Birders take notes, flocks take flight|Annual Audubon count nets surprises

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 20, 2009

DELTA — Christmas came early for Vicksburg birdwatchers who left behind crowded stores and malls Saturday to search out flocks of egrets, pelicans, cormorants and other birds for the National Audubon Society’s 110th annual Christmas bird count.

In keeping with the surprises Christmas usually brings, the birders got a couple of rare sights mixed in with the commonplace.

Out on the levee near Delta a team including Bruce Reid, David Ringer and Blaine Elliott spotted a black-necked stilt, which Reid said has never before been seen in the Vicksburg Christmas count, though they are around in the summer.

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The men also spotted one young bald eagle and a red-breasted merganser, a species seen in this area only a couple of times in the last 30 years, Reid said.

By the end of the day, Vicksburg birders logged sightings of 103 different bird species, possibly the largest number ever recorded for the local Christmas count. “It’s the biggest number anyone can remember,” Ringer said.

Professionally, Reid and Ringer are on the staff of Audubon’s Mississippi River Initiative based in Vicksburg, Reid serving as director of conservation outreach and Ringer as communications director. Elliott is a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The three were “just volunteers,” however, among thousands that will take part in the nationwide count that began Dec. 14 and will wrap up Jan. 5.

“It’s birders and biologists and citizen scientists that come out and do the count as part of their normal birding,” Elliott said.

Results from the local Christmas count will be sent to Audubon’s headquarters, where they will be compiled with data from other areas to document shifts in local bird populations, identify environmental threats and contribute to studies of bird health and habitats.

About eight teams covered a 15-mile circular area centered in Vicksburg Saturday, starting just after dawn and remaining until sunset.

Reid said early in the day his team counted about 300 American white pelicans. The bird, with a 9-foot wingspan, nests in the northern plains of Canada and winters along the Gulf Coast and waterways nearby.

“They’re kind of the great bird of the Mississippi, traversing the whole river system,” he said. “Sometimes we see them in the thousands in Vicksburg in the fall.”

Typically, local birders will identify osprey, double-crested cormorants, a number of different varieties of duck, gulls and dozens of other species.

“It’s not so much a search for rarity as it is an assessment of how the birds that should be here are doing,” Reid said.

The Vicksburg count dates to 1952, but was not held annually until 1980. Data has shown that populations of some birds — Eastern meadowlark, northern bobwhite and rusty blackbird, for example — have declined markedly in the last 40 years, and 177 species have shifted as far as 500 miles to the north, said Ringer.

Saturday’s counts revealed two species, anhinga and white ibis, in significantly higher numbers, Ringer said, reflecting warmer, milder winters.

About 2,000 teams nationwide are expected to participate in the count, with 17 separate events set for Mississippi during the period, including one at Eagle Lake Tuesday.

Another will take place at the Tensas National Wildlife Refuge just after the new year.

Contact Pamela Hitchins at