Even the early birds chafe at a 2:30 a.m. start time. Nonetheless, no grumbling could be heard this past Sunday when three carloads of binocular wielders pulled up to the entrance of Redwood Regional Park, just east of Oakland. Shuffling up a paved path in the dark, the squad gathers around Dave Quady as he plays a Northern Saw-whet Owl recording on his smartphone. Sure enough, a real saw-whet responds within seconds, belting out a cadence of rapid-fire toots. “I’ve nearly always had one there,” says Quady, whose Honda Pilot sports a customized “Grey Owl” license plate. His hearing has been finicky in recent years, so he’s had to retire from teaching owling classes at the nearby Golden Gate Audubon chapter.
With one species on the books, the troops meander along a tree-lined creek. A Great Horned Owl announces its presence, along with a chorus of Western Screech-Owls and two more Northern Saw-whet Owls. “I like saw-whets,” Quady says to no one in particular. “There’s no owl you don’t like,” another birder quips back, her sense of humor undiminished by lack of sleep.
It’s a promising beginning to the 2017 Oakland Christmas Bird Count (CBC), which for three years running has had the most volunteers of any group (backyard feeder watchers excluded). In addition to smashing attendance records, the count always tallies an impressive array of birdlife. Sunday was no exception. Some 285 field observers fanned out across 29 areas in Oakland, California, and surrounding districts. By the time they reconvened for a giddy post-count dinner of Chinese food and wine, they’d detected at least 178 species and tens of thousands of individual birds. (The final results will be revealed in coming weeks.)
The data from Oakland will be combined with tallies from roughly 2,500 other CBCs in the Western Hemisphere to provide a sweeping snapshot of where avians winter. Yet not all CBCs are created equal. Taking place in the coldest and darkest time of year, some attract very few participants and spot very few species. (Certain Arctic counts have turned up no birds at all.) The Golden Gate Audubon Society’s Oakland tally has no such problems, though. This year, organizers were particularly excited about a Pomarine Jaeger, a Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel, two Rhinoceros Auklets, and a Lapland Longspur, all species they’d never recorded during the event before. Other rarities, Quady says, included a Common Gallinule, a Barn Swallow, a Black-throated Gray Warbler, and a Common Murre.
On the surface, the Oakland count’s popularity and success can be baffling. The city doesn’t resemble a conventional birder’s paradise. Rather, it looks downright dystopian, with freeways stretching in all directions and a massive port that’s one of the nation’s busiest. Look closely, however, and a staggering variety of habitats reveal themselves. On Sunday, birders scoped out a former naval air station, an international airport, and a tidal lagoon, as well as islands, beaches, mudflats, salt marshes, redwood groves, creeks, hilltops, manmade lakes, gardens, marinas, grasslands, and a dormant volcano. Two birding boats patrolled San Francisco Bay, and a team was even assigned to the Oakland Zoo, where it boarded a gondola to get a top-down view. “We scuffle for our birds,” says Su Cox, the zoo team’s co-leader. Among the 60 species her team spotted—not including captive residents—was a Cooper’s Hawk that nabbed a pigeon at a nearby McDonald’s parking lot.
Meanwhile, off the coast of the tiny island city of Alameda (population: 79,000), unseasonably large concentrations of fish brought in thousands of feasting gulls, cormorants, Surf Scoters, and Buffleheads. Local birders Patrick Guillemot, Angela Boyle, and Doug Henderson stand at the shoreline with the daunting task of attempting to count them. “They’re just dots without the binocs,” Boyle says. “And then they’re not staying still. They’re flying around.” They estimate 1,000 Buffleheads and 1,000 Surf Scoters, just from that one spot.
Later on at lunch, the bulk of the 14-member Alameda team gathers to share its findings. An Osprey sighting garners a fist pump from one participant, and the group coos over a report of 24 Snowy Plovers and five Greater White-fronted Geese. “I really like the community aspect, and there’s little bit of a competitive aspect as well,” Henderson says. “Plus, it’s a great excuse to be out all day.” He and his cohort then head back out to tick off some of the species they missed in the morning, including staple Black Oystercatchers and Red-winged Blackbirds. All told, more than 100 species are identified in Alameda.
In addition to stellar birds, the Oakland counters are usually spoiled by the mild Bay Area climate. While volunteers in Montauk, New York, encountered 25-degree weather and ice, it was 50 degrees and sunny in northern California. But Quady and Bob Lewis, who met while working together at Chevron Corp, get credit for the count’s popularity, too: They’ve voluntarily led the Oakland CBC for the past 15 years. “It pretty much runs like clockwork because these guys are so good at it,” Cindy Margulis, executive director of Golden Gate Audubon, says. “[They’ve] instituted a culture of both excellence and welcomeness.”
As part of their job, Quady and Lewis scout potential birding sites ahead of time, secure permission to visit off-limits areas, organize the 29 circles, do publicity, compile the number of species and individual birds, and prepare and update checklists. Throughout the year, they also guide field trips and teach classes like the “Master Birding” course at the California Academy of Sciences. The Oakland CBC is loaded with their former students. “They’re gods of birding in the East Bay, but without the corresponding egos,” says Angie Geiger, who cut short a business trip to Berlin to participate in this year’s CBC. Some of the participants join other counts, too, such as the one in nearby San Francisco, which will take place December 27.
East Bay birders are the lifeblood of the CBC; but at the same time, Quady and Lewis delight in bringing in newcomers. They like to boast about how they lead the nation in California Towhees, a common backyard bird that many locals feel comfortable identifying. They also take the community science aspect seriously. From the data they’ve amassed, they know that American Crow, Pygmy Nuthatch, and Wild Turkey populations have been skyrocketing in the Oakland area, and that Loggerhead Shrikes are disappearing. (This year’s count didn't turn up a single shrike.)
In the end, it all comes down to the numbers. “We look forward to it,” Lewis says. “It’s part of a game. How many birds will we see each year? How many participants will we get?”
And perhaps, most importantly, how many hours of sleep will they need once it’s all over?