By Ryan Nakano and Viviana Wolinsky
The fog is thick. The air, brisk. A small group of “early birders” strike out before the sun has time to show its face. It’s barely 5 a.m., and Dave Quady shines his flashlight after sensing a movement in the trees at the end of a side street near Claremont Canyon. At the edge of the beam, a Western Screech-Owl, the first bird seen and documented for this year’s Oakland Christmas Bird Count. Even before the Western Screech-Owl sighting, the group heard Great Horned Owls shortly after 4 a.m., softly calling as the birders emptied out of their vehicles near signpost 28.
“We listened to them for a while and went a bit further down Claremont Avenue, not wishing to attract smaller owls into the bigger owls’ neighborhood because they might be preyed upon,” Quady reminisced. “That’s when I saw the Western Screech-Owl and it was very, very satisfying.”
The day, as early and as gloomy as it was, was off to a great start.
As time went on, the sun eventually broke through the fog and more and more groups of birders gathered and dispersed, splitting off into smaller groups to cover 30 areas within the 15-mile diameter Oakland count circle. Two-hundred and sixty participants organized into teams via the impassioned work of Oakland CBC co-compilers Viviana Wolinsky and Dawn Lemoine. Eighty-seven of these birders were participating in the Oakland CBC for the very first time and 44 participants were beginning birders [or quite new to birding].
Utilizing eBird, the online tool that tracks bird sightings worldwide, for the first time in the Oakland CBC history as the main form of documentation, the groups submitted their bird observations tallying a preliminary number of 184 different species seen on December 19, 2021.
Out of all these species, one was designated the “Best Bird” of the count. Its claim to fame rests primarily on its very first sighting on the day of the Oakland count, a count with records that date back to 1938.
Seen by the Emeryville Crescent group, over 45 Black Skimmers, tern-like birds with strikingly large red and black underbite bills, were spotted at Radio Beach area with peeps, ducks, gulls, and terns. Fifty-nine were seen by boat earlier in the day, most likely the same grouping of birds.
Runner up to the Black Skimmers, was a pair of Townsend’s Solitaires seen in Redwood Park, a species which has only shown up twice to the Oakland Count in the past 80 odd years. Other birds in consideration were a Western Tanager and a Swainson’s Thrush, each remarkable for the time of year, a Great-tailed Grackle and the Scaly-breasted Munias rarely seen on the Oakland CBC.
And then there was the seen, but unidentified. In the late afternoon soaring high above the Sequoia Golf Course near the Oakland Zoo, a bird with a long dark-greyish head and very long and thin wings captured the attention of 6-8 birders standing on the green. Observed for a total of four minutes, this UFO floated against the clouds with a group of swifts before disappearing from sight. In eBird, the sighting could only be tracked as “bird sp.” but the best guess from area leader Su Cox was some kind of Booby. Unfortunately, for the count, this was the one that got away.
At the end of the day, the sighting was still documented in one of 305 checklists submitted to the Oakland CBC eBird trip report. Around 9 p.m. at the Oakland Zoo the 81st Oakland CBC ended as it began, with the sound of a Great Horned Owl calling out in the dark.