If you happened to pass by the Elsie Roemer Bird Sanctuary on Alameda’s south shore on Sunday, you may have mistaken the gathering on the observation deck as a bird-watching class.
Most of these birding enthusiasts, however, would be better described as birding class graduates. Carrying binoculars, spotting scopes, a clipboard, and bird reference books (that mostly were pulled out for novices like me), they were participating in the annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) organized by the Golden Gate Audubon Society.
Teams of bird watchers fanned out across Alameda and the East Bay (called the Oakland count area) during the one-day marathon that is part of a nationwide Audubon-sponsored event. San Francisco’s bird count takes place on Dec. 27.
While the total number of birds tallied during the count helps to fill out the picture, the main goal of the day was to identify as many different species of bird as possible.
This information, when added to the Audubon Society’s national database, helps researchers understand if any trends are emerging, such as birds showing up where they’ve never been seen before, or disappearing from their normal range.
Generated entirely by volunteers, these data are a crucial part of this country’s natural history monitoring database. CBC data has been used in reports predicting the effects of climate change on bird populations.
Bird spotting on the wildlife refuge
The team that I was on started the day with a rare opportunity to visit the wildlife refuge at Alameda Point. Our team was led by Alameda resident Leora Feeney, of Friends of the Alameda Wildlife Refuge, and John Luther, one of the most experienced bird watchers in the state.
Linda Vallee was responsible for tallying results on her clipboard list of bird species as they were reported. I attempted to photograph some of the birds, but in most cases they didn’t remain stationary long enough. I said to John as I spotted a bird on a distant branch, “What’s that?” Before I could move my camera, John glances up and says, “Sharp-shinned Hawk,” as it flew away. Oh well.
The next thing I hear is John making shshsheeee-shshsheeee-shshsheeee sounds as we look at a thick stand of trees. “What’s that supposed to do?” I asked. “It’s supposed to arouse curiosity among any birds that might be hidden within the tree canopy by sounding like a bird in distress,” he said. But sound effects are not what John relies on to spot birds. It’s his experienced eye. “There’s a Common Loon...and...it just went under...there it is...come on around...a Red-throated Loon,” he would say. “White-crowned Sparrows – two.” Having watched birds in every California county over the last 50 years, John has it down.
One thing you learn about bird counting etiquette, if you’ve never been to one of these events, is: “Don’t chit chat with someone staring intently through a scope.” They could be trying to systematically count hundreds of birds by adding groups of 5 or 20 or 100 in their head as they keep landmark references in focus. At one stop, attention turned to Breakwater Island on the other side of the Alameda Point Channel where an unusually high number of California brown pelicans (for this time of year) were roosting amongst the cormorants. Leora counted 304 pelicans.
We continued on around the refuge, seeing Burrowing Owls, Killdeer, a Horned Lark, a Peregrine Falcon perched on a fence, and a much smaller falcon not commonly seen around Alameda Point called a Merlin. We saw many other birds, with a lot of groups darting about, landing, skip skip, pick pick, and on their way.
The biggest surprise came as we were looking at the thick stand of willows at the north central boundary of the refuge. There, just inside the branches was a Great Horned Owl, a bird that Leora said she had never seen in eight years of doing twice-monthly bird surveys on the refuge.
Even more surprising for me was how close I was able to get to the owl. As I circled around for better visibility, the owl slowly turned its head 180 degrees, appearing to fear nothing as we made eye contact within a dozen feet of each other.
On the way to our lunch break, we stopped at the tip of Ballena Isle and checked out a tightly packed flock of Dunlins sitting on a barge, and 19 Yellowlegs using only one of their legs to stand on a pier.
Flying around Alameda
In the afternoon, several teams joined forces and convoyed around Alameda to various stopping points to get out and walk around searching for birds. One of Sunday’s participants was Alameda resident Kim Wallace who took part in her first CBC and said it helped her notice much more than birding on her own. "I'm not likely to stay out all day by myself," she said. “And it's so much better with more eyes. I saw things I wouldn't see by myself. There were nuthatches in a tree, which I had walked past without noticing when I was on my own."
On our way to Lincoln Park we stopped at the corner of Liberty and Eastshore to walk around the neighborhood looking for a Mountain Bluebird that had been spotted there three days before. Pursuit of rarely-seen birds is a powerful motivator, even if it’s a long-shot.
Going on one of these around-town bird spotting missions will give you a much deeper appreciation of the variations in the local landscape, along with the wildlife that is present. Lincoln Park has old growth trees that offer unique spotting opportunities.
I’ve never before walked from tree to tree in Lincoln Park staring up into the canopy. It’s a good thing, because without the accompaniment of a bird expert like the ones I was with, I wouldn’t have had much to report. “There’s a Varied Thrush,” said one. “Where?” I said. “If you follow the main trunk up, then over on that branch – no not that one, the one down and over – you will see it. Wait, it just moved.” I finally got a photo of half a thrush that looked so dramatic against the gray bark with its orange plumage that it appeared ornamental. It’s a bird that is uncommonly seen in Alameda.
We stopped for a while at the bird sanctuary on Shoreline Drive where one of the teams started their day. From there we went out to the Big Whites neighborhood of Alameda Point. Landscape-wise it was like we just arrived in Illinois, with the variety of trees and the atypical-for-California lack of fences blocking passage between many of the houses. We saw a Coopers Hawk that blended into a leafless tree, along with a variety of small birds that almost required being a bird to keep up with.
Ardith Betts, also of Alameda, has been to a number of CBCs. She expressed the sentiment of many of the Christmas bird counters. "I like the recurring nature of it," she said. "Going at the same time every year allows you to track the changes. And I like the company -- there are four or five people I see once a year on CBC day. These are people I met when I started the count. They may live in Alameda, but the only time I see them is at the count."
The preliminary total for all species sighted in the Oakland count area on Sunday (the 15 mile circle that is centered at Lake Merritt and includes Alameda) was 177 species. According to GGAS Communications Director Ilana DeBare, “That is pretty much in line with a normal ‘good’ year. There were 29 teams total, with well over 100 participants.”
More photos are on the Alameda Point Environmental Report.