Varied Thrush at Albany Hill. Photo: Alan Krakauer
Varied Thrush at Albany Hill. Photo: Alan Krakauer

The Bay Area’s welcome rainstorms let up for 24 hours on Sunday Dec. 14… just long enough for more than 200 birders to have a fabulous Oakland Christmas Bird Count.

Both novice and experienced birders fanned out over a 15-mile-wide circle including Oakland, Berkeley, Albany and neighboring cities, as part of Audubon’s 115th annual Christmas Bird Count.

Advance registration came to 287 people, a new record for the Oakland count, which was organized by the Golden Gate Audubon Society. Last year the Oakland count was the fourth largest in North America, and this year’s count is likely to be in the top five again.

Counting at Mills College / Photo by Ilana DeBare
Counting at Mills College. Photo: Ilana DeBare

With logistical planning that practically rivaled D-Day, count organizers Bob Lewis and Dave Quady sent 29 teams out into the field to tally birds on the bay and shoreline, on hilltops and in ravines, at cemeteries, college campuses, parking lots, city streets, and golf courses.

Then about 130 participants gathered to compare notes and celebrate over dinner at Northbrae Community Church in Berkeley.

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The preliminary, incomplete tally was 176 species — short of the Oakland record of 183, but still a respectable total.

Notable this year were large numbers of Acorn Woodpeckers and Varied Thrushes, species that are not typically common in much of the count area.

The dramatically colored orange-and-black Varied Thrush is a seasonal migrant that is usually found in dense, moist woodlands. But the Tilden Park North count team spotted 74 Varied Thrushes, while Tilden Park South spotted 118!

Anna's Hummingbird at Albany Bulb. Photo: Alan Krakauer
Anna’s Hummingbird at Albany Bulb. Photo: Alan Krakauer
Anna’s Hummingbird at Albany Bulb. Photo: Alan Krakauer

And clown-faced Acorn Woodpeckers are usually found in oak woodlands in the eastern Bay Area or Sierra foothills, rather than in the Berkeley flatlands.

“There were Acorn Woodpeckers all over,” count organizer Dave Quady said. “It’s probably due to some combination of a prolific breeding year and a shortage of acorns east of us.”

The Christmas Bird Count started in 1900 as a humane alternative to the traditional Christmas bird hunt. It is the largest “citizen science” event in the world, with participants generating data to help track and protect bird populations.

CBC data has become increasingly important in recent years due to climate change. The National Audubon Society relied on decades of CBC data in producing its landmark report this fall on North American Birds and Climate Change. The report predicted that half of the continent’s birds – 314 out of 588 species studied – will lose more than half of their current habitat by 2080 due to changes in temperature and rainfall.

Cedar Waxwings at Albany Hill / Photo by Alan Krakauer
Cedar Waxwings at Albany Hill. Photo: Alan Krakauer

During Sunday’s count, though, participants were less concerned with long-term population trends than with identifying that small bright shape flitting through thick branches.

“I’m thinking those are a flock of Bushtits, not Yellow-rumped Warblers,” called out Daniel Silva, a longtime birder but a first-time CBC participant who was counting at the Mills College parking lot early Sunday morning. “1, 2, 3, 4, 5… I’d say there are ten Bushtits!”

This year’s CBC didn’t offer up any individual avian celebrities like last year’s Painted Redstart in Berkeley. The familiar Tufted Duck at Lake Merritt hadn’t been seen yet this season, and didn’t turn up on Sunday either.

But there were plenty of memorable moments for count teams and individuals, such as:

  • A female Kingfisher eating a fish at Lake Merritt.
  • An Osprey over Lake Temescal, and two at San Leandro Bay.
  • Lots of owls… Western Screech, Great Horned, Long-eared, Northern Saw-whet, Barn, and Burrowing.
  • Seventeen Snowy Plovers in Alameda, and one at Middle Harbor Shoreline Park too.
  • A Peregrine Falcon grabbing a Northern Shoveller in Alameda.
  • A Bald Eagle and Golden Eagle in Lafayette.
  • Sixty-nine White Pelicans at San Pablo Reservoir, along with a family of six river otters.
  • Two Barn Swallows in Alameda — the only such sighting in the Oakland count circle in the past 40 years.
  • Birding by golf cart at Sequoyah Country Club… and then meeting an unusual red-hued seasonal migrant there.

At the compilation dinner, Bob Lewis noted the presence of a new species on the count list for the first time — Ridgway’s Rail.

“This is the first time we’ve ever seen a Ridgway’s Rail!” he announced.

And then added, for anyone who had missed the news from last summer, “It’s the same old Clapper Rail. It just got a new name.”

Male and female Wood Ducks at Lake Temescal / Photo by Doug Mosher
Male and female Wood Ducks at Lake Temescal. Photo: Doug Mosher
Male and female Wood Ducks at Lake Temescal. Photo: Doug Mosher

Next year’s CBC — the 75th Oakland count — will be held on Sunday Dec. 20, 2015. Both beginning and experienced birders are welcome, as well as people who want to count birds at their own backyard feeders. Check the Golden Gate Audubon web page in fall 2015 for sign-up information.

Climate change spells trouble for Berkeley birds (09.10.14)
Counting crows: Why are there so many in Berkeley? (03.28.14) 
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Lynxes of the bird world: Cooper’s hawks nest in Berkeley (04.18.13)
The mystery and thrill: Shorebirds enjoy winter in Berkeley (03.21.13)
Sitting on the dock of the bay: Birds throng Berkeley pier 02.28.13)
Rare bluebird sightings bring happiness in a Berkeley park (08.07.12)

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