Brown Pelicans off Portsmouth Island. Photo by Peter Vankevich

By Peter Vankevich

Following a long tradition, the Portsmouth Island and Ocracoke Christmas Bird Counts took place on the last two days of the year. These are two of more than 40 bird counts that took place throughout North Carolina and expected about 2,600 counts worldwide and 80,000 participants.

Whereas the COVID-19 pandemic over the past two years wreaked havoc on the counts throughout the world, this time it was another virus that had an impact. It was not people, but the birds harmed.  A worldwide outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) hit eastern North Carolina this fall causing the sight of sick and dead birds on the counts.

Portsmouth was the first count day and Captain Rudy Auston along with deckhand Lena Austin O’Neal took two boatloads of observers from Ocracoke, dropping everyone off at the haulover dock.

Portsmouth Island bird count. Photo by Liling Warren

Four groups were formed, dividing the village into precincts, and the count was on. The morning was cool enough not to be pestered by the island’s notorious mosquitoes. (There is no mosquito spraying on Portsmouth Island.)  Two brief showers caused some pauses, but the overcast day with low winds was conducive for a bird count.

Getting to the beach and dunes from the village is a major challenge these days as the former salt flat has filled with cord grass and other aquatic marsh plants making the long crossing difficult.

Due to a breach from Hurricane Dorian, the Park Service cannot drive a truck up the beach to the village. So, to provide support, Cape Lookout National Seashore Superintendent Jeff West would make his way to the village by boat and shuttle the observers in a beach-worthy all-terrain vehicle kept in the village.

Red-bellied Woodpecker on Portsmouth Island. Photo by Jeff Beane

This year he could not make it, but Cape Lookout provided three very capable birders Karen Altman, Jeannie Kraus and Chelsey Stephenson who were able to access and cover the important beach, ocean and dunes habitats.

By the time Captain Rudy showed up to pilot the observers back to Ocracoke, a total of 65 species were tallied, the last was an Osprey seen from the dock on a distant tree branch eating a fish. The Ocracoke count had 80 species.

The weather the next day for the Ocracoke count kind of mirrored the birds — dullish, a bit overcast with a midmorning fog bad enough to temporarily suspend ferry service.

Unlike last year when Ocracoke reported a state high number of Red Knots — 516, approximately 5,000 close-in migrating Northern Gannets, and more than 1,100 Dunlin at South Point — there was little drama.

Birds that spend their time in the extensive dunes and cedar thickets were reluctant to make appearances or even calls.

Missing from Ocracoke were its shorebirds. Only two Black-bellied Plovers and Killdeer, eight Sanderlings and nine Greater Yellowlegs were seen. Although one may attribute the freezing weather the previous week to the missing shorebirds, this fall the overall numbers of Willets, Sanderlings, Dunlin and a few others were fewer than in previous years

American Kestrel on Ocracoke Christmas Bird Count. Photo by Karen Rhodes

Ocracoke village is now full of Eurasian-collared Doves, 117 counted. This bird first showed up in the early 2000s. Eurasian-collared Doves prefer human assisted habitats, so are rarely seen outside of the village. Along Highway 12 which crosses the island, six American Kestrels were perched on the power lines.

No rarities were reported, but Ocracoke added a new species for the count.

Since 1982 when the first count began, a total of 196 species had been reported.

The newly added bird may surprise many: it was a Rock Pigeon. Common throughout the world and seen in almost every town in the United States, this bird rarely appears on Ocracoke. Hal Broadfoot, a veteran of these counts, saw two of them at the Pony Pasture.

The big stars for both counts were American Robins, 900 tallied on Ocracoke and one thousand on Portsmouth. For Portsmouth, this was the highest number recorded and for Ocracoke, the second highest, in 1990 there were 2,654 individuals.

The two celebrity Great Horned Owls in the village returned to their favorite roosting tree a little after 5 p.m. The Bald Eagle that has been regularly seen since early fall was not seen but was the day before. Six species were seen in the count week, i.e. the three days on either side, but not the count day.

By the end of the day a total of 80 species were reported on Ocracoke. The average per species per year is typically in the mid-80s.

The number of species and individuals for these one-day counts vary from year-to-year and weather conditions can have a big impact for better or worse. Warmer winters may keep birds farther north. High winds and rain will keep birds huddled in cover. The number of observers can also impact on the numbers.

Ocracoke Island on the last day of 2022. Photo by Peter Vankevich

The Ocracoke bird count list below was corrected 1/22/23 with the addition of Eurasian-collared Doves and six count-week birds.

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