Bay Crossings Article

A Holiday Tradition for the Birds… and Bird-Lovers

Deb Self, Executive Director
From the February 2010 edition of Bay Crossings

The Audubon Society’s Annual Christmas Bird Count is citizen science in action, an effort to collect information about bird populations across the Western Hemisphere to help guide conservation action by groups like San Francisco Baykeeper.  Every year, during the last days of December, hundreds of birders stake out Bay shorelines, wetlands, and hillsides to identify and count birds so that scientists can monitor population trends of native and migratory bird species in the Bay Area. 

This year marked the 110th Christmas Bird Count, and was the first time that Baykeeper participated, helping count birds on the Bay that can’t be seen from shore.  The Baykeeper boat set out on December 26th with an expert birder to canvass a 7.5-mile radius circle around a central point on Mt. Tamalpais.  The route began at Sausalito, sweeping northeast toward Pt. Pinole in Richmond, back across to McNear’s Beach in San Rafael, and then south along the Marin shoreline back to Sausalito. 

As a novice birder, my role was to record the number and type of birds that we saw floating in the Bay’s open waters and foraging on the shorelines of islands in the Bay.  We spotted an incredibly diverse array of birds: Western Grebes, Greater Scaups, Buffleheads, Ruby-throated Loons, Barrow's Golden Eyes, Spotted Sandpipers, Brown Pelicans, Ruddy Ducks, Surf Scoters, Great Blue Herons, Double-crested and Pelagic Cormorants, Ring-necked Ducks, and a Black-crowned Night Heron.  During the Bird Count, I learned to identify a few birds that even the casual observer could spot while crossing the Bay.

Out on the Bay, you may encounter one of several waterfowl species, birds with webbed feet and waterproof feathers.  My favorite Bay bird so far is the Bufflehead.   It is one of the smallest diving ducks in North America and visits the Bay during winter months.  The striking male (recognizable from a distance) has a dark back, white sides, and an easily-spotted white patch on the side and back of its distinctive green and purple head.  It reminds me of a cotton ball. 

Diving ducks like the Bufflehead have large webbed feet, and their legs are further back on their bodies.  This helps them maneuver underwater but makes them ill-suited to walking on land and taking off for flight.  If you spot a duck walking more easily on land, with a heavier body and centered legs, chances are you have spotted a dabbling duck.  Dabbling ducks, like the infamous Mallard, are usually found closer to the shoreline in the Bay’s shallow waters, as well as in inland lakes.

In the Central Bay, you may spot diving birds that spend most of their time on the open ocean, but seek the protection of the Bay during the winter to nest and raise their young.  Diving birds like cormorants, grebes, and loons are frequently spotted on the Bay.  The California Brown Pelican is perhaps the most recognizable diving seabird; it winters in the Bay Area after breeding on rocky islands off the coast of southern California and Mexico.

Unfortunately, some of the Bay’s birds face increasing obstacles to survival, including the loss of tidal wetlands and shoreline habitat.  Bird populations are also impacted by collisions with tall structures, like bridges, changes to food sources, and pollution from oil spills, pesticides and other toxic chemicals.  Baykeeper is working actively to protect the Bay for visiting birds and year-round residents alike.

I hope this story has piqued your interest in Bay birds and that you’ll consider joining our efforts to protect Bay habitat for birds and other creatures.  For more information, visit