When I first moved to a marina in the San Francisco Bay, there weren’t a lot of birds that I wasn’t already familiar with from my old stomping grounds of Denver. I’d come to call sea gulls that were inland “trash gulls” as they serve as scavengers whether they are at the coast or not. Pigeons were of course a common sight, and crows, ravens, ducks, geese, and hawks were seen frequently.

Male bufflehead

But when I stopped focusing on getting rid of stuff and the rest of the transition to living in a marina, I noticed that the avian fauna had increased significantly. Had I just not noticed or had it been less in the summertime? Probably the former. There were all sorts of birds that I couldn’t identify, so I researched to find out who my new neighbors were: great blue herons, night herons, great egrets, snowy egrets, Clark’s grebes, lesser scaups, buffleheads (one of my personal favorites), sandpipers, coots, brown pelicans, murres, Forster’s terns, and cormorants.

Great egret, 2 great blue herons, and lots of coots

I’d seen cormorants at the City Park in Denver, all sitting up on the branches on an island off-limits to humans, but their behavior was so different from the ones floating and swimming in the Emeryville marina, seeming to have such a good time. At first I thought they were a different species, but after some research ended up concluding that the double-crested cormorants were just adapting to their different environments. I was enlivened by the new knowledge that filled in the picture of my new marine surroundings.

American coots on land and sea

I learned that cormorants can often be seen extending or flapping their wings on rocks or while floating on the water to dry them off, and that their flying that skips along the water is the most labored out of all water birds. I learned that the behavior of the first year juvenile California Gull we dubbed Bob is definitely out of the ordinary, with his constant and prolonged (I mean months) whimpering and pecking at the bird I assume is his mother. We can now identify him by his posture alone, but we usually don’t have to since his voice is distinct enough and detected before his visual presence is.

When we sailed down to Half Moon Bay last year, we were entertained by murre that popped down below the sea surface before we got too close. I learned that the murre can dive up to 600 feet to catch their prey, but I still can’t fathom it.

Birds of a Feather

Knowing of my interest in local birds, a marina employee suggested I volunteer for the Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count. That morning was supposed to be the coldest morning the San Francisco Bay Area had seen in 5 years, but it clearly was not, as I had seen 39 degrees on my morning walk just the previous week. The day’s temperatures stayed in the range of 42 to 45 degrees but I was prepared for the chill with my snowboarding gear including gator and gloves.

Crow near horses

They say the early bird catches the worm, and if you want to count those well-fed examples of efficiency, you should be out early as well. Though I was the youngest member of the 4-person team by over 10 years and the only person with less than 15 years of experience, I felt a kinship with my bird counting team of fellow nature lovers.

It turned out that my expanded knowledge of shorebirds since moving to Emeryville six months prior did not prepare me very well to identify the 50 species that we encountered during the Christmas count. I knew about 20 of them. They took me under their wings and shared information about how to identify and record what we were seeing, and what tools to use in the process, such as eBird and Merlin, both from Cornell.

At Thornton Beach looking south for birds

I fell into the role of spotter, saying things like, “There’s a brown smallish bird up the hill on the large bush, a little to the left,” and “I think that’s a blue jay.” My eagle eye was responsible for finding the brown pelican, merlin and orange-crowned warbler (that was actually all yellow.)

The knowledge and interests of my colleagues were very deep, but not wide. I shared information about the behavioral anomaly of Bob, and the gull expert on the team shrugged it off and changed the subject. When we saw a dog walker with 9 dogs (of course I counted, I was on a counting trip) I was curious to watch them and figure out how the human kept the unleashed dogs in sight. The others didn’t act like they even saw the dogs. When a walker with 11 dogs came around, I excitedly discussed how I thought they must have dog temperament interviews and specific selection criteria in order to make that situation work, and it became clear that the rest of my team wanted to move along to other bird-focused topics.

Great egret with snowy egret

Besides seaside locales and a shopping mall, we visited a cemetery, school, retirement home, and a park to do the counting in our assigned area. We found cowbirds in the horse corrals, great-tailed grackles in a parking lot, and hundreds of sanderlings on the beach. When we were finished with counting at our last location, the man with almost 60 years of birding experience said he was off to complete 9 other Christmas counts before the end of the year. That’s some dedication. It also helped me recognize that while I appreciate my foray into the world of birding, I will not be dedicating myself to it as a primary interest, but swooping into it when I see a particularly interesting specimen and when time allows.

Under My Wing

Right now my time allows for being outdoors and increasing the amount of exercise I get, so when I learned of The Audubon Society’s free birdwatching hikes, I figured I’d sign up for one occasionally.

Ethan taking a photo of the hummingbird on her nest

It was near the end of Ethan’s time off for winter break in January so I asked him (then when he declined, required him) to join me on a nature walk at Salesforce Park, a public urban park atop the 4th story of the transit center connected with the Salesforce Tower, the tallest feature of the San Francisco skyline.

Twice a year for the previous eight years Ethan had chosen a unit of study to focus on at school, and a quarter of them had been related to flight: peregrine falcons, Blue Angels, paper airplanes, and engineering (with a focus on aviation) and he’s always been fond of birds, so I knew he’d eventually warm up to the idea. I’m sure that waking up early was his biggest objection, since he’s a teenager and such a night owl.

White crowned sparrow in urban park

Within a short period of time after arriving he became interested in what we were finding, and he was fascinated with the Anna’s hummingbird that flitted to and from her walnut-sized nest (see Instagram for the video). We learned that male hummingbirds don’t tend to the eggs, but we knew the bird’s gender by her coloring alone.

By the end of the event, we had exercised a bit, experienced a unique park, learned about a few species of birds, spent time outdoors, and spent time together. Next we walked a few blocks to get Mexican food that was being advertised through our olfactory receptors.

I envy birds their ability to fly and was reminded of my time hang gliding as a sport and for recreation. It was liberating to be free of the ground and pre-defined paths, to have a bird’s eye view of the landscape, and to feel like nothing was in my way. Being on the sea is a similar kind of freedom, though the realm is entirely different, definitely more wet. It represents not just the road less traveled, but the lack of a road at all, and a vast open stretch of possibilities for learning and adventure. Perhaps more than any other aspect of this new lifestyle, I enjoy the connection with nature that is so much more direct and apparent.



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Written by Deanna