Cardinal Conquest: Cal and Stanford Teams Compete in April ‘Big Game’ Birdwatching

By Alex Helmintoller

Update: Alas, the sparrows will sing of Berkeley’s victory another day: Although Cal logged 64 species in the April birding contest, Stanford identified 75, including the white-throated sparrow, grasshopper sparrow, lark sparrow and savannah sparrow—and apparently, not a single cardinal.  

In the misty glade, a Pacific wren spots a worm in the grass and swoops down from its perch. Little does it know that it will soon be not just the pursuer, but the pursued.

The wren is just one of hundreds of feathered denizens around campus that Berkeley birders will race to spot on the morning of Sunday, April 13 in the Golden Gate Audubon Society’s event “Birding’s Big Game—the first-ever Cal-Stanford Birding Competition.”

The contest, led by local Audubon chapters as part of the society’s annual Birdathon month, will pit Cal students, professors and wildlife enthusiasts against their Stanford counterparts. Each side will peruse its own territory, thus evening out the home-field advantage.

At Cal, three teams will prowl the campus itself, the UC Botanical garden and Strawberry canyon, wielding binoculars and birding scopes for pinpoint accuracy. For those birds especially difficult to spot, participants may do what is called “pishing,” a birding call that mimics and attracts birds. Auditory recognition counts as identification as well, as long as the call is verified by a team leader.

Chris Carmichael, associate director of Collections & Horticulture at the UC Botanical Garden and an avid birder, will lead a team through the local and exotic flora of the garden, which draws some 100 species over the course of the year. His expertise could provide a valuable competitive advantage: He leads quarterly bird walks in the garden. Master Birders Erica Rutherford and John Colbert will lead another team in Strawberry Canyon, and Berkeley’s Maureen Lahiff, a lecturer in the School of Public Health, will direct the third team in a campus hunt.

“I signed up for the Birdathon due to my love of wildlife and curiosity about all the different species of birds that I’ve never really paid attention to,” says Diana Lin, president of The Wildlife Society at Berkeley, a new student conservation and wildlife appreciation club. The participating club members, aside from fundraising, will contribute their own knowledge of local birds’ campus hideouts. “We’ll be showing the adult birders where we’ve spotted birds in the past,” she adds, “but since most of the students are beginning birders, we’ll be there mostly to learn more about bird identification and to meet other birders.”

The Wildlife Society’s members include student environmentalists, amateur naturalists and animal lovers. They have taken courses on field biology and wildlife ecology, which will provide a link from classroom to field that members are eager to share. “We’ll finally be able to apply what we’ve learned to real life,” says Lin. “Taking part in the Birdathon and learning bird identification from the experienced adult birders will be a great opportunity not only to learn about the amazing biodiversity at Berkeley, but also to educate others about the biodiversity on campus once I’m able to spot the birds on my own.”

“Birding’s Big Game—the first-ever Cal-Stanford Birding Competition” will benefit the conservation efforts of the Golden Gate Audubon Society and Santa Clara Valley Audubon through sponsor-style fundraising. Proceeds will be used to restore shoreline habitat in Oakland and San Francisco; to provide eco-education and field-trips to low-income elementary school children; and to protect endangered terns in Alameda, snowy plovers in San Francisco, and birds at risk from the Altamont Pass wind turbines. Birdathon has been around since 1917 as part of the Audubon’s nation-wide conservation efforts.

The Cal effort still has room for more alumni birders, whether experts or novices. More information and signups are available online, as is information about how to support the team with a tax-deductible contribution.

Filed under: Cal Culture
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