Cardinal 27
Red-winged Blackbird 3
Eastern Meadowlark CW
Brown-headed Cowbird CW
House Sparrow 120

Portsmouth Island Christmas Bird Count, Dec. 30, 2020
Blue-winged Teal 1
Black Scoter 28
Bufflehead 5
Hooded Merganser 7
Red-breasted Merganser 13
Ruddy Duck 1
Common Loon 2
Pied-billed Grebe 3
Northern Gannet 500
Double-crested Cormorant 7200
American White Pelican 12
Brown Pelican 1170
Great Blue Heron 3
Great Egret 13
Tricolored Heron 13
White Ibis 35
Osprey 1
Northern Harrier 8
Sharp-shinned Hawk 1
Bald Eagle 1
Clapper Rail 5
American Oystercatcher 41
Black-bellied Plover 5
Semipalmated Plover 4
Piping Plover 7
Killdeer 1
Greater Yellowlegs 1
Willet 6
Ruddy Turnstone 2
Sanderling 140
Dunlin 89
Ring-billed Gull 261
Herring Gull 221
Great Black-backed Gull 88
Forster’s Tern 25
Royal Tern 87
Belted Kingfisher 7
Northern Flicker 7
Merlin 2
Peregrine Falcon 1
Eastern Phoebe 4
Sedge Wren 1
Marsh Wren 13
Carolina Wren 12
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 2
American Robin 1
Gray Catbird 7
Brown Thrasher 2
Northern Mockingbird 10
Common Yellowthroat 4
Palm Warbler 2
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle) 160
Savannah Sparrow 5
Song Sparrow 11
Swamp Sparrow 7
Eastern Towhee 15
Eastern Meadowlark 4

Peter Vankevich is the co-founder and compiler of the Ocracoke and Portsmouth islands Christmas Bird Counts.

1 COMMENT

  1. So impressive Peter! The cormorants win but a very impressive showing by the yellow-dumped warblers! Thanks for a great informative article. Beth

Leave a Reply