Enthusiasts set out to tally local avian population with the Christmas Bird Count

Cindy Chew/Special to The S.F. ExaminerFrom left

Two women and two men stood at the edge of Warm Water Cove in the Bayview district, staring toward the Bay through binoculars and shouting bird names — grebe, gull, wigeon — and numbers. Another woman scribbled down the numbers next to printed names on paper.

This team, which had more than 100 years of combined birding experience among it, was one of 18 that fanned out across The City and northern parts of the Peninsula on Thursday for the annual Golden Gate Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count, which stated locally in 1983. Hundreds of volunteers scoured a 15-mile-diameter area hoping to identify and count as many bird species as possible.

The group of five in the Bayview was responsible for the Bernal Heights, Mission and Potrero areas of The City, which included portions of the southeastern waterfront. After a morning in Bernal Heights that 69-year-old team leader Tom White called “not so good,” the team had made its way to the Bay.

White stood with a dog-eared copy of the “National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America” under his arm as he looked out on several dozen birds bobbing on the water.

“Let’s add two more brown pelicans,” he said. Bernal Heights resident Maxine Berg, who was on her first official bird count, jotted down the information.

Meanwhile, Pacific Heights resident Penny Watson had wandered over to a fenced-off area with a vacant warehouse, fruitlessly looking for a barn owl at the suggestion of a local resident.

When the team eventually decided to move along, they all stopped suddenly after several birds started screeching and taking off from the water.

“Everyone look out for a peregrine falcon,” White said as the group scanned the skies for the source of the commotion.

Seeing nothing, they moved along, piling into two cars to drive south to Pier 94.

But they did not take a break from the count.

As White drove down Amador Street, Watson looked out her window and said “18 starlings” when she spotted the black birds on a power line.

Identifying bird species is no easy task. The group talked about coloring on heads or legs, which can help distinguish between two similar birds. Other features such as flight behavior, habitat and birdcalls also can be used for identification, Watson said.

At Mission Creek near AT&T Park, Ron Berg spotted a Common Loon and the group darted across the Fourth Street Bridge to catch a glimpse.

Berkeley resident Amy Fillin said she enjoyed the camaraderie among the group  and the sharing of bird sightings.

In the evening, many of the volunteers gathered at the Log Cabin in the Presidio, sharing the common and rare birds they each had spotted. The meeting ended on a high note when the preliminary numbers showed that 179 species were counted this year, a new high that beats the old record of 177.

Dan Murphy, who co-founded the local count and helps coordinate every year, said the day’s end is about compiling numbers and having fun.

mbillings@sfexaminer.com

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