Christmas Bird Count is not just for the birds

 Steve Grantholm, Steve Wiel and Janet Bodle look for birds at the annual Golden Gate Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count. Photo: Ilana DeBare

Janet Bodie, Rick Lewis and Steve Wiel look for birds at the Golden Gate Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count. Photo: Ilana DeBare

By Ilana DeBare

Maureen Lahiff treks across the UC campus every weekday for her job as a public health lecturer.

Last Sunday, she made that trek again but saw the campus in a whole new light –  as a place brimming with birds.

Lahiff was among 200 volunteers taking part in the 72nd annual Oakland Christmas Bird Count, run by the Golden Gate Audubon Society.

Part of a national Audubon tradition, the Oakland count covers a 177-square mile circle that stretches north to Point Isabel and south to the Oakland Airport. Five of the count’s 29 teams were assigned to sections of Berkeley, including the waterfront, Claremont Canyon, Tilden Park, UC, and central Berkeley.

California Thrasher near Claremont Canyon / Photo by Bob Stokstad

California Thrasher near Claremont Canyon. Photo: Bob Stokstad

Lahiff’s team was among them. Starting around 7 a.m. and continuing until dusk, her group bird-watched its way through Strawberry Canyon, the UC Botanical Garden, Codornices Park and the Rose Garden, as well as the main UC campus.

“You don’t think of the campus as a place to go birding, but we had some feasts of birds,” Lahiff said at Golden Gate Audubon’s post-count dinner in North Berkeley. “A flock of bushtits, Yellow-rumped Warblers, both Ruby-crowned and Gold-crowned Kinglets, and a lot of chickadees. There were Townsend’s Warblers, which are just spectacular with all that yellow and black.”

Black-and-white Warbler in the Cerritos Creek riparian strip across from the El Cerrito Plaza parking lot - Photo by Alan Krakauer

Black-and-white Warbler between Albany Hill and Ranch 99 market at Pacific East Mall Photo: Alan Krakauer

For Lahiff, birding the paths that she walks every day for work opened whole new vistas.

“You’re not just trying to get from one place to another,” she said. “You’re going slowly and taking time to look. It’s really an enrichment to look this way at a place where you work.”

Some CBC volunteers started the day as early as 2:30 a.m., braving the damp darkness in search of owls. (They found four Western Screech Owls in Claremont Canyon, plus five or six Saw-whet Owls in Oakland’s Redwood Park.)

By the time evening came again,  Audubon counters had spotted a total of 177 species – pretty typical for the Oakland count.

Many of these were “usual suspects” such as California Towhees and American Crows. Organizers proudly refer to the Oakland count area as “California Towhee Capital of the World.”

But there were also some less common sightings. Three Hermit Warblers – a relatively unusual bird for this area – were sighted at Vollmer Peak in the Berkeley Hills, the Tilden Botanical Garden, and a private backyard on Yolo Street that had four feeders and a deluge of songbirds.

Other notable local sightings included a Snow Goose near the soccer fields in Eastshore State Park, and a Clay-colored Sparrow at a feeder on Deakin Street.

Snowy Egrets / Photo by Alan Krakauer

Snowy Egrets. Photo: Alan Krakauer

Meanwhile, counters in Albany found a Ross’s Goose in a place even less associated with birding than the UC campus – the middle of Golden Gate Fields. It was sitting on one of the racetrack’s ponds with a bunch of other waterfowl and shorebirds.

“I really enjoy birding Golden Gate Fields,” said Kevin McKereghan, who came from San Francisco for the count. “It’s where we get half the really good birds we see.”

Among the intrepid counters was Berkeley Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, who has taken part in more than ten CBCs. One of her favorite moments of the day was watching an Osprey catch a fish over Lake Temescal.

“The Osprey kept circling with its beautiful call, almost like it was saying, ‘Check me out, I got a fish!’” she said.

Red-throated Loon / Photo by Alan Krakauer

Red-throated Loon. Photo: Alan Krakauer

This year is the 113th year of national Audubon Christmas Bird Counts. Along with providing a fun annual ritual for birders, the counts are an important source of scientific data on trends in bird populations. Researchers are currently using CBC data to help predict how climate change will affect bird populations.

Interested in learning to bird? Golden Gate Audubon offers birding classes and over 100 free bird walks each year. See http://www.goldengateaudubon.org for information.

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