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HomeNewsLocal newsGray Kingbirds Emerge as Leaders in the Annual St. John Bird Count

Gray Kingbirds Emerge as Leaders in the Annual St. John Bird Count

A Gray Kingbird sits on a high branch waiting for a bug to fly by. (Photo Gail Karlsson)

There’s been no shortage of bugs, so it’s not surprising that local insect-eaters are thriving.

Gray Kingbirds are known as flycatchers but will also chase bees and a variety of other flying insects. They are often seen perching on treetops, then darting out and back to snatch a bug flying by. I see them most in the morning when the sun lights up the tops of the trees, and the insects that feed up there become active. The kingbirds call attention to themselves with their screechy sounds, a bit like a police whistle.

The 2020 bird count was actually held after New Year’s, on January 2, 2021. About 45 volunteers helped with the count – experienced birders and their friends and families, plus new recruits, including members of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of St. John.

The annual event was organized by the Virgin Islands Audubon Society, under the guidance of V.I. National Park ranger Laurel Brannick. To help people prepare, and learn more about birds they might see, the Friends of the VI National Park sponsored a video presentation by Laurel Brannick, with local bird photos by Gail Karlsson.

Counters spread out in selected areas across the island to record how many different species of birds they could see on that day. After all the report sheets were turned in, they were compiled by Audubon Board Member Phyllis Benton. Once the results were tabulated, Phyllis submitted them to the National Audubon Society for inclusion in a broader analysis of bird numbers, migration and overall health.


Many birds in the Virgin Islands are still recovering from the impacts of the 2017 hurricanes when there was widespread destruction of forests and a serious loss of food sources for wildlife.

By now, though, there is much greater availability of berries, fruits and seeds for local doves and pigeons.

A Scaly-naped Pigeon eats the small fruits and seeds on a coral vine. (Photo Gail Karlsson)

There are also flowers around to provide nectar for hummingbirds and bananaquits.

A Green-throated Carib hummingbird checks out a fading flower on a haiti-haiti (maho) tree. (Photo Gail Karlsson)

Lizard-eating American Kestrels reached a high of 37 this year, compared to 12 after the storms. This was the highest number for many years. Last year at this time, pairs could be seen mating enthusiastically around the island. As a result, there are now young birds around St. John that could be ready to start their own families soon.

Fledgling American Kestrels emerge from their nest in a tree hole. (Photo Gail Karlsson)

This year the Gray Kingbirds topped the chart at 233. Unfortunately, this is still way less than the numbers counted in the years just before the storms. In 2014 there were 607!

Looking back to the last count in December 2019, it was Brown Pelicans that were the most numerous – 332 pelicans vs. 168 kingbirds that year. This time only 52 pelicans were reported.

In December 2017, after the storms, the pelican count was down to 21. The next year there were 128, which was about normal (in 2014 there were 123). Then there was a big jump to 332 in 2019, so it looked like they were doing extremely well, followed by the dramatic fall this year.

A Brown Pelican scoops up fish in its pouch, along with water that will drain out the sides. (Photo Gail Karlsson)

What’s happening with the pelicans?

It’s hard to say. Pelicans can fly around and move to places where the fish are plentiful. Maybe it’s just that the fishing was good here last year and is better somewhere else now.

In any event, a one-day count is never entirely accurate. You can see the same birds all the time, and then when you want to count them, some of them are hiding out.

Also, this year the count day was very windy, and the water was rough around St. John. As a result, the National Park boat was not able to go out, and there were no offshore sightings recorded. That would explain some of the drop in the pelican count.

Another factor could be loss of the pelican’s customary breeding spots. A kayaker friend reported that the hurricanes mowed down the trees along the northern edges of St. John where pelicans had established nesting areas, and those nests have not been replaced. Maybe some of the pelicans moved away to find better nesting areas.

Over a period of years, we can sometimes discern clear trends, and sometimes there are just unexplained differences. It will be interesting to see how many pelicans are counted next year.

Some of the same types of factors may have affected the Brown Booby count this year, which was down by about half from last year. Only 18 were counted this time, compared to 34 in December 2019.

A Brown Booby flies low along the water looking for fish. (Photo Gail Karlsson)

Although bird lovers can’t realistically provide fish and nests to support water birds, we can become more educated about protecting bird habitats, including mangrove areas that serve as nurseries for fish as well as birds. For land-based birds, we can protect and propagate native plants (and insects) that are important for feeding birds and their babies, as we learn more about the complex ecosystems we live in.

Gail Karlsson is an environmental lawyer, writer and photographer – author of The Wild Life in an Island House, plus the guide book Learning About Trees and Plants – A Project of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of St. John. See uufstjohn.com/treeproject and gvkarlsson.blogspot.com. Follow her on Instagram @gailkarlsson

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