Fewer birds of the same feather are flocking together, but more rare and endangered birds made stops this winter to enjoy the Lowcountry's warm weather.
About 225 volunteers spread across Beaufort County last month to participate in the National Audubon Society's 112th Christmas Bird Count.
Audubon and other groups use data from the wildlife census to assess the health of bird populations and guide conservation.
The Fripp Audubon Club documented a record 14,551 birds and 112 species Dec. 17 in its third bird count of northern Beaufort County. Previous birds counts ranged from 7,900 to 8,800 birds.
"The warm weather gave us good numbers of shorebirds and mixed blackbirds," said Lowcountry count compiler Ken Scott. "It turns out we have a lot of birds and a lot of rare and, in some cases, endangered species. We had a high count of red knots, which migrate with the horseshoe crabs and eat their eggs."
He said the health of the red knots is a critical concern because of their dependence on the crabs, which are being harvested and ground for fish meal farther north. The diminished supply of crabs there has made this area an important stopover during the birds' migration, Scott said.
The club also saw white pelicans, which traditionally winter on the Gulf coast.
"I think the numbers are a good indication this is a very important area for migratory and endangered breeding birds," Scott said.
The Hilton Head Island Audubon Society documented 31,248 birds and 156 species in its Dec. 14 count, which also included Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge, Palmetto Bluff and Bluffton. Counts have been taken on Hilton Head since 1973.
"The positives are the eagles and ospreys are on the increase. We're getting more and more every year, but other birds are falling behind," said count coordinator Barry Lowes. "Although these are impressive numbers, they can be misleading because one species may be represented by only one or two birds, where you used to get 50, 100 or 1,000. It's disturbing."
Birds are constantly threatened by a variety of factors, primarily loss of habitat, Lowes said.
The highlight of the day was the sighting of an estimated 30,000 bobbing ocean ducks covering a large area off Palmetto Dunes. The phenomenon happens about once every 10 to 15 years when the enormous rafts drift slowly from the North Atlantic coast to Florida for the winter, Lowes said. That brings the overall bird count to 61,248.
"The ocean was black with birds. It's quite a sight. You feel like you could walk across them like it's pavement," Lowes said.
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead