"Bird count in Oakland shows surprisingly low tally"
2013-12-15 by Carolyn Jones for "San Francisco Chronicle" [http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/articleGallery/Surprising-low-tally-for-this-year-s-bird-count-5067009.php]:
The annual Audubon bird count in Oakland was a breeze this year: There were hardly any birds to count.
"Normally we'd see thousands of scaup and bufflehead and canvasback. This year it's staggering - we've hardly seen any," said Ruth Tobey, one of more than 200 volunteers who scoured the East Bay on Sunday with binoculars and clipboards, counting birds.
"It's like going back to summer camp to see your old friends, but suddenly your friends aren't there," she said. "It's a serious disappointment. But that's why we're here - to record the shifts and changes, for better or worse."
Whether due to drought, the recent cold snap, climate change or some mystery of nature, the bird population at Arrowhead Marsh appeared dramatically lower this year. The final numbers nationwide won't be available until after Jan. 5, when the official Audubon bird count ends.
The great flocks of ducks and shorebirds might have been missing, but birders still found plenty to gawk at. At Arrowhead Marsh near the Oakland airport, a dozen or so volunteers spotted a peregrine falcon, brown pelican, two species of dowitcher, a great egret sunning itself on an old pier and a host of endangered clapper rails. Plus a whole lot of Canada geese.
"This is really citizen science," said David Rice, a psychologist from Berkeley who ventured through the marsh on a kayak. "It's not about counting rare birds; it's about counting all birds. This way you can pick up changes in populations and try to see the big picture."
Volunteers send their tallies to the Audubon headquarters, where the numbers are compiled into a vast database for scientists and the public to study. Shifts in migrations, breeding and species populations can help scientists plan conservation efforts and get a glimpse at the overall health of the environment - everything from rising pollutants to the melting ice cap to habitat loss.
In previous years, data from the bird count have helped Audubon identify 20 common bird species that are in serious decline, losing at least half their populations in the past four decades. Suburban sprawl, increased use of pesticides and climate change are to blame.
In North America, more than 10,000 volunteers participate in the annual bird count, noting everything from the tiniest hummingbird to 7-foot golden eagles. San Francisco's bird count will be Dec. 27.
At Arrowhead Marsh, where Rice has been counting birds for 35 years, the first thing he noticed Sunday was that the number of birds may be down but the marsh is cleaner than it has been in decades. Tighter regulations on development and water quality, plus litter-removal events like Creek to Bay Day, have made the marsh a nicer place for its feathered residents, he said.
"Audubon and other groups have worked very hard to protect this marsh," he said. "It's paid off."
The most exciting bird-watching spot Sunday was not Arrowhead Marsh, however. It was the 2700 block of Woolsey Street in Berkeley. There, in a backyard oak tree, a painted redstart warbler - normally seen only in the southwestern deserts - has been holding court for the past few weeks.
Birders have been making pilgrimages to see the distinctive red-and-black songbird. Many returned Sunday in hopes of adding it to the tally.
Logan Kahle, 16, of San Francisco wasn't too interested in the warbler. For him, the day was about getting outside with his tripod and telescope, and taking it all in - the clucking clapper rails, the graceful diving grebes, the northern harrier swooping over the pickleweed.
"I like to get away from the clutter of urban life," said Logan, who picked up birding from an elementary school teacher. "Birds are probably the most conspicuous form of wildlife - I appreciate just being able to get out and enjoy them."