Migratory shorebirds arrive at Aquatic Park on November 22, 2011. Photos: Chris Hammond

By Chris Hammond

At Berkeley’s Aquatic Park, Mike Perlmutter bent over his bird-watching telescope, intent on finding more of the birds he’s seen in years past. The traffic on highway 580/80 roared behind him. A freight train pulling empty container cars clickity-clacked on the other side of the park. In between were the birds, all of them are year-rounders like great egrets, coots and ducks. There were no migratory shorebirds yet.

Volunteer bird watchers and scientists combed the sandy San Francisco Bay marshes for shorebirds at high tide Tuesday morning. Perhaps 350,000 of the spindly legged, long-distance travelers were counted in northern and central California as they fattened themselves on crabs, worms and muscles in the flats and rocky shoreline.

“This is as many birds as we get in winter,” said Julian Wood, who works for PRBO Conservation Science, the group leading the Pacific Flyway Shorebird Survey. He said that tracking the birds is no easy feat. “It’s hard to get numbers for migrating shorebirds. The ones we see breed in Alaska and winter here.”

Mike Perlmutter, volunteer for the Pacific Flyway Survey at Berkeley’s Aquatic Park, November 22, 2011
Mike Perlmutter, volunteer for the Pacific Flyway Survey at Berkeley’s Aquatic Park, November 22, 2011

Staff from PRBO, also known as the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, will use shorebirds as indicators of change to land-use and climate. The count will help scientists measure whether the wetlands in the Bay Area are adequately filtering pollutants, controlling floods and sequestering carbon. With the data, scientists hope to pinpoint which habitat needs to be protected and managed.

Perlmutter volunteers for the Pacific Flyway Survey. In his regular job he serves as the Rapid Response Coordinator for the Bay Area Early Detection Network, a group that works on early detection and rapid response to invasive plants throughout the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area. He previously worked for Audubon California where he served as the San Francisco Bay Area Conservation Coordinator. He likes to carry his birding scope on the back of his bicycle.

On Tuesday, Perlmutter cycled toward a sandy spit in the park near a water skiing ramp. Perched on the edge of the ramp sat a trio of cormorants and a couple of brown pelicans.

“Here they are,” Perlmutter said, ignoring the big birds. Near the ramp on the sand flats stood easily a hundred shorebirds, divided by size, feathers fluffed in the clear morning chill. He counted quickly before the birds had a chance to fly off. At high tide, he noted that the birds are much easier to count as they sit waiting for the mud to reappear.

A flock of dunlins and dowitchers seen through a lens at Aquatic Park, November 22, 2011

Tiny, 6-inch long least sandpipers had arrived from as far away as the Alaskan tundra. They skipped along the shoreline in groups of 10 or so, white bellies catching the sun. They’re the smallest shorebirds in the world.

“Here are some dowitchers,” Perlmutter said. “They look like little sewing machines.” With longer bills, the birds methodically dig into the sand, looking for crabs and worms. Other birds, such as American avocets and black-necked stilts stood close by.

Perlmutter said the San Francisco Bay estuary holds more shorebirds than any west coast estuary south of Alaska. “It’s like one big lunch buffet down here.”

Over the next few days, the 2011 Pacific Flyway Survey will continue in the Central Valley, southern California, and estuaries in Mexico for the first time. PRBO has been running the survey locally since 1988. Other local spots for shorebird watching include the Albany Mud Flats Ecological Reserve from the Albany Bulb to Point Isabel.

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