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Finding Feathered Friends in Oakland

Published December 21, 2010 on The Bay Citizen

Early Sunday morning in the drizzling rain, a small group of people is standing on the shore of Lake Merritt peering out onto the lake through binoculars. They are birdwatchers participating in the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count— the group’s annual tally of how many different species of bird are living in the United States. Decked out in a blue hooded raincoat and tall rubber boots, Neil Whitehouse, one of the leaders for the Lake Merritt section of the count, turns and says, “There is one duck we are looking for before we start the count—the Tufted Duck.”

Whitehouse explains that the Tufted Duck is rare in the Lake Merritt area, but there have been some recent sightings of this bird; it’s medium sized, all black except for its white flanks and it has a small pony-tail of feathers coming out the back of its head. However, the bird counters’ task is not easy. “It looks like every other duck,” Whitehouse says with a sigh as he scans the lake, “and its tuft has mostly disappeared.” As the counters stand and gaze at the slate-colored water, hundreds of ducks float, bob and dive for food.

This weekend marked the 70th anniversary of the Oakland bird count, which is sponsored by Golden Gate Audubon—the local chapter of the Audubon Society, which works to protect Bay Area birds and restore their wild habitats. From dawn until sunset, nearly 200 birder volunteers fanned out across nearly 180 square miles of Oakland to count as many bird species as possible in one day. The goal of the bird count is to compile data about the species of birds living in the area to better understand the status and health of their populations.

As ducks quack and geese fly by honking, the Lake Merritt group stares at the water for a little while longer, but when no Tufted Duck appears, they decide to begin counting other birds. “So, who wants to start?” Whitehouse says. “I’ll take the Ruddy Duck and the Golden Eye.” He assigns everyone else a list of birds to look for. One volunteer is appointed to count the two species of scaups, which are black and white ducks with light colored bills. They’re the most difficult birds to tally since they are so numerous. With his task at hand, the volunteer efficiently sets to work—looking through his binoculars, counting silently and writing down the numbers in his small notebook.

The rain pours down, but the count goes on. Throughout the day, these birders will circumnavigate the lake, examining all the different nooks and channels, searching for Buffleheads, loons, herons and the elusive Tufted Duck. They will also go to the ponds around Laney College, the Lake Merritt estuary and parts of the Fruitvale area. “But the lake is the main thing,” says Whitehouse. For the next eight hours they count, then after nightfall they reunite with the rest of the Oakland bird counters at the Christmas Bird Count Dinner to announce what they’ve seen.

The Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count first began on Christmas day in 1900. Birdwatchers from 25 areas in the northeast United States decided to create an alternative to competitively hunting birds and small mammals, which was a typical Christmas day activity at the time. Instead, they got together and identified, counted and recorded all the birds they saw. These types of bird counts began in San Francisco in 1915 and then in Oakland in 1938 and have been going nearly continuously since then—only three years were missed during World War II. Now, thousands of U.S. cities take part in the annual count along with several other areas internationally.

This count has become one of the world’s most extensive databases of bird population trends. With this data, conservationists are able to document the decline of species, create “watch lists” to monitor rare and endangered birds, use the information to get the government to pass legislation such as 1918′s Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which made it illegal to kill migratory birds, and predict the impact of climate change on bird’s health and habitat. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency uses the Christmas Bird Count research as one of its 24 indicators of climate change impacts, since increases or declines in populations may show certain areas are becoming more or less hospitable to certain species.

“In the Bay Area, we’ve lost 90 percent of the wetlands since 1950,” says Mike Lynes, the conservation director at Golden Gate Audubon. “For managing wildlife, there’s the need for long term data sets to understand the natural environment as well as the human effect.” In addition to following the tradition of the original Christmas Bird Count, people at Golden Gate Audubon say that it’s advantageous to count birds in the winter because the majority of the birds found in the Bay Area at this time of year are yearlong residents, although there are also a few winter visitors. This helps naturalists get a gauge on the size of the area’s permanent population.

The Oakland bird count actually extends beyond the City of Oakland and covers 29 different areas, from Redwood Regional Park to the Oakland Airport to the Berkeley Marina. Some birders even go out onto the bay in kayaks and boats to try to catch a glimpse of offshore birds. The Lake Merritt section is in the very center of this entire Oakland count. Last year, out of 2,100 counts throughout North America, the Oakland count finished in 27th place in terms of species diversity after recording 175 species on the count list.

On Sunday afternoon, as the rain keeps falling and nighttime approaches, the weary birders file into the Northbrae Community Church in Berkeley for the Christmas Bird Count dinner. They warm up, eat lasagna, drink beer and wine and discuss the birds they saw throughout the day. One group says they saw the bright orange-breasted Baltimore Oriole while others saw the black-headed Peregrine Falcon. Both types of birds are uncommon for Northern California at this time of year and are a treat for birdwatchers to see. But the big question was whether the Lake Merritt group finally saw the Tufted Duck.

“No,” says Whitehouse dejectedly.

“We spent a full quarter of the day looking for that bird,” says Lina Prairie, the other leader of the Lake Merritt group. “Hours and hours.”

This isn’t all bad news though—since other birders had spotted the Tufted Duck during the last week, it will still be reported on the final count list. The Lake Merritt group was the only group to see a Barrow’s Goldeneye, a black and white duck with a large round head, and also tallied a record number of scaup—over 3,000 of them. Whitehouse joked that the reason they couldn’t find the Tufted Duck was because they were too busy counting scaup. This Lake Merritt group also counted 79 different species this year, beating last year’s count of 68.

But overall, the Oakland bird count totals stayed close to last year’s count with the preliminary total adding up to 176 species. They didn’t spot two species that made previous years’ lists–Redhead and Western Screech-Owl–however, there were sightings of a couple birds they didn’t see in previous years, including the Baltimore Oriole, Yellow-billed Loon and Violet-green Swallow. Once Golden Gate Audubon has compiled all of the data from this year it will be sent to the National Audubon Society to be added to the final list. To see all of the national Christmas Bird Count data from 1900 to present go to the Audubon Society’s web page.

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