On the first day of the year 2000, while many Virgin Islanders are sleeping off the after- effects of ringing in the New Year, bird watchers on St. John and St. Croix will be out before the crack of dawn taking part in the 100th anniversary Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count.
Nearly 50,000 people in more than 1,800 locations are expected to take part in this year's bird count, traditionally conducted during a 14-day period at the end of December.
The annual bird count "started in the United States and spread across the country," Dr. Will Henderson, a St. John resident, explained. Today it involves groups in all 50 states plus "every Canadian province, parts of Central and South America, Bermuda, the West Indies and some of the Pacific islands,"
Audubon Society members on St. John have conducted the annual census of their feathered friends for the last 13 years on Christmas Day. This year, Henderson said, the count is being held a week later, on New Year's Day, to accommodate birds of a different feather — "the snowbirds." The term is used for people who regularly come to the islands in the wintertime, many staying in vacation homes or time-shares. Henderson said about half of the St. John Audubon Society members are snowbirds.
The birders — all volunteers — will fan out into the bush around the island to begin their count in the pre-dawn hours, armed with binoculars and hot beverages in vacuum bottles, and continue throughout the day. Invariably, Henderson said, someone will get a treat in the sighting of a rare species, although, he admitted this has never happened to him.
"We had a very rare one come by here on St. John last fall and has been seen several times since then," he said, "and that's the red-legged honey creeper." He described the species as "a bright blue bird with a bright blue-turquoise crown and wild red legs." The nearest place the bird is known to inhabit is Trinidad, he added.
Dennis McKinney, environmental director of the St. Croix Environmental Association, noted that hurricanes, with their destruction of natural environments, can have the effect of sending migratory birds to locations they have not previously inhabited.
On St. Croix, he said, "One observer recently saw a Chaffinch, a North African species, and he never saw it again. All you can do is speculate. When you have weather like we have, you never know what's going to turn up. After Hurricane Marilyn we had a population of flamingoes for a couple of months."
This year, for the first time since 1988 — the Christmas before Hurricane Hugo — a bird count will also be taken on St. Croix, coordinated by SEA. McKinney figures that "we may get an oddball or two that can be attributed to Lenny."
Before 1989, "There had been counts annually for as far back as I can recall on St. Croix – – at least 20 years, maybe more," McKinney said. The association had been reluctant to take on responsibility for reviving the count, he said, because this is also the time of year of its annual fund-raiser auction. Still, he said, "the motivation has always been there, because it's something that needs to get done. Data on Central America and the Caribbean are important so that scientists up north know where the birds from there go."
This year, he said, the count is taking place largely because SEA volunteer and Realtor Sheelagh Fromer agreed to take charge of organizing it. She has divided St. Croix into seven zones plus Buck Island and Green Cay (with the National Park Service leading the count at those two sites).
McKinney, a SEA staff member for the last two and a half year, figures the bird population may have changed significantly in number, if not in species variety, since the hurricane of a decade ago devastated St. Croix.
Although "the main idea is to send records up to the Audubon headquarters in New York where they crunch the numbers," Henderson said, the data collected are put to local use as well. He said the annual St. John bird count has helped local environmentalists gain a better understanding of how weather and other changes affects the number and types of birds, many of them making their seasonal migration.
"About one third of the birds that have been seen on our island are permanent residents," he said. The rest, he said, "come here to nest or come here to winter. Of course, some of them come here to summer."
Although the Audubon Society is more than 100 years old, a publication from the organization credits Frank Chapman for organizing the first bird count in December 1900. "He implored them to begin a new holiday tradition of counting birds, rather than shooting them, as had been tradition," the publication states.


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