Christmas Bird Counters Record 48 Different Species on St. John

Birds enjoy a sufboard platform moored in Frank Bay Pond.

 The numbers are coming in from the V.I. Audubon Society for last year’s Christmas Bird Count and all seems well in the world of winged wanderers.

On December 30, 2006, 20 residents split into 13 teams dispersed across St. John and recorded spotting 48 different species and 1,715 individual birds, according to V.I. Audubon Society member Dr. William Henderson, who oversaw the local bird count.

The count is a good indicator of the health of not just local bird populations, but the overall environment, explained fellow V.I. Audubon Society member Chuck Pishko.

Indication of Weather Patterns
“The count tells us many different things,” Pishko said. “It is an indicator of the health of the birds and the health of the island’s wildlife. There are so many bad indicators as far as habitat loss, this is a good indication that some things are going well.”
“The bird count also gives us a good indication of weather patterns,” added Pishko.

While the mild winter being enjoyed in the north-eastern United States this year doesn’t seem to be affecting tourist visits, it’s a different story with the birds.

One type of bird which is usually a winter resident of Love City, was not spotted last year, Pishko explained.

“There were no migratory worblers recorded, which have been spotted on St. John around this time in years past,” said the local audubon society member. “It’s been so mild on the east coast I think they just haven’t come yet. But they’ll be here when it turns cold enough up there.”

Unusually Warm In Northeast
“To explain the low worbler count I lean very heavily on the unusually warm weather on the eastern seaboard,” agreed Henderson. “They will probably be coming down in the next few weeks because a cold front has finally crossed Florida. So that will make them come down here.”

The lack of a  North American Oyster Catcher was the biggest surprise in last year’s bird count, according to Henderson.
“The only real surprise was the missing American Oyster Catcher,” Henderson said. “It was initially a concern until I started asking around and two people have reported seeing them  this week — they are here.”

The white-cheeked pintail duck’s numbers have been steadily rising, with 101 being spotted in last year’s bird count.
“In 2000, there were half that number of the white-cheeked pintail ducks,” said Pishko. “So that is a good indication that their habitat is doing well and they are happy here.”

Four Species of Doves
Four different species of doves were recorded last year.

The most common doves, zenaidas, were spotted, but so were recently-arrived white winged doves, common ground doves and eurasian collared doves, Hen-derson explained.

“The white winged doves are a recent arrival on the island as well as the eurasian collard dove which have been spreading throughout the world and have finally gotten down here now,” said Henderson.

Largest of Rookery
Gray king birds were the highest number of birds spotted from a local rookery, according to Henderson.

“I counted 604 gray king birds from the largest roosting rookery on St. John, which is out by the Coral Bay Harbor in the mangroves,” Henderson said. “All of the birds were out of that one spot.”

Other birds with healthy numbers on the list include humming birds, pearly-eyed thrashers and spotted sand pipers, which were counted in about half the ponds monitored during the count, added Henderson.

Another good sign in the 2006 Christmas Bird Count was the healthy number of bananaquits spotted.

“We got 212 bananaquits spotted,” said Henderson. “They are really healthy.”

100-year-old-plus Tradition
The local Audubon chapter has been counting the birds for 29 years so far, taking part in a more than 100-year-old Audubon Society tradition.

The Christmas Bird Count started in 1900 to off-set an older tradition involving birds which was a lot less friendly to the feathered friends.

“In the late 1800s, people engaged in a holiday tradition known as the Christmas ‘Side Hunt’ — they would choose sides and go afield with their guns; whoever brought in the biggest pile of feathered (and furred) quarry won,” according to the Audubon Society’s Web site. “Con-servation was in its beginning stages around the turn of the 20th century, and many observers and scientists were becoming concerned about declining bird populations. Beginning on Christmas Day 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman, an early officer in the then-budding Audubon Society, proposed a new holiday tradition — a ‘Christmas Bird Census’— that would count birds rather than hunt them.”

50 Counts Outside Mainland U.S.
Twenty-five bird counts occurred on that day and the idea quickly caught on and spread.

“Expansion continues to this day, with 20 to 30 new counts initiated each year, and the total number of count circles is nearing 2,000,” according to “More than 50 of these are outside the United States and Canada, dotted throughout Central and South America and on Caribbean and Pacific islands.”

The only sour note for the local bird count was the invasive species spotted in Lower Estate Carolina, according to Henderson.

Invasive Species in Lower Estate Carolina
“For the first time, we’ve had a new invasive species in Lower Estate Carolina where we had seven species of rubber ducks reported,” Henderson said. “There were 85 individual rubber ducks and one wooden duck at the pond near Pam Gaffin’s school bus.”

While the authorities have been alerted, the ducks were not included in the overall tally of bird species spotted on Love City last December, Henderson added.