A brown pelican spotted during Golden Gate Audubon’s annual Christmas Bird Count. Photo: Alan Krakauer
A brown pelican spotted during Golden Gate Audubon’s annual Christmas Bird Count. Photo: Alan Krakauer

Emilie Strauss peered across Lake Anza and divided up the watery territory by species. “David is counting coots, Mark is doing mallards, who wants to do Pied-billed Grebes?” she called out.

It was just after dawn on Sunday, Dec. 20, and the rosy sky over the lake heralded a welcome break in the rain for the 75th annual Oakland Christmas Bird Count.

Sponsored by Golden Gate Audubon Society, the Oakland CBC covers a 15-square-mile circle that includes Berkeley and the Tilden Park area where Strauss and her team were counting.

Counting birds at the Martin Luther King shoreline. Photo: Rick Lewis

The Oakland count was recently recognized as having the largest number of field observers of any of the 2,400+ Christmas Bird Counts in the world. Oakland drew 257 people into the field in 2014, one more than Santa Barbara. Participation looked strong in 2015 too, with more than 300 people signing up in advance to take part.

Birders fanned out in 29 teams that ranged from Tilden Park, the Berkeley waterfront, and the UC Berkeley campus, to Oakland, Alameda, Lafayette — and even two boats counting birds on the open waters of San Francisco Bay.

Although tallies from the various count teams were still trickling in on Dec. 22, the preliminary total was 175 species – down slightly from the 2014 total of 180, but a respectable number for a rainy day, when many birds are hunkered down and hard to spot.

It was a dramatic change from the first year of the Oakland count – 1938, when three participants spent 9 ½ hours in the field and found 78 species.

A Hutton’s Vireo spotted on Albany Hill. Photo: Alan Krakauer
A Hutton’s Vireo spotted on Albany Hill. Photo: Alan Krakauer
A Surf Scoter. Photo: Glen Tepke

Highlights of the day included some birds that are not usually found in the Oakland count area, such as a Long-tailed Duck near the Oakland Airport, a male Black-headed Grosbeak at a feeder near Claremont Canyon, and Red Knots (a species of shorebird) along the Berkeley and Albany waterfront.

The official Best Bird of the count was Red Crossbill, a finch species with distinctly crossed tips to its bill, last reported here in 1996. Two crossbills were found on the St. Mary’s College campus in Moraga, and another 15 were found in Leona Heights in Oakland.

Birders at Aquatic Park. Photo: Nancy Johnston

Birds were hardly the only sightings of note. The Orinda team found two coyotes; the San Leandro Bay team found a red fox on the golf course near Oakland Airport; the Lake Temescal team found a river otter at 7 a.m.; and several teams were delighted to come across flourishing stands of colorful mushrooms.

“They’re hallucinogenic, but they make you throw up,” one of Emilie Strauss’s team members said, stopping to point out an orange mound of “laughing jim” (Gymnopilus junonius ) mushrooms in Tilden Park.

On the down side, this was the second year in which no Tricolored Blackbirds were reported in the Oakland count circle. This species is in sharp decline, with its population dropping by 64% in the last six years. Audubon California is pushing to have “trikes” added to the California endangered species list; the state Fish & Game Commission is currently considering granting it permanent status on that list.

“The Tricoloreds blinked out last year, and it looks like they’re gone here,” count coordinator Bob Lewis told participants sadly at the compilation dinner after the count at Northbrae Community Church in Berkeley.

The Oakland count drew a mix of both experienced and novice birders, some of whom have participated for decades, and some who were counting for the first time. In addition to participants in the field, about 40 people took part by counting birds in their backyards.

Next year’s count will take place on Dec. 18, 2016.

Golden Gate Audubon Society offers birding classes as well as free bird walks throughout the year. The next Beginning Birding class starts on Jan. 26, and includes five Tuesday afternoon classroom sessions and five Saturday morning field trips. The next Advanced Beginning Birding starts on Jan. 21, including six Wednesday evening classroom sessions and six Sunday morning field trips. Both classes take place at the Ed Roberts Campus, across from Ashby BART.

For class information and registration, see the classes page of the Golden Gate Audubon website. For information on free bird walks, see the GGAS field trips page.

At 2014 Christmas bird count, no rain, much fun (12.18.14)
Local birders to flock to annual Christmas count (12.13.13)
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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