Local Christmas bird count turns up rarities in Berkeley

A Lapland Longspur: one of several birds rarely seen in Berkeley that was spotted during this year’s local Christmas Bird Count on Dec. 17. Photo: Rick Lewis

Berkeley has some unusual flying visitors this holiday season – and they aren’t reindeer.

The 77th annual Oakland Christmas Bird Count took place on Sunday, and it uncovered some species in Berkeley that are rare in the Bay Area.

The team of birders counting at the Berkeley Marina found a Lapland Longspur – a sparrow-sized bird that summers in the Arctic and typically winters in the northern Midwest.

Meanwhile, birders counting by boat near the Berkeley Pier found a Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel and a Pomerine Jaeger, two seabirds that are typically found on the open ocean rather than within the sheltered waters of San Francisco Bay. Similarly, two ocean-dwelling Rhinoceros Aukets were found near Ballena Bay in Alameda.

“I guess it has to do with the recent (heavy) winds blowing things in from the ocean,” said Bob Lewis, one of the two volunteer coordinators of the Oakland count.

A Fork-tailed Storme-Petrel, a seabird that is typically found on the open ocean rather than within the sheltered waters of San Francisco Bay. Photo: Mark Rauzon

The Christmas Bird Count is a national Audubon tradition that has expanded throughout the Western Hemisphere. It was first launched in 1900 by conservationist Frank Chapman as a more humane alternative to a traditional Christmastime bird hunt. Over 75,000 volunteers collect data on the number and species of birds in their communities — invaluable information for scientists seeking to understand changes in bird populations.

The Oakland count, which covers a 15-mile-wide circle that stretches from Albany to Lafayette and Alameda, has the honor of drawing more field participants than any other Christmas Bird Count in the world.

This year, over 320 people signed up for the count – a new local record that is likely to keep Oakland in the top slot.

Some started looking for owls in the East Bay hills as early as 2:30 a.m. Others gathered at daybreak in parks and along the shoreline, where the rising sun provided a stunning red backdrop to silhouetted ducks on the water.

Lake Merritt with ducks at sunrise. Photo: Bob Toleno

In the evening, participants gathered at Northbrae Community Church in Berkeley to share results and celebrate a beautiful, sunny day in the field. The preliminary tally came to a total of 175 species – within the normal range for the Oakland count – but that is expected to rise as additional reports trickle in over the next few days.

“How many species you see depends a lot on where you’re located,” Dave Quady, who coordinates the count with Bob Lewis, told the crowd at the dinner. “What doesn’t depend on where you’re located is the number of people who come out to count. We had more people in the field than any other count in 2014, 2015, and 2016. Thanks to you all for that!”

In addition to number of field participants, the Oakland count last year surpassed all other CBCs in the numbers of six species:

  • Greater Scaup (a duck species that winters in the Bay Area and forms big flocks on the open Bay) – 24,096
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet – 850
  • Chestnut-backed Chickadee – 800
  • California Towhee – 784
  • Hermit Thrush – 204
  • Great Horned Owl – 69

This year, participants expressed concern about possibly declining numbers of scaup. The CBC boat that covers the Oakland and Alameda portions of the Bay spotted 14,000 Greater Scaup rafting on the open water last year – but none this year. (Some other CBC teams did see big flocks of scaup; the total number will be available with other final count results in several weeks.)

A California Towhee leaping. The Oakland bird count consistently finds more California Towhees than any other count in the world. Photo: Rick Lewis.

Another species of concern was Loggerhead Shrike, which has been present only in single digits in recent years and which may not have been sighted at all this year.

“It’s been characterized as a ‘common species in steep decline,’ and is a California State Species of Special Concern,” Quady said. “Only once since 2007 have we recorded more than two individuals, usually near the Oakland Airport. This is the first year it’s been missed entirely. We hope the miss proves to be an anomaly.”

In addition to the stray seabirds, other sightings of note included a Ross’s Goose near San Leandro Bay in Oakland, Snow Geese near the Bay Bridge and at Lafayette Reservoir, Surfbirds on the Emeryville shoreline and at Point Isabel, a Common Murre off the end of the Berkeley Pier, a House Wren at the Tilden Park golf course, and Nashville and Black-throated Gray Warblers on Bay Farm Island.

Shorebirds on the old pier behind Golden Gate Fields. Photo: Alan Krakauer

A team birding in downtown San Leandro had the thrill of watching a Cooper’s Hawk catch and devour a pigeon in the McDonald’s parking lot. The Tilden Park teams were delighted to spot river otters at Jewel Lake and Lake Anza, and the San Pablo Reservoir team found both otters and foxes.

For more photos and information on the count, visit Golden Gate Audubon. Next year’s Oakland CBC will take place on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2018.

Bird counters at work in Albany on Sunday, Dec. 17. Photo: Alan Krakauer

Curious about the birds around you? Come on one of the 160+ free bird walks sponsored by Golden Gate Audubon Society each year. All ages and levels of experience are welcome. View upcoming trips. Or sign up for a birding class: A new session of Beginning Birding will start in spring 2018. For general information visit Golden Gate Audubon.

Ilana DeBare is Communications Director at Golden Gate Audubon Society.