By George Peyton
Many years ago when the suggestion was made that a boat be added to the Oakland Christmas Bird Count to cover the portion of the Count Circle represented by San Francisco Bay, I made contact with Ed Jepsen, a retired career Navy officer and experienced sailor who had taken his boat up the West Coast as far as Alaska. Ed captained the North Boat for over 30 years of Oakland CBCs.
We have had the good fortune to have Pete White — an excellent birder and experienced mariner who sailed in the Merchant Marine and whose father was a Navy Admiral — as our Chief Bird Spotter and Guru every year since the beginning. Pete has been a guide on a number of pelagic trips and has written a very well-received history of the Farallon Islands, where he worked as a volunteer researcher with Point Reyes Bird Observatory (now Point Blue).
Birding from a boat is very different from birding on land. First, even in good weather you need to develop “sea legs” to compensate for the up-and-down motion of the boat as it moves through the water. And in windy weather or when storms are coming through on the Count Day, it can be a real challenge trying to steady your binoculars when the boat is pitching up and down, as well as side to side. You have to brace up against part of the boat’s structure to have even a brief steady view through your binoculars.
When it is raining it can be miserable on land, but on a constantly moving boat, keeping your binocular lens even slightly clean is a major challenge. If you wear eyeglasses, you are constantly trying to clean both your glasses and your binocular lens from the rain and the spray coming off of the waves, which obviously reduces the time you can scan the water and the skies for birds. The constant salt water spray, which is much more difficult to wipe off than clean water, causes an even bigger challenge.
We normally have three bird observers and one recorder up on the open bridge above the main cabin of our boat, since this provides an elevated position with much wider visibility. However, if the weather gets bad — very windy or a real rainstorm, when the salt water clouds our lenses and often the boat may be pitching up and down so wildly that we have to hold on for dear life — we go inside of the Main Cabin. Even there, the constant rain and salt spray on the windows makes it very difficult to see outside where the birds are.
Fortunately, about half of the time the weather is reasonably good, and another quarter of the time the weather only partially obstructs the birding, so we can bird from the bridge the entire time we are out on the water for about three of every four Oakland CBCs. Unlike CBC teams on land, we normally count for only about four hours, usually starting around 8 a.m. Because it takes a huge amount of physical effort to brace ourselves and keep our binoculars steady, we are often quite tired by the time the boat returns to the dock.
Because we do not want to double-count the birds, we only make one pass through each major part of our very large territory, which now is mainly north of the Bay Bridge. (It used to extend down to the Oakland Airport and beyond, before a South Boat took over that part of our territory.) We also have to be careful to stay away from the shore, counting only birds far enough out from the shore that we do not double count those being recorded by land birders.
Finally, there is a big bonus when we arrive back at the dock – a holiday feast of a very large pot of delicious chili accompanied by some very good wines, including rich Zinfandels that pair well with the chili, and topped off with about five types of home-made Christmas cookies freshly baked by the wife of Don Lewis, one of our vey capable bird counters. Our tasty chili is cooked up by our current, very capable co-captains, Bonnie and Noel Diefendorf, who bring their boat all the way from the Marin Yacht Club in San Rafael, where Noel was until recently the Commodore.
Click here to read Part Two of North Boat Memories, which focuses on exciting CBC experiences we have had, such as discovering a dead body on a secluded beach on Yerba Buena Island.
George Peyton practiced law for 44 years, half of those as City Attorney for Piedmont. He has served on the boards of Golden Gate Audubon, Point Blue (formerly PRBO), Audubon Canyon Ranch, and National Audubon. He played a leading role in National Audubon’s work to save Mono Lake. He has been an active birder for 66 years and seen about 6,500 bird species. George is currently managing a Big Year planned for 2015 by his spouse Lani, in which she hopes to see at least 600 different species in the Lower 48 States.