An Oak Titmouse, one of the many species birders hope to spot on the Cal campus during Birding’s Big Game on April 13. Photo: Linda Tanner

“Go Bears! Spot that warbler!”

That’s a chant you’re unlikely to hear from the packed bleachers of Memorial Stadium during a Cal-Stanford football game.

But it’s a chant a certain group of enthusiasts will be mouthing silently to themselves on April 13, when Golden Gate Audubon Society faces off against Santa Clara Valley Audubon in Birding’s Big Game — the first-ever Cal vs Stanford birding competition.

As part of Golden Gate Audubon’s annual Birdathon fundraising month, a team of Cal faculty, staff, students, and community members will spend four hours combing the UC Berkeley campus to find as many bird species as possible. Their rivals in Santa Clara Valley Audubon will be doing the same thing on the Stanford campus.

Nun of your business
Nuns toss a Frisbee on the UC Berkeley campus which be the scene of competitive bird spotting on April 13. Photo: Chandler Fitzsimons

How many will they find — 40? 50? more?

“I’m aiming for 50 species,” said Maureen Lahiff, a lecturer in applied statistics at Cal’s School of Public Health who is leading the Golden Gate Audubon team. “I don’t know if we’ll get there, but we have a good shot.”

Mention the UC Berkeley campus to most people, and they’re more likely to picture undergrads tossing Frisbees, or activists gathering signatures, than wrens or flycatchers.

But the campus has been part of GGAS’ Christmas Bird Count circle for decades. It includes a variety of habitats such as creeks, oak hillsides, and redwood groves. It also has a birding jewel in the form of the U.C. Botanical Garden — 34 acres of trees, bushes and flowering plants from around the world.

One of the co-leaders of the Cal birding team on April 12 will be Chris Carmichael, Associate Director of the Botanical Garden, who leads quarterly bird walks there.  If anyone can find birds in the garden, it’s him.

“The nice thing about an April date is that we’ll have the end of wintering birds like Fox Sparrow, while migrants like Black-headed Grosbeaks and Hooded Orioles should also be back by then,” Carmichael said. “One of the treasures of the Garden is California Thrasher, which we find in the upper corner by the roses… The intersection of natural habitats and the (international) habitats that we create leads to a very rich birding area.”

Joining Lahiff and Carmichael as team leaders will be Erica Rutherford and John Colbert, a graduate of the Haas School of Business, who will focus on the parts of campus in Strawberry Canyon, but outside the Botanical Garden.

The recently formed Wildlife Society at UC Berkeley. Photo: courtesy Golden Gate Birder

They will all be birding with students from The Wildlife Society at Berkeley, a new student group that formed just this year.

“Supporting student birders is a big part of this,” Lahiff said. “We all want to get younger people involved in birding, and this is a good way to do this.”

Lahiff, a lifelong birder, has been spotting birds at UC Berkeley since she started working there about 20 years ago. When she walks across campus to her classroom, she finds crows, juncos, California Towhees and the occasional Oak Titmouse.

When students ask to speak with Lahiff after class, she says, “Let’s go outside to my office with the hummingbirds.” As they gather outside Morgan Hall, three or four Anna’s Hummingbirds are also often gathering in the Mexican sage around the building.

But why turn the mellow activity of birding into a competitive inter-collegiate rivalry?

As Lahiff said, part of the goal is to reach out to student birders. Another goal is to inspire all members of the Cal community to notice and appreciate the wildlife around them.

And then there’s supporting Golden Gate Audubon. Birdathon, which takes place throughout April, is GGAS’ biggest fundraiser of the year. Like in a walkathon, Lahiff and her team are asking people to sponsor them with a tax-deductible contribution to Golden Gate Audubon.

Finally, of course, there’s fun. And bringing birding glory home to Berkeley!

It might seem unlikely that anyone could beat a Cardinal at birding. But these are Bears who know their birds.

“I’m not a competitive person by nature,” said Chris Carmichael. “But… GO CAL!”

Want to support the Cal team in Birding’s Big Game? Click here to sponsor them with a tax-deductible contribution to Golden Gate Audubon Society.  

This post first appeared on Golden Gate Birder, the Golden Gate Audubon Society website, which has its headquarters on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley.

Ilana DeBare is Communications Director at Golden Gate Audubon. A former business reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle and a co-founder of the Julia Morgan School for Girls, she is the author of Where Girls Come First: The Rise, Fall and Surprising Revival of Girls’ Schools. She writes a personal blog at Midlife Bat Mitzvah.  

Cats go out to play but birds are not on their lunch menu (02.27.14)
First local sighting of Painted Redstart brings birders to Berkeley (11.18.13)
Christmas bird count is not just for birds (12.18.13)
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