Urban Nature

Counting Birds, Who are Counting on Humanity

February 8, 2019

Every winter tens of thousands of migrating birds descend down the Pacific Flyway to visit the lagoons and shorelines of Alameda. And every winter several dozen birders meet them there to gather data on bird populations in one of the largest, oldest citizen science projects in America: the Christmas Bird Count.

I had never been before, but something about the idea of the CBC captivated me this year. It had been a dark and depressing 12 months. The world has been on fire or freezing, and with this climate change has come increased death and destruction. A remedy universally agreed upon is to spend time in nature. And to pay attention, while you are there, to what you are observing in the hopes of becoming part of the solution. As Cornell University climatologist Toby Ault observes in Citizen Science, Mary Ellen Hannibal’s insightful exploration of nonexperts’ contributions to science, “The dialog goes both ways.” Or as Ault explains, “Citizen Science is a research tool and an apparatus for monitoring, but it is also a way to cultivate a scientifically oriented society.”

Arriving in Alameda, I found myself in the capable hands of expert Leah Norwood, who has been participating in CBCs since 1989 and is familiar with the island’s birds. We stood at Robert Crown Memorial State Beach, staring through a scope at a snowy plover, a small whitish bird huddled in a tiny depression in the sand. “A footprint in the sand, that’s where they hang out,” Norwood said, explaining that a colony of snowy plovers has taken to overwintering on a stretch of Alameda’s busiest beach.

Snowy plovers once nested on beaches along the entire Pacific Coast, but now are federally listed as threatened, primarily due to loss of nesting habitat and predation. “It’s astounding we have these sweet things in this metropolis,” Norwood said.

A section of Crown Beach is closed to protect overwintering snowy plovers. (Photo by Sarah Phelan)

The early morning high tide began to ebb, uncovering mud flats rich in worms. We left the main beach and hauled scopes along a rough shoreline trail that runs toward Bay Farm Island Bridge. A curlew probed the mud with a long, sickle-shaped bill, and Norwood observed that, in three decades of doing Christmas Bird Counts, she’s noticed decreasing numbers of birds. “But the species count here is still excellent,” she said.

Norwoods’ observations raised questions that I turned over in my mind until several days later, when I had time to ask Cindy Margulis, executive director of the Golden Gate Audubon Society, which organizes the annual Bay Area count, and Leora Feeney, a long-time Golden Gate Audubon member who has coordinated the CBC on Alameda’s main island for more than 30 years.

In the meantime, I was happy to join Norwood’s five-woman crew of birders, one of four sub-teams that covered the Alameda main island for the 2018 CBC. The teams’ ages ranged from early 20s to early 80s. The sub-team leaders were Norwood, Margulis, John Luther and Doug Henderson, and we all benefitted from the expertise of Bob Richmond.

As Feeney observed, some team members had considerably higher ability at identifying birds than others. But most, except for me, knew a lot about birds. Take Ardith Betts, an experienced birder who said she liked how the count contains an element of surprise. ”You never know what you are going to see,” she said. Catherine Lyons, an equally avid birder, agreed. “I know it sounds corny, but I love the idea of ordinary people coming out here to care about birds, pay attention to what’s going on, and do their bit,” Lyons  said.

Even if you don’t know about birds, the Christmas Bird Count pairs experts like Norwood with beginners like me to make sure the count is accurate. As a snowy egret sprinted past the curlew with impressive speed, we talked about what to look for to identify birds. “Size matters, whether a bird is big or small, and you have to learn your plumage and memorize which birds have which color of legs,” Betts said, as the snowy egret stirred up the mud with its distinctive bright yellow feet.

A large wave rippled towards the shore, startling the curlew, which lifted from the mud with a haunting cur-lee. A murmuration of sanderlings wheeled across the sky, flipping from silver to brown, as the birds twisted their bodies and changed direction in unison. “It’s like a single organism,” said Suzanne Good, an energetic birder who was toting a scope along the beach. As she spoke, a skein of brown pelicans flew low across the Bay.

“Many of these birds are getting out of the Arctic, where they breed and benefit from long days and lots of insects in summer,” Norwood said, noting that juvenile birds tend to do the commute first. “And they do it by instinct.”

“I know it sounds corny, but I love the idea of ordinary people coming out here to care about birds, pay attention to what’s going on, and do their bit.”

An hour later, we gathered in a parking lot behind the AMF Bowling Alley on Shore Line Drive. The lot backs onto a lagoon, which Norwood explained, is a good place to find black-crowned night herons, elusive medium-sized herons that stand quietly by the waterside at night, waiting for fish or crustaceans to swim by. But these nocturnal birds tend to roost by day, Norwood added, scanning the trees that overhung the lagoon for signs of birds. And there it was, a paint-like trail of white guano spattered across the tree’s lower leaves that led our eyes upward to a female night heron, who was hunched silently on the tree’s upper bough.

We spent the rest of the morning unearthing the bird secrets of Alameda’s extensive lagoon system. Standing on Grand Street overlooking a section of lagoon, we saw 30 double-crested cormorants on a floating boom. A gust of wind shook the boom, and the cormorants flushed onto the lagoon simultaneously in what Norwood called “a fabulous cormorant ballet.”

A little later, as we parked next to Alameda Hospital to explore another section of lagoon, a flock of cedar waxwings alighted on the branches of a red-leaved tree, their crested heads turning incessantly, before they continued on their way.

And shortly before noon, a dog walker came upon our team, as all six of us scanned the lagoon with our binoculars. “Does Alameda have an alligator problem?” he asked.

A long-threatened rain had arrived as Norwood and I headed for Ballena Bay, but it didn’t seem to spoil our counting opportunities. Almost immediately, Norwood spotted a handful of western meadowlarks, robin-sized birds with dazzling yellow breast feathers who were pecking in the rain for worms. And where Ballena Boulevard ends at the Ballena Bay Yacht Club we saw the most breathtaking sight of the day. We were sitting in Norwood’s car, with the windows open, so we could count birds despite the rain, which was suddenly coming down in sheets, when a red-tailed hawk rose up from the levee next to our window, holding a mouse in its talons. With the mouse still wiggling, the raptor set off across the increasingly choppy surface of the Bay.

When I checked in with Margulis and Feeney a few days after the count, they reported that Alameda’s main island registered 105 species and tallied 16,164 birds in total.

“It was a good showing,” Margulis said, noting that the Oakland Area CBC, of which Alameda main island is a sub-area, has had one of the highest volunteer participation rates in the country. “It was perhaps the highest in the world for field counters,” she said.

But the overall numbers for many bird species were indeed down from what was logged in previous years, Margulis added, explaining how you can see a good number of species of some kinds of birds but the individual counts of each of those species counted are much lower than normal. “For example, we might still see several kinds of diving ducks, but the counts of those species are much lower from one year to the next,” Margulis said, giving the hypothetical example of seeing 10,000 Scaup and 500 Scoter in one CBC, but only 2,000 Scaup and barely 100 Surf Scoter in the next. “And we did have a stormy afternoon so that makes finding songbirds more challenging, too, because they don’t present themselves easily flying around and singing happily but tend to hunker in cover when possible,” she said.

Feeney agreed that weather can have a significant impact on the CBC. “Much like humans, birds tend to be stiller in drenching rain conditions, and are going to be less likely to be detected by the humans who are out looking for them in such conditions,” she said

Feeney’s personal 2018 count included 1 long-tailed duck,18 snowy plovers, 9 wintering burrowing owls, and 24 horned larks. She said the Alameda main island CBC has seen some significant bird species and numbers change over the years. “Without solid evidence, it isn’t easy to explain why some birds have gone missing, but to witness reduced numbers without knowing why raises questions,” she said. “Having answers would help people to understand risks to wildlife and to themselves.”

Suzanne Good looks through a scope on Alameda’s main beach. (Photo by Sarah Phelan)

That’s where the birds need us. The more observers, the more evidence. But counting birds also benefits people. We gain that scientific literacy and we gain from the attention to the natural world.

“Everyone has a gateway bird, that one bird that first piques your interest,” Margulis said. “Perhaps it’s a song bird nesting in your back yard, a duck you help cross the street, or burrowing owl you see in the wild.”

Margulis said her interest was first sparked by working with parrots at Oakland Zoo, then attending a lecture on shoreline birds, and volunteering in the aftermath of the Bay’s 2008 oil spill.

For Norwood, it was a green heron along the Russian River. “It looked small, then stood up and was twice the size,” she said, recalling how she was driven to put a name to the bird.

For Feeney, it was her grandmother, who fed birds year round. She “made sure there was warm water to drink, at least in the morning, when water could freeze over night,” Feeney said. “I was amused that she fed the birds in winter before anyone else that might be at the house.”

About the Author

Sarah Phelan started counting bees a decade ago, while working as a journalist in San Francisco. It opened her eyes to the wider world.

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