Jack Gedney and Maureen Lahiff search for birds on the UC Berkeley campus during Sunday’s inaugural Cal vs Stanford Big Game birding competition. Photo: Peter Maiden
Jack Gedney and Maureen Lahiff search for birds on the UC Berkeley campus during Sunday’s inaugural Cal vs Stanford Big Game birding competition. Photo: Peter Maiden

Ten birding Bears! Four song-filled hours! Sixty-four species! But alas, no victory.

The Berkeley birding team organized by Golden Gate Audubon Society fell eleven species short of their cross-bay rivals on Sunday morning, in the first ever Cal-versus-Stanford Big Game birding competition.

The Stanford team spotted 75 species to Berkeley’s 64. Berkeley may have been undone in part by the humble sparrow.

“We had a lot of sparrows,” said Rob Furrow, a Santa Clara Valley Audubon member who led the Stanford team. “White-throated Sparrows, Grasshopper Sparrows, Lark Sparrows, Savannah Sparrows.”

Cal team members watch a hawk in flight by the Campanile. Photo: Peter Maiden

The Cal-Stanford competition was organized as part of Audubon’s annual Birdathon fundraising month. On the Berkeley side, it attracted participants with a wide range of connections to the university and an equally wide range of birding experience.

The Cal team included undergraduate and graduate students, alumni, faculty, and staff. One participant was a newcomer to birding who used a borrowed pair of binoculars. Others were veteran birders who had been through Golden Gate Audubon’s Master Birder class and could recognize hidden birds by their song.

The count started at 7 a.m. on Sunday April 13, when the crowds of visitors from Cal Day on Saturday were a distant memory. The campus was silent – except for layers upon layers of bird song.

“That singing is a robin, right?” called out Kathy Durkin just after 7, as she and other team members stepped quietly through the UC Botanical Gardens. “And that song’s a House Finch… and there’s a Golden-crowned Sparrow!”

Chris Carmichael, Associate Director of the Garden, used his year-round experience there to guide the team to spots favored by particular species. Meanwhile, Maureen Lahiff, a lecturer at the School of Public Health, led participants across the central part of campus.

Among the day’s highlights? A Red-shouldered Hawk perched over Strawberry Creek. Two Anna’s Hummingbird nests. A Great Blue Heron flying past the Campanile – a common bird along the shoreline, but not so common on campus.

“It’s wonderful that we get birds from the size of an Anna’s Hummingbird to a Great Blue Heron,” said Lahiff. “You can come here — on an Audubon trip or on your own – and with even just an hour, find over a dozen species.”

Tiffany Wong, an undergraduate who is studying environmental science, said the morning made her more aware of the birds around her.

“I haven’t birded intensively like this, which was really cool,” she said. “Now I’m more aware of what birds could be here. I’ll be in less of a hurry to get to class.”

Anna’s Hummingbird on its nest in the UC Botanical Garden. Photo: John Colbert
Anna’s Hummingbird on its nest in the UC Botanical Garden. Photo: John Colbert

Jack Gedney, a 2012 graduate who owns a Wild Birds Unlimited store in Marin County, said he too had his eyes opened. “Most of these I’d seen before, but you don’t get a lot of Song Sparrows and Purple Finches. We were doing this much more thoroughly than looking around in the odd minutes between classes.”

Despite the loss to Stanford, team leader Lahiff saw the day as a success.

She was thrilled with the diversity of the team. And she was proud that they found more species in four hours than Audubon volunteers saw all day on campus during the Christmas Bird Count in December.

And she was already starting to think about a rematch next April.

“No matter what the score was, we’re all winners,” she said.

It’s not too late to support the Cal team with a donation to Golden Gate Audubon’s Birdathon! All proceeds benefit GGAS’ conservation and environmental education programs. Click here to learn more and donate. 

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.

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