Annual Audubon winter bird count relies on volunteers scanning the skies

Birdwatchers look for a bird atop a tree at Lodi Lake in Lodi, Calif., on Nov. 15, 2023. (Harika Maddala/Bay City News/Catchlight Local)

Looking for an activity the family can do together this holiday season that avoids politics and shopping? Join the annual Christmas Bird Count in Oakland.

During this long-standing program of the National Audubon Society, thousands of volunteers across several countries fan out across urban and rural areas to count birds over a 24-hour period.

The Oakland bird count, which includes Piedmont and large parts of Berkeley, Moraga, Orinda, Alameda, and San Leandro as well as the city of Oakland, takes place on Sunday, Dec. 17.

“Right now, the Pacific Flyway migration is happening,” said Wyatt Moore, supervising naturalist for the East Bay Regional Park District. “So, we’re getting a lot of birds that are making their journey from Alaska and northern Canada down to Mexico. We’ve been recently seeing a lot of waterfowl — American coots, buffleheads and goldeneyes. We’re seeing some really wonderful harriers. We’re seeing white-tailed kites. So, all these birds are starting to fly through on their journey.”

California quail (Callipepla californica) at Wildcat Campground in Point Reyes National Seashore in Calif. on June 12, 2022. (NPS via Bay City News)

The counts are collected by designated compilers, each responsible for subdividing a geographic circle that spans a 7.5-mile radius.

The data are used in hundreds of analyses, peer-reviewed publications and government reports. Institutions, like the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, use the information to discover trends in population numbers and changes in migration patterns that can be attributed to climate warming or the health of ecosystems.

“We have found that there are quite a number of species that have shifted, what we call the center of abundance of their range, as much as 200 miles northward in the last 60 to 70 years,” said Geoff LeBaron, director of Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count.

Last year, the count included almost 80,000 people from 2,626 locations, mostly in the U.S. and Canada but increasingly in Latin America and the Caribbean.

“There’s always room for beginners if they can hold a clipboard or point out birds,” said Chris MacIntosh, compiler for several areas from the city of San Francisco to Ano Nuevo State Park in San Mateo County.

“What this is not is a day when people have time to really go slow to explain and teach people about birds. This is about going out and counting as many birds as you can find.”

There are several new phone apps, including iNaturalist and Merlin, to help identify and learn about the birds. They include habitat information and bird calls. Some can be used to upload count data to a national database.

But not everyone has to be an official counter.

“For me, it’s less about identifying and more about seeing what is that bird doing,” said Moore. “Is it interacting with other birds? Is it looking for food right now? How does it play into the larger ecosystem?”

For those who want to participate, space is going fast, and people should communicate with their local area coordinator to sign up ahead of time. Their names and contact information, as well as dates and locations, can be found at Instructions are on the website

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