Forty-five volunteers turned their eyes to the skies on Jan. 2 for the Virgin Islands Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count, and what they found was promising. Three years after hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the island’s bird populations, their habitats, and their food sources, most species are on the rebound.
A total of 69 species were documented during the official count, which found nectar eaters finally recovering from very low post-storm numbers.
Only two Antillean crested hummingbirds were documented in the 2017 count, and only six were recorded in 2019, but this year, 25 of these hummingbirds were counted.
Green-throated Carib hummingbirds seem to be back to pre-storm numbers, and bananaquits are thriving with 167 recorded in this year’s count compared to 127 counted in 2018.
Mangrove cuckoos, which eat fruits, berries, insects, and lizards are making a comeback, with 10 reported this year compared to three in 2019.
“They may have suffered losses due to the widespread damage in the mangrove areas, which fortunately are now recovering,” according to a press release issued by the Virgin Islands Audubon Society.
Fruit-eaters like pigeons and doves, which also struggled after the storms, are doing well. Only three bridled quail-doves were counted this year, but Robert Askin, a retired ornithologist from Connecticut College who has done previous bird counting on St. John, suggested this species’ numbers may not be as low as recorded.
“He suggested there may be more bridled quail-doves than the count indicates based on audio surveys he did on St. John after the 2017 storms,” according to the Audubon Society press release. “He was quick to add that the overall number of these ground-feeding doves was already declining before the storms due to an increase in predators including feral and pet cats and mongooses.
Askin would like to see a focused survey done in April or May, when the species is active and more observable, by birders who are familiar with the bridled quail-dove’s call in order to get a better understanding of their numbers.”
Fish-eating birds like pelicans, herons, and egrets had better opportunities to find food after the storms and they were able to move to places with better conditions, so they did not experience low post-storm numbers like the most vulnerable nectar and fruit eaters.
Interestingly, the brown pelican was difficult to spot this year, with only 52 recorded compared to 332 counted last year.
The number of herons remained low — from one tri-colored heron to 13 little blue herons counted this year—but these numbers are largely unchanged from pre-storm counts.
Raptors and shorebirds are thriving. American kestrels reached a recent-year high of 37, and there were 10 red-tailed hawks counted this year, which is a normal level for this species.
There are plenty of black-necked stilts and white-cheeked pintail ducks in island ponds along with blue-winged teals, common gallinules, yellowlegs, and spotted sandpipers.
Local bird count numbers will be sent to the National Audubon Society, which compiles the figures from counts all over the country to study for trends.
Learn more about the Virgin Islands Audubon Society by following the group on Facebook.