Christmas Bird Count on Portsmouth Island, 2008

Text and Photos by Lou Ann Homan

It is dark and chilly in the cottage when the alarm clock goes off. It is still vacation and I want to decline this invitation for early rising, but then I remember that today is the Christmas bird count. I put the coffee on and eat a bowl of cereal sitting near
the hearth to gather enough heat for the day.

I wear layer upon layer of warm clothes, pack a lunch from the leftover Christmas ham, put my movie star sunglasses in my pocket along with a candy bar. Last of all I put on two pair of socks and my Ocracoke commercial fisherman boots. With my camera slung over my shoulder I head out in the early morning dawn. Rudy Austin’s boat will leave promptly at 7:45, and I don’t want to be late.

A small number of folks have already gathered carrying supplies for the day:  binoculars, small birding telescopes, bird
books, notebooks, bottles of water, and lunches placed in tidy Eddie Bauer knapsacks. I have no binoculars, no telescope, and my lunch is in a plastic bag. Nevertheless, I am cheery and ready for this bird count. I have counted birds in Indiana
for the Christmas count many times. When the boys were young at the farm we used to divide it up in parcels and I would send them out with pencils and paper. Now, today, I shall do the counting of the birds far out to sea.

Rudy starts the engine of his small craft and we huddle in the bright morning sunlight under the spell of the salty spray. Within twenty minutes the small historic island of Portsmouth comes into view. I have only been on this island once before, in the middle of the summer full of heat and mosquitoes. It is so different today in the middle of winter. It is delightful…cool, refreshing and so quiet. Portsmouth used to be a bustling sea village with a population of 685 in 1860. During the Civil War many of the folks left for the mainland and did not return. As years went by time took its toll with hurricanes and other economic problems that usually consume a small village. The last person moved off the island in 1971. Today it is owned by the National Park Service as part of Cape Lookout National Seashore. Others would just call it a ghost island.

Welcome Sign in Portsmouth Village:

We divide up into groups of birders. I decide to make my own group and bid them farewell. Besides without binoculars……

I abandon the birds for a day of history. I walk from historic house to house peeking in windows, looking at cisterns, opening gates. My walk takes me through marshes and clumps of trees, and at every turn of my walk there is the bluest of blue Pamlico Sound. I peek in the old post office, the U.S. Life-Saving Service Station, the Dixon and Bragg homes. The Methodist church is decorated with wreaths and the door is open. It is cool and dim inside, but complete with pews, an organ, and gas lanterns. There never was running water or electricity in this magical place.

Portsmouth Island Life Saving Station:

Portsmouth Island Methodist Church:
Portsmouth Methodist Church

I see a small sign that signals the graves of two sailors down a long pathway strewn with juniper trees and white pines. The wind whistles as I find the old graves. Both men were captains, and died in their 30s. I sit in the dappled sun and shadow and read the inscription for William Hilzey who died October 4, 1821:

Far from my native land
My spirit wings its flight
To dwell at God’s right hand
With angels fair and bright

Portsmouth Island Graves:

Portsmouth Island Tombstone:
Portsmouth Grave

I pull out my ham sandwich to eat while I sit at Captain Hilzey’s grave. Just as I reach for my candy bar a small meadowlark sings sweetly overhead.

I photograph, nap in the warm sunshine, and walk for miles.

Portsmouth Island Path:
Portsmouth Island Path

As the sun crawls across the sky I realize Rudy will be by to pick us up. I find my way back to the dock and see him waiting. The real birders begin to show up. I am curious about their findings. I make a list:  pelicans, great black back gulls, herring gulls, ring billed gulls, piping plovers, sanderlings, dunlins, reddish egret, merlins, kestrels, and a tri-colored heron. “How did you do?” they ask me.

“Oh,” I reply, “I saw a meadowlark.”

I smile as we climb down into the boat and head back to Ocracoke. It has been a great day for birding.