The Science of Sustainability

A Census for the Birds

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Kevin McKereghan, Audubon volunteerIn the final days of the holiday season, when shoppers were crowding malls and searching the internet for sales, Kevin McKereghan was also looking for a last-minute find. “Oop, there it is, all teed up for us, a peregrine,” exclaimed McKereghan. Bundled up in a heavy brown parka and a red and gold wool hat, he has just spotted a peregrine falcon on a wire.

Starting at Dawn

The San Francisco audio engineer rose early to spend a cold December Sunday taking part in the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count. During the last two weeks of every year, rain or shine, volunteers looking for birds spread out over 22,000 locations including such countries as Peru, Guam, Haiti, the U.S. and Canada. The count is one of the oldest, and largest, citizen science events in the world. The tradition has been taking place since 1900, when birders proposed a ‘kinder’ alternative to an annual bird hunt – a bird survey that scientists now rely on to determine how bird populations are changing.

Oyster catcher.  Photo, Alan Krakauer

Oyster catcher. Photo, Alan Krakauer

This year, as part of Oakland’s 71st count, group leader McKereghan and seven volunteers are surveying an urbanized swath of shore along I-80 from Emeryville to Albany. “We’ve got to cover everything, the good and the bad. We will spend a lot of time in parking lots and roadways,” explains McKereghan. A 10 a.m. check-in confirms the group already has spotted more than 30 species including six ruddy ducks, six mallards one great egret and one oyster catcher. McKereghan takes the numbers down on a new iPhone app, the first time he’s not using a pen and paper check list.

Tips for Counting Birds

Now you might wonder, as I did, how one actually counts birds. I mean, it’s not like they are exactly… cooperative. “Certain things like eagles, you take note of the direction and time they are headed. You have to assume that we are missing a huge number of birds so I think it sort of averages itself out nicely,” says McKereghan. He says that when it comes to large flocks, like black birds on a wire next to Golden Gate Fields race track, it’s best to count in groups of ten, rather than individuals. Counting  birds at Golden Gate FieldsPart of McKereghan’s count area includes the horse track, and his group is given access each year prior to race time. As jockeys put their horses through early morning runs, these bird watchers gather at the top of the bleachers — oblivious to the race horses below. Peering through scopes and binoculars, all eyes are trained on the edge of one of two ponds in the middle of the track. A small brown marsh bird known as a Wilson’s snipe has been spotted. “It has little stripes on its head, oh I have a good view,” exclaims one birder.

A Popular Hobby

You may have noticed birders get really excited over things that non-birders would not even notice. But these folks are definitely not alone. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates there are about 48 million birders in the U.S. – that’s more than twice as large as the television audience for the World Series. These hobbyists obsess over birds the way some fans obsess about sports.

Phila Rogers, Audubon volunteer

Audubon volunteer Phila Rogers. Photo Credit, Nancy Warren

80-year-old Phila Rogers has been birding since she was eight. She explains the hobby as a kind of ‘madness.’ “You know, I took time off to have children and have love affairs but the birding was always there it was ready to bubble up from everything else,” says Rogers. The long time birder has served her time slogging through rain and chilly temperatures to complete the Christmas Count. Now Rogers participates as one of a few feeder watchers who observe birds, in her case, from her living room through a window onto her backyard deck, high in the Berkeley hills. You would think Rogers has seen it all but this year offered something really exciting. “For the first time in almost sixty years of watching birds at these feeders on this hill I see a white-throated sparrow. This is so big. So I actually took pictures. For me it was really exciting because it’s count day,” she says. Rogers could hardly wait to share her find at the area count compilation dinner.

Compilation Dinner

About one hundred birders gather in the community hall of a church in north Berkeley. Tired and hungry from a long day in the field, the volunteers turn in their check lists and warm up on hot chocolate. Although these birders skewed older, there were a few counters under 12, one already asleep on his dad’s lap. I caught up with two members of my group from earlier, Kevin McKereghan and Alan Krakauer, both excited over their high species count for the day, 110 total. Says Krakauer, "We had nice weather which is sort of a double bonus. For me Wild Turkeys were a big surprise to see way down into the flats and the urban area.” Kevin McKereghan thinks for a moment about what sighting most surprised him, “I think the white-throated swift and the pygmy nuthatch.” This year was even more special for the local birders because of the release of the long-awaited Alameda County Breeding Bird Atlas.

Wild turkeys

Wild turkeys. Photo, Alan Krakauer

As the evening went on, Oakland Count leaders Bob Lewis and Dave Quady, who both got up at 2:30 in the morning to count owls, ran through a check list of common birds. Next, presentations were given on special sightings and omissions. While some species like peregrine falcons and wild turkeys have been growing in number, the bird count also has shown some troubling trends. The National Audubon Society has documented a 40 percent drop in migratory birds over the past four decades, some common bird numbers have dropped by half, and there has been a move by some species north which could be an indicator of climate change. With the data, Audubon tries to take steps to mitigate some of the changes.

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About the Author ()

Andrea is KQED's Senior Science Editor . Andrea was born in Los Angeles and discovered radio news through listening to her college radio station. With a curious mind and a love for telling stories, she set off for Tampa where she landed her first job as a reporter for Florida Public Radio. After three years reporting in an unbearably humid climate and a brief stint as a miscast opera reporter, Andrea returned to L.A. to work for public radio, then for television news and finally as a reporter for CBS radio. Andrea has been at KQED for over twelve years, working first as a producer for Forum, and then as the senior producer for The California Report. She is now KQED's Senior Science and Environment Editor and narrates the QUEST television program. Andrea says she feels lucky to cover emerging science and environmental trends in a place where geek is chic.
  • Alana Moore

    Bird watching is one of my hobbies. I used to visit different places for bird surveys because I like to watch the activities of birds. But you have given me some more valid reasons to increase my passion towards bird watching.
    Irish Bird surveys