Breakneck Birding

One city, six hours, 100 birds: A birdathon gets competitive.


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Mark Rauzon barely had one foot out of the car when he spotted a bird. “Black Phoebe!” he called out to his teammates who were still fumbling with seatbelts.

It was 10 a.m., and Rauzon’s crew had just pulled onto a shady residential cul-de-sac near Highway 13. This was their second stop in a mad dash across Oakland to document as many birds as possible—aiming for 100 species in six hours.

One hundred birds in the city known for Occupy and marijuana dispensaries? While Oakland ends up in the national news for many things, pristine natural beauty has not typically been among them. Yet it encompasses a wide array of habitats that are home to a surprising variety of wildlife.

In this case, birds.

Rauzon and his teammates—the Oaktown Ouzels—were competing in the annual Birdathon fundraiser held by Golden Gate Audubon Society, the local chapter of the national bird conservation organization.

Oakland resident Glen Tepke, a transportation project manager, had organized the group, one of about a dozen San Francisco and East Bay teams engaged in half-day and full-day bird counts during the month of April.

In the previous year’s Birdathon, Tepke had led a four-hour count in Oakland and identified 98 species. This year, with six hours allowed in the half-day division, Tepke was aiming to cross the century line and capture first place.

“I won’t predict 110 species, but I’d be happy with it,” he said before the event.

Tepke, Rauzon, and five other Ouzels (an ouzel is a European bird whose only actual connection to Oakland is its alliterative quality) started their race at 8 a.m. sharp in the parking lot of Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve in the Oakland Hills.

While Sibley itself extends into Contra Costa County, you have to enter the park from Oakland, so Tepke figured it could count. And within a few paces, the bird identifications were pouring in.

“Lesser Goldfinch!” someone called at a flash of yellow in the trees.

“Wild Turkey!” several team members said with a laugh: The loud gobbles rolling across a small green canyon were unmistakable, even to novice birders.

“That sounded like an Orange-crowned Warbler,” said Kitty O’Neil, an Orinda resident who’s an ace at identifying bird calls.

And there were a lot of bird calls to identify. Birdathon rules allow for aural as well as visual identification, as long as at least two people including the team leader make the I.D. And in wooded areas like the Oakland Hills, there are many small songbirds that you’ll never see—although they sound tantalizingly close.

Experienced birders like O’Neil seem to have an extra sensory organ that was somehow never handed out to the rest of us. We might hear nothing but wind and background noise, or a jumble of indistinguishable tweets, but they’re singling out calls of specific birds as fluently as freeway drivers can tell a Starbucks mermaid sign from a McDonald’s arch.

“That was a Spotted Towhee; did you hear that ‘meow’?” O’Neil continued as the group followed the Sibley ridge trail through patches of spring lupine and California poppy into a cow pasture with sweeping valley views.

A Red-tailed Hawk circled over the hills. A shining white dot on a distant bush turned out—through binoculars—to be a Lark Sparrow. A bright blue Lazuli Bunting flew across the path with frenetic flaps that looked like a leaf tumbling and somersaulting through space. f

Tepke kept the group moving—no time to stay and watch as a starling emerged from a hole in a dead tree, its little black head and shoulders filling the hole like a cork in a bottle. A successful Big Day—or in this case, a Big Six Hours—requires discipline. No lollygagging. No standing still in breathless wonder. (Well, at least no more than a few minutes of breathless wonder.)

It also requires planning. In preparing for the six-hour trek, Tepke drew on years of familiarity with Oakland’s most productive bird sites. He started by creating a list of destinations that would maximize the varieties of habitat—grassy ridges, wooded hillsides, creeks, marsh, bay, lake—while minimizing driving time. He’d scouted each one earlier in the week to see which birds were likely to be around. Then he’d made a list of target species for each site, relatively uncommon species that might be found there and could make a critical difference in reaching that hundred mark.

The Pacific Wren was Tepke’s target species for the second stop of the day—in fact, the only bird that Tepke was aiming to find at
that stop.

The Ouzels’ two cars pulled in to Joaquin Miller Court, the cul-de-sac near Highway 13. They had an immediate, unexpected find—that Black Phoebe, a common songbird, but one not yet in the day’s tally. A few yards down, they reached the entry to the deeply shaded, creekside Palos Colorados Trail, part of Joaquin Miller Park. The sunny spring day suddenly felt 15 degrees cooler. If not for the constant roar of traffic from Highway 13, only 20 yards uphill, the group could have been in wilderness. They passed small pools in the creek with a remnant population of native rainbow trout. Then they heard the wren, a 3½-inch brown bird more often found in damp redwood forests like Muir Woods than in city parks.

Heard it—and left.

“Let’s go!” Tepke called, making an abrupt about-face, and it was back to the cars.

With 45 species under their belt, the group hit Dimond Park and the banks of Sausal Creek, where they encountered a flurry of bird activity. “The robins are upset at something, so there might be a predator around,” said Rauzon, a Laney College geography professor who serves on the board of Friends of Sausal Creek.

A raven called out with its rough caw. Bushtits flitted by. The team trotted past a 20-something young woman napping in the sun, past parents pushing strollers, kids playing catch. They logged a Song Sparrow, a Dark-eyed Junco, and some kind of goldfinch. “What color is the bill?” one member asked cautiously. The American Goldfinch has a light bill, while the Lesser Goldfinch has a dark bill, and the team had already found a Lesser up at Sibley.

American!

Add one more name to the list, now up to 50 species.

But time was starting to run out. The group sped down Interstate 580 to Lake Merritt, the country’s first wildlife refuge and still a great source for ducks and other waterfowl. They found scaup, grebes, and cormorants—23 species of birds in all—but didn’t see the lake’s famous Tufted Duck, an uncommon visitor from Asia that has shown up almost every winter for the past three decades. He had apparently left earlier in the month for his summertime breeding grounds in the Arctic.

On to Middle Harbor Shoreline Park, a decade-old oasis of green lawns and restored tidal wetlands located surreally deep within the industrial no-man’s-land of the Port of Oakland.

Before Middle Harbor was a park, it was a naval supply base. But even before that, it was a fertile swath of salt marsh and tidal wetlands, and since the base was closed in the 1990s, shorebirds have made it their home again. The Ouzels hauled out their spotting scopes and dodged Canada Goose droppings to reach the shoreline and check off Semi-palmated Plovers, Dunlins, Long-billed Dowitchers, American Avocets, Sanderlings, Marbled Godwits, Whimbrels, and Long-billed Curlews. (All of which would be lumped together by nonbirders as sandpipers.)

By now it was 1:15 p.m., with only 45 minutes left but two sites to go. The team members peered out of car windows as they rushed south on I-880, hoping to glimpse the Peregrine Falcons that nest on the Fruitvale Bridge, but no such luck. They screeched into the parking lot of Garretson Point in Martin Luther King Jr. Regional Shoreline, near the airport. Strangely, they had not yet seen two of the biggest and most common birds of the area—Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets—but MLK was as good a bet as any for those species.

More ducks—Cinnamon Teal, Green-winged Teal, and (hooray!) even three Blue-winged Teal, a fairly uncommon bird for Oakland. But no herons or egrets.

Then a quick jog along the waterfront through MLK Park to 50-acre Arrowhead Marsh, where they noted both calls and a glimpse of a California Clapper Rail, a notoriously shy, endangered species that thrives in the pickleweed of the marsh.

And then—finished.

It was 2 p.m. The team had logged six hours, seven sites, and habitats ranging from oak woodland to riparian canyon to mudflat and marsh. Glen Tepke totaled his list—105 species altogether.

They’d never gotten that Great Egret or Great Blue Heron.

There’s a great deal of skill and experience required for Birdathon-style competitive birding. But there’s also an element of luck, or avian-cussedness. And there’s a law of diminishing returns. Despite the additional two hours—a 50 percent increase in his birding window over the previous year—Tepke got only seven more birds this time.

Tepke took the total in stride. “It was respectable,” he said. “It’s conceivable we could have done better, but we did pretty much what I set out to do. I knew having an extra two hours wouldn’t mean 50 percent more species.”

Then there also was the main reason for the day’s mad dash—fundraising. Like teams in a walkathon, the Ouzels solicited donations from friends and family for Golden Gate Audubon Society. GGAS uses the funds for programs such as nature education in low-income elementary schools, birding docents at Lake Merritt, and advocacy on behalf of endangered California Least Terns in Alameda.

GGAS ended up raising a total of $47,000 in its 2013 Birdathon—of which $2,497 came from people sponsoring Tepke and the Ouzels. Not too shabby.

And the Ouzels’ 105-bird total turned out to be not too shabby either. The team took first place in the six-hour-or-less category. And the team almost tied the winners of the over-six-hour category, a group that counted 106 species in San Francisco and the Peninsula. If only they’d gotten that darn egret and heron ...

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