A Great Blue Heron over Cesar Chavez Park during this year's Christmas bird count. Photo: Rick Lewis
A Great Blue Heron over Cesar Chavez Park during this year’s Christmas bird count. Photo: Rick Lewis

By Ilana DeBare

The Oakland Christmas Bird Count set a new record on Sunday for number of species – thanks in part to a much-ballyhooed rare bird in a Berkeley backyard.

Over 230 birders fanned out across Oakland, Berkeley and other nearby towns in Golden Gate Audubon’s 73rd annual Christmas Bird Count , or CBC as it’s known.

Some started as early as 2 a.m. looking for owls. By sundown, they had counted a preliminary total of 184 species, breaking last year’s record of 183. 

The Painted Redstart in November. Photo: Cal Walters

One particular bird made this year’s count special and helped set the new record – the Painted Redstart on Woolsey Street, near College Avenue in Berkeley.

The redstart, a songbird with a stunning splash of bright red, is typically found in Mexico and Arizona. But in mid-November, Berkeley resident Katie Bertsche spotted one in an oak tree in a Woolsey Street backyard.

The yard became a pilgrimage site for hundreds of Bay Area birders, who hurried to view and photograph the rarity. But, as winter arrived and a cold snap hit the Bay Area, the question arose: Would the redstart remain here until December 15, Christmas Bird Count day?

Last week it didn’t look good. Birders checked the oak tree, but for five days, the redstart wasn’t found.

Then on Sunday – voilà!

Golden Gate Audubon sent a special team to Woolsey Street just to scout for the bird. And there it was, in its familiar tree.

“The group basically walked up to it first thing in the morning,” said Dave Quady, co-compiler of the Oakland CBC. “Let’s hope it makes it through the winter and further.”

The Oakland CBC is part of National Audubon Society’s month-long Christmas Bird Count, which mobilizes over 70,000 volunteers in more than 2,300 locations.

The Oakland count covers a 15-mile circle that includes Berkeley, Oakland, Alameda, Albany, and areas east to Lafayette. It is one of the four biggest CBCs in the country, in terms of the number of participating birders.

A burrowing owl spotted in Cesar Chavez Park during this year’s bird count. Five species of owl were counted. Photo: Rick Lewis

Among the highlights from this year’s count:

  • About 1,300 Greater Scaup along the Berkeley waterfront, among 89 species found there.
  • A Golden Eagle spotted eating a jackrabbit in Alameda.
  • Black-throated Gray Warblers in Berkeley and Oakland.
  • A “Vega” form of Herring Gull, and a Glaucous Gull, both relatively uncommon here.
  • Five species of owl – Barn Owl (including one in a palm tree on Telegraph Avenue near Derby), Great Horned Owl, Western Screech-Owl, Burrowing Owl and Northern Saw-whet Owl.

A final tally of species and individual birds will be available in February 2014.

Local birders to flock to annual Christmas count (12.13.13)
First local sighting brings flocks of birders to Berkeley (11.18.13)
Christmas Bird Count is not just for the birds (12.18.12)
Counting crows… and robins and warblers and… (12.20.09)

Want to learn how to spot and identify birds? Golden Gate Audubon offers free field trips every week, as well as Beginning Birding classes.  See www.goldengateaudubon.org.

Ilana DeBare is communications director of Golden Gate Audubon. 

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