LAFAYETTE -- They rose before dawn and stayed out until dusk, covering a swath of the East Bay with an eye toward the sky. From the gritty landfills and streets to the stillness of marshes, reservoirs and woods, hundreds of bird-watchers came together Sunday to count as many birds as they could see.
Gulls. Marbled godwits. Scrub jays. Red-tailed hawks. Some groups saw as many as 80 species of birds.
"There aren't that many places that are this incredible," said Logan Kahle, who at 15 is one of the youngest members of the Golden Gate Audubon Society.
Sunday's challenge was to identify and record every individual bird seen within a 15-mile-diameter around Oakland. The Oakland circle extends from Treasure Island northeast to San Pablo Reservoir and south to Saint Mary's College in Moraga and the Oakland International Airport.
It encompasses Lake Merritt, Alameda, Albany, Berkeley, Emeryville, Lamorinda, and most of the Eastshore State Park.
It's all part of the Christmas Bird Count, which began on Christmas Day in 1900 as an alternative to a long-standing holiday activity in which hunters competed in shooting the most birds and small mammals. The count originated in the northeastern United States and came to San Francisco in 1915 and Oakland in 1938. San Francisco's count is on Dec. 27.
In 2011, Oakland and San Francisco finished among the top 30 in North America in numbers of species found, with 181 and 176, respectively. Organizers say the "citizen science" count informs scientific studies.
"This is not just about counting birds," Gary Langham, Audubon's chief scientist, said in a statement.
Langham said the data is at the heart of peer-reviewed scientific studies and informs decisions by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, among others.
"Because birds are early indicators of environmental threats to habitats we share, this is a vital survey of North America and, increasingly, the Western Hemisphere."
Kahle and eight other bird-watchers assembled at the Davis Street Transfer Station and Garden Center in San Leandro at noon with the goal of seeing tricolored blackbirds, which in years past, have made the waste site home. None were seen Sunday but there were plenty of gulls, pigeons and other blackbirds feeding on scraps in piles of trash.
"It's interesting how birds adapt. They're real survivors," said Sheila Dickie of Richmond. "Birds are driven by hunger."
The group drove to the Arrowhead Marsh in Oakland at high tide for the best chance to see a clapper rail, an endangered species that lives in the weeds of the marsh but has no place to hide during high tide. One was spotted along the shore within moments.
"It flushes them out," one excited onlooker said. "They have to go somewhere."
George Griffeth and Alison Hill arrived at the Lafayette Reservoir before dawn and stood in the dark listening for owls. Griffeth, 62, of Kensington, used his iPod to project owl calls into the darkness. A Western screech-owl responded, he said.
"They're territorial and will respond to the calls," Griffeth explained.
At day's end, the participants tally up their results and share stories of their day at a dinner in Berkeley. Mary Krentz, of Oakland, was likely to share spotting a red-tailed hawk perched inside a recycling facility in San Leandro.
"It may not be the best bird of the day, but it's the best location of a bird," Krentz said.
Contact David DeBolt at 925-943-8048. Follow him at Twitter.com/daviddebolt.