Christmas Bird Count Numbers Down, But Local Bird Species are Fine, Says Audubon

Red Moorhens were among the feathered friends counted by volunteers on St. John during the annual Christmas Bird Count last month.

The birds are alright.

Although Virgin Islands Audubon Society members and volunteers counted less feathered friends this year during the group’s annual Christmas Bird Count, the tally has more to do with a few veteran participants not taking part, explained Laurel Brannick.

“We counted a few hundred less birds and a few less species this year, but we had some long-time counters who couldn’t take part this year,” said the V.I. National Park education specialist and head of the local Audubon Society’s annual bird count. “Will Henderson for instance has been counting the kingbirds in Coral Bay for about 20 years and they fly out by the dozens. Jerry Runyon had never done the counting by himself before.”

“Bless him, he got up really early and went out there, but he only counted 250 kingbirds,” said Brannick. “We’re missing about 150 kingbirds, but I don’t think anything is wrong. It’s just hard to count them because they fly out so quickly in big groups.”

In total, about 46 volunteers across St. John counted 1,664 birds and 59 different species on Saturday morning, December 17. That number is down from 2,142 birds and 62 species counted by about 42 volunteers in December 2010.

Despite the down turn in the count, the 2011 Christmas bird tally drew new volunteers who spotted lots of feathered families, explained Brannick.

“We saw lots of birds and a lot of bird families and we had some new volunteers,” she said. “All of that was positive and I think the final number is a reflection of who was counting, as far as missing some of our old-time veteran birders.”

Banaquits, thrushes and pin tail ducks topped the list of recorded birds and pelicans were seen is large numbers as well, according to Brannick.

“There were tons of pelicans because the bays have been choked with fry, which is really good,” she said. “The thing that I thought was cool were all of the bird families, parents with chicks, that I saw. I think that is because the ponds have been really high and they like deep water.”

The deep water also contributed to the decline in short-legged birds seen at island ponds and the increase in long-legged birds, Brannick added.

“There were more heron families and not as many short-legged birds because the water table has been so high,” she the Audubon board of directors member.

Brannick led a team of volunteer counters along the North Shore from Francis to Maho Bay and Annaberg.

“We didn’t have any big surprises on the North Shore, but I think my team counted over 30 species of birds,” said Brannick. “We went into the bush at Maho Bay to reach the pond and crept into the pond behind the Annaberg parking lot. Then we went out to Waterlemon

“We had an adventurous bunch since it was a lot of walking in muck up to your knees,” she said.

Other counters in about 20 separate teams tallied birds from Fish Bay out to the East End. The Audubon group didn’t have anyone counting the often seen warblers along the Reef Bay Trail this year, Brannick added.

“We used to have someone who hiked down Reef Bay and out to Lameshur, which we call the Fool’s Loop,” she said. “But we didn’t have anyone doing that this year, so we’re missing about five or six different warbler species which I think are still there. We need a new fool next year willing to do the four hour hike and look for the warblers.”

The V.I. Audubon group has been counting local birds across the island for about 30 years and the data is a good indicator of the overall health of the environment, explained Brannick.

“The count is important because it tells us about the environment and what is going on,” she said. “If the mangroves are healthy and if the bird numbers are solid, that is important. Eventually what is wrong with the environment will affect us, but the animals feel it first.”

Up next for the V.I. Audubon Society is the group’s annual picnic, set for this Tuesday, January 17, at the new Maho Bay pavilion at noon. The group regularly meets on the third Tuesday of each month at the Gifft Hill School.

The local Audubon Society is also excited to spruce up the Frank Bay Pond Bird Sanctuary, Brannick explained.

“We’re going to try to replicate what the Friends of the Park did at Francis,” she said. “We’d like to improve the trail with a wooden walkway and install a dock and bench to improve sight there. We hope the project will encourage students to go down there since it will be easy to assess people in town.”

For more information about V.I. Audubon Society call the group’s president Elaine Estern at 776-6944.