By Peter Vankevich
The Ocracoke and Portsmouth Christmas Bird Counts will be on Dec. 30 and 31. Those wishing to participate should contact the compiler, Peter Vankevich, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Following a successful summer colonial bird nesting season, Ocracoke’s fall birding got off to a nice start with several rare and unusual birds appearing, plus great sightings of the more common ones.
As for the rarities, a Traill’s Flycatcher perched on a cedar tree at the pony pasture pleasantly surprised those on the NC
Bird Atlas field trip on Oct. 25. Traill’s is the name for silent Willow and Alder Flycatchers which in the fall look virtually identical. These two bird species were considered the same under that name but were split in 1973 by the American Ornithological Society’s North American Classification Committee.
From spring into summer, they are easily distinguished by their calls. The Willow Flycatcher’s call is traditionally described as “Fitzbew.” A variety of their sounds can be heard here on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology web site.
The Alder Flycatcher call, more complicated to describe, can be heard here.
The following week, a Yellow-headed Blackbird from the Midwest was seen foraging on the ground on North Pond and British Cemetery Roads and two young Gray Kingbirds from Florida showed up on the sound side of O’Neal Drive.
Three Roseate Spoonbills appeared briefly on South Point on Oct. 20 and one again on Oct. 27, beautifully photographed alongside a White Ibis by Karen Rhodes. Other unusual species were a Dickcissel at Springer’s Point on Oct. 23 and a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher at the NPS campground on Nov. 5.
Sometimes you don’t have to look far to see a rarity, as a White-winged Dove was seen on Nov. 16 at a bird feeder outside a house in the village.
The South Point, where the Atlantic Ocean and Ocracoke Inlet converge, is a hot spot for many species to congregate. Its dunes are a wintering site for the Ipswich Sparrows from Sable Island off Nova Scotia. Rare Snowy Owls appeared there for several months from late 2013 to March 2014 and once again for about 10 days this past January. It’s also a a hangout for Peregrine Falcons.
With the erosion at the north end’s beach area that hosted a Least Tern colony, the South Point is now the only location for colonial nesting birds.
This expansive salt flat has plenty of room for nesting birds, but is also vulnerable to overwash by storm activity, including the swells from storms well out to sea. Although there were a few close calls, the season went on without disturbance, resulting in successful nesting.
“We had 3 separate colonies on South Point (2 colonies consisting of only Least Tern and 1 colony consisting of Least Tern, Gull-billed Tern, Common Tern, and Black Skimmer), and estimated a total of 525 nests,” wrote Amy Thompson, Ocracoke’s lead biotechnician for the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. “During our peak nest surveys, we counted 38 Common Terns nests, 14 Gull-billed Tern nests, and 220 Black Skimmer nests.”
Throughout the island were 14 American Oystercatcher nests that produced nine fledglings.
An amazing number of Lesser Black-backed Gulls were present there in October and November with one rough day estimate of 1,000 individuals. A common European gull, the first reported sighting of a Lesser Black-backed in North Carolina was on the Outer Banks in 1968, and reports have increased every year. Where they come from is a mystery since there are no known nesting colonies in continental North America. One theory is that most of them have migrated from Iceland where they are plentiful, others are from Greenland and Baffin islands where they have expanded their nesting sites in recent years.
Mixed in with the many lingering Royal Terns throughout September and well into October, were many Caspian Terns stopping on Ocracoke for a while before continuing their migration south.
Maybe it was our Indian summer, but a lot of Brown Pelicans are still around, including many in their first year brownish plumage, a sign of a successful nesting season. Hundreds of Brown Pelicans nested on Beacon Island, a few miles away in the Pamlico Sound.
Part-time islanders Gil and Jann Randell have been tracking migrating raptors — hawks, falcons, eagles, ospreys and vultures, on a dune north of the pony pasture for the past seven years.
Weather permitting, in the fall from late morning into the early afternoon, they record the birds passing through.
This year, they reported on the Hawk Count website as of Nov. 1, a total of 381 raptors, notably 21 Bald Eagles, 112 Peregrine Falcons and 60 Northern Kestrels.
Gil Randell expressed concern that fewer Sharp-shinned Hawks are being counted, mirroring data at other hawk watches.
On the increase is the similar appearing, slightly larger Cooper’s Hawk, which has adapted to nesting in urban settings and is the most likely hawk to be seen in the village.
Our winter denizens return
Here are some birds one can expect to see from fall into winter. For a perspective of birds on Ocracoke from fall into early winter, the Christmas Bird Count at the end of the year usually tallies 80-plus species with an excellent year, numbering into the 90s. Weather conditions and number of observers can impact the number on that day.
Be aware that many common species on the mainland such as the Carolina Chickadee and Tufted Titmouse, are not present on the island, or, like Downy Woodpeckers, are in small numbers.
Yellow-rumped Warblers have returned from their nesting grounds in the north. They can be easily seen throughout the island. Unlike most warbler species that feed primarily on insects, these warblers — also known as Myrtles, the subspecies name — eat berries, permitting them to winter farther north.
A Walk on the beach
Shorebirds move back and forth along the beach. The most likely to be seen are Black-bellied Plover, Willet, Ruddy
Turnstone, Red Knot, Dunlin and, of course, the Sanderling.
Great Black-backed, Lesser Black-backed, Herring, and Ringed-billed Gulls are present. Laughing Gulls are heading south and few will be around come December. Forster’s and Royal Terns may be observed resting on the beach or in flight.
Over the waters are Double-crested Cormorants, Brown Pelicans and the spectacular North Gannets. Cormorants sometimes rest on the beach in great numbers.
South Point Road, marsh and wetland areas
Look for American Bitterns, Great Blue Herons, Tricolored Herons, Great Egrets and White Ibises. As the sun sets, Black-crowned Night Herons fly over the island making their loud squawk call. Northern Harriers can be seen flying low in search of their prey.
Hammock Hills/Devil Shoals Road
The longleaf pines of Hammock Hills makes it a hot spot for wintering Red-breasted Nuthatches and a few have been heard in October. Their numbers vary from year-to-year depending on available seed food crops in Canada. More often first heard than seen, they are quite vocal, having a slightly higher more nasal pitch than the White-breasted Nuthhatch, which are common on the mainland, but not present here.
The two woodpeckers most likely to be seen on the island this time of year are Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Northern Flicka.
Terns abandon Big Foot Island
Birds need suitable nesting habitats and when a traditional site has changed for the worse, they will seek other locations. Such is the case with Big Foot Island, the dredge spoil island off Ocracoke, seen from the Swan Quarter and Cedar Island ferries.
The island was built up from dredged sand back in the late 1980s from the nearby Big Foot Slough navigation channel. It has had some of the highest nesting numbers in the state for Royal Terns and Sandwich Terns and had been relatively stable for many years, getting periodic renourishment from pipeline dredging. But in the past few years, a sidecaster dredge has been used to keep the channel clear. This form of dredging does not add material to the island. As a result, Big Foot has seriously eroded, causing the vast majority of the terns to abandon the site.
It seems that many of them relocated to Cora June Island in Hatteras Inlet, seen from the ferries that pass close by.
Carmen Johnson, wildlife diversity biologist with NC Wildlife Resource Commission which manages these two islands, provided statistics on these two terns.
Big Foot – 2020
Royal Terns – 5,238 nests
Sandwich Terns – 1,053 nests
Big Foot – 2021
Royal and Sandwich Terns – combined approximately 50 nests
Cora June – 2020
Royal Tern – 578
Sandwich Tern – 263
Cora June – 2021
Royal Tern – approximately 2,500
Sandwich Tern – approximately 500
Islands that have fewer predators of eggs and hatchlings are safer areas than many mainland sites. Cora June is not ideal as it is subject to human disturbance and has predators, including ghost crabs, gulls and the occasional Bald Eagle.
Considering the high number of successful nests it has had in the past, I hope that with future dredging to keep the channel clear for the ferry service, Big Foot can receive more uploaded sand material and be rebuilt.
The rarest bird of the season on the Outer Banks was a Thick-billed Longspur that showed up for about a week at the old ferry landing below the south side of the Basnight Bridge – the first report ever in North Carolina.
There are many online references to this bird of the shortgrass prairies at the center of the North American continent, but don’t expect to see this bird listed in your printed field guide.
This is a new name for what was formerly known as McCown’s Longspur. The name change is part of a movement to replace birds named after individuals — often the person credited with finding a new species, with more descriptive names. Why this is occurring could be the subject of a separate article.
Birders are encouraged to enter their Ocracoke observations into eBird, the massive database of bird sightings from all over the world. While inputting, one can add the same observations into the North Carolina Bird Atlas, by switching to the NC Bird Atlas portal in your eBird mobile app settings.
For more information, or if you need technical assistance, contact regional volunteer coordinator Sarah Toner at email@example.com. Volunteers can also adopt nearby priority blocks for surveying.
A Birds of Ocracoke Facebook page is up and running. Folks can post photos of birds seen on the island and ask for help in identification.