Mission Creek’s Great Backyard Bird Count

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The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is a collaborative effort led by the National Audubon Society and Cornell Lab of Ornithology to gather data on local bird populations throughout the world. Launched in 1998, the GBBC takes place annually over the four-day Presidents’ Day weekend. This year, that’s February 14 to 17. 

Anyone can participate in the GBBC; having a backyard isn’t required. According to gbbc.birdcount.org, 160,000 people engage in the online citizen-science project worldwide, creating an annual snapshot of the distribution and abundance of our feathered friends. A minimum of 15 minutes of observation on any of the four days suffices. Avid avian buffs may spend substantially more time than that over the four days compiling their lists. A contributor files their tally under their account on the website, recording all detected species, as well as their numbers, within a defined area.

Counting wild birds around Mission Creek on the Saturday morning of Presidents’ Day weekend is a tradition started by Beth Kamienecki, a 30-year resident of Mission Creek’s iconic houseboat community. Over the years the faces have changed, but the mid-winter jaunt has consistently drawn a group of ten, give or take, who meet on a bench outside the Mission Bay Branch Library on the north esplanade, by the Fourth Street Bridge. 

Beth Kamienecki (right), speaking with Ginny Stearns, a Mission Creek houseboat resident. Thie photo was taken on the esplanade along Mission Creek’s north bank, with African Sumac trees and other bird count participants in the background. Photo: Bettina Cohen

Kamienecki registered Mission Creek as a bird count locale on the GBBC website in 2010 and has reported annual tallies ever since. She became enamored with birds after moving into her floating home at the edge of what was then a prairie of sweet fennel, wildflowers, and tall grasses. 

“When I came here, there was nothing!” she recently recalled. “We used to have a lot of Western Meadowlarks in the field across the road from us. I would watch a Meadowlark sitting on the fence, singing. They’re gone now.” 

Her front row seat to waterfowl and shorebirds prompted Kamienecki to enroll in seven years of City College of San Francisco classes taught by locally renowned ornithologist Joe Morlan. She also learned from Rich Stallcup, one of the founders of the Point Reyes Bird Observatory.  She’s been on many birding trips in the Bay Area and around most of North America, including Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. 

“The Creek really got me interested in birding,” Kamienecki said. “The more you see of them, the more you see of everything else,” referring to the seasonal and habitat differences that can occur from spots as little as a few yards apart. 

One of Mission Creek’s charms is the plant life along the pathways.  Along the esplanade, Gingko and Maple trees growing behind Berry Street’s residential buildings are favored by House Finches and Yellow-Rumped Warblers, also know as “butter butts.” Ceanothus, Mexican Sage, Salvia Little Kiss, and Hebe shrubs in their riot of blues, reds, and lavenders also brighten this side of the promenade. 

Flocks of little Bushtits flit from one African Sumac tree to another on the side overlooking the north bank. California Gumplants, with their mellow yellow blooms, front the water and provide habitat for various sparrows. White-Crowned are abundant, occasionally joined by Golden-Crowned; a Song Sparrow makes rare but vocal visits. Anna’s Hummingbirds stake out perches atop the trees on either side of the walkway. Nesting birds on the Creek include Anna’s Hummingbirds, Bushtits, Black Phoebes, and Black-Crowned Night Herons.

January’s herring run attracts various gulls and grebes. “Grebes also eat aquatic vegetation,” Kamienecki said. “Cormorants eat mostly fish. Buffleheads eat insects, crustaceans and fish.  The Great Blue Heron eats mostly fish, but is opportunistic and eats small mammals, rats and baby birds; the Great Blue wipes out the Mallard babies every year! Egrets eat insects. Scaup eat mollusks and aquatic insects. Mallards eat aquatic insects and vegetation. There’s a terrific book that every birder should have called Birder’s Handbook, by Paul Ehrlich, David Dobkin and Darryl Wheye. It discusses nesting, diet, what the eggs look like. So much information on every species. I consult it all the time.”  

In 2019, participants in the Great Backyard Bird Count around Mission Creek tallied 35 species over four days. There were year-round residents, migratory species commonly seen during winter months, and a few that periodically make it onto Mission Creek’s GBBC list, or which made their debut. A solitary Great Egret was counted; it’s infrequently seen but had been spotted before. A Pelagic Cormorant made a brief appearance by the Fourth Street Bridge last year; it’s been listed in past editions of Mission Creek’s GBBC, but isn’t as common as Double-Crested Cormorants, often seen on the dilapidated pilings with wings outstretched to dry wet feathers after diving.

It’s important to be able to distinguish related species that resemble one another and dwell in the same habitat, as a means to differentiate between, say, Western and Clark’s Grebes, or the smaller Horned and Eared Grebes, which in February wear their winter plumage. 

The pièce de résistance in terms of unexpected 2019 additions was the buffy-colored passerine with a peaked crown, seen at the grassy lots leading off the traffic circle into Huffaker Park, exhibiting classic flycatcher behavior by sallying from and returning to a chain-link fence to catch bugs. Black Phoebes are common around the Creek, but this was a Say’s Phoebe. A Townsend’s Warbler appeared in Huffaker Park for one GBBC a few years ago, an exciting sighting.

Absent from last year’s count were Western Grebe, Mourning Dove, Eurasian Collared Dove, European Starling, Brewer’s Blackbird, and House Finch. All frequent the locale and have been sighted often since. Killdeer and Red-Winged Blackbirds, both previously counted on the GBBC, seem to have disappeared from Mission Creek. These species were often seen at the vernal pool in the open lot at 16th and Illinois streets, not far from the Creek, in years past. The Chase Center stands on that location today. 

Kamienecki started the annual event in part because birding is “a great way to meet neighbors. No experience is required. You learn a lot. When you start looking at birds, and knowing their behavior, it just enhances your appreciation of life and everything around you. We gather afterwards and talk about what we’ve seen,” Kamienecki said. “It reinforces what we’ve seen, it reinforces what we’ve learned, and it reinforces each other.” 

Paul Furman, owner of Bay Natives Nursery, a few miles south of Mission Creek, just across from Heron’s Head Park on Cargo Way, said his mission is “to spread habitat plants into the neighborhoods, not just the parks. Plant native plants, and it will attract more birds to your garden!” 

The 2020 GBBC around Mission Creek will meet at 10 a.m. in its usual spot on Saturday, February 15. All are welcome.