Christmas bird count finds owls, otters and dry, happy birders

Counting birds at Aquatic Park, part of the 79th annual Oakland Christmas Bird Count that took place on Dec. 15. Photo: Ilana DeBare

John Harris gathered with a half dozen other birders along Aquatic Park as the dark sky trickled into pink. “There go the crows!” he called, as more than 100 crows winged out over the lake from their overnight roosting trees.

With the dawn and the crows, the 79th annual Oakland Christmas Bird Count had begun.

Over 250 bird lovers fanned out through Berkeley, Oakland and adjacent cities on Sunday as part of the count, the longest-running community science initiative in the world.

The Oakland count, organized by Golden Gate Audubon Society and covering a 15-mile circle, is one of 2,600 such local counts mounted by Audubon chapters throughout the hemisphere each winter.


Participants were painfully aware of studies documenting a decline of 3 billion birds across North America since 1970.

This year’s event carried special weight for many participants, who were painfully aware of recent studies documenting a decline of 3 billion birds across North America since 1970, and predicting that two-thirds of the continent’s species are at risk of extinction from climate change.

“It’s getting harder and harder to find Loggerhead Shrikes, one of the birds in trouble in our area,” said Bob Lewis,  co-leader of the Oakland count for the past 17 years. That particular species, a bird that relies on open grassy areas, wasn’t found locally in either last year’s count or this one.

But such overarching worries didn’t mute the exhilaration of count participants or their relief at having a dry, sunny day. Thanks to good weather and thorough coverage, the count reported a record high 184 species, seven more than the average over the past 20 years.

The team covering the UC Berkeley campus documented a whopping 152 Anna’s Hummingbirds. The Lake Merritt team found 223 Cedar Waxwings. John Harris’s group along the Berkeley waterfront was delighted to sight two Peregrine Falcons carrying off an American Coot — while being chased by another bird of prey, a Merlin. They also spotted one of the beloved Burrowing Owls that winter in Cesar Chavez Park, and spent time pointing it out to intrigued passersby.


“There were lots of people out at Cesar Chavez Park so we had a big PR event with the Burrowing Owl there,” Harris reported.

While birds were the focus of the day, other species made guest appearances: three coyotes on San Pablo Ridge, plus river otters and a mass of ladybugs in Tilden Park.

After the count, participants gathered at Northbrae Community Church for the traditional compilation dinner where they shared their findings and chose a Best Bird of the day. This year’s winner was a Tufted Puffin sighted in the Bay by counters on a boat off the Alameda shoreline. (Tufted Puffins —seabirds that breed on the Farallones and winter on the open ocean — aren’t usually found within the sheltered waters of the Bay. Participants speculated that this one may have been lured in by a herring run.)

Other uncommon sightings included a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher on Vollmer Peak, a Black-throated Gray Warbler in Berkeley and a Tropical Kingbird staring down an Orchard Oriole in Alameda.

The 2019 count was the last one for compilers Bob Lewis and Dave Quady, Berkeley residents who have been leading the event as volunteers since 2003. During their time, participation in the Oakland count doubled and, from 2014 through 2017, it mobilized more people in the field than any other count in the world. (In 2018, Oakland was narrowly edged out by Victoria, BC.)

“How many species you get depends on where a count is,” Quady said at the dinner. “If you want a lot of species, you need to be somewhere warm, on the water, and have a lot of habitats. We can’t control that. But what we can control is how many people take part in the count and have a great time and come back next year.”

Final numbers for the 2019 Oakland count will be available in several weeks on the Golden Gate Audubon Society website.