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Winter at Lake Merritt
Observing migration and enjoying birds in the heart of the city of Oakland
Happy new year, everyone! Yes, January is basically over, but I think the greetings can still count.
Last year, I was lucky enough to travel to many places and have great birding experiences abroad, but usually, I’m birding closer to home. That’s one of the great things about birding—you can do it right in your own backyard and see plenty of fine feathered friends. And luckier for me Lake Merritt in Oakland is more or less my backyard. Seasons don’t really change in the Bay Area of California the way they do in other parts of the country. Temperatures rise about ten degrees in the summer and fall back those ten in the winter. While some deciduous trees change their colors or blossom in spring, the coastal redwoods around the Bay stay evergreen.
Birds, then, become good indicators of passing seasons around the Bay Area and very visibly so at Lake Merritt, a nature reserve in the heart of the city that acts as a stopover for migratory birds making their way up and down the Pacific Flyway. The lake comes from a wide, tidal estuary and was once part of a much broader wetland area where the Ohlone people would hunt and fish. It became the city’s sewer when the city was first incorporated in 1852, and eventually, Oakland mayor Dr. Samuel Merritt, in an effort to prevent duck hunting on his property and to make it a “source of civic pride,” declared it a National Wildlife Refuge in 1869. Lake Merritt became the country’s first protected Wildlife refuge on March 18th, 1870.
The Lake is home to numerous bird species, and its central location, relatively tame populations, and the ability to get up close with many species make it a great spot for urban birding. There’s plenty to write about the year-long breeding residents of the Lake like egrets, herons, and cormorants, but for now, I’ll just cover the migratory ducks that dot its brackish waters and the warblers welcomed by the parkland’s trees in the winter season.
Winter residents start arriving as early as October, with populations peaking in late November and December, before taking flight again near March. Scaups make up the majority of the ducks around the lake, and you can count hundreds floating in fleets around the Lake. Both greater and lesser scaups are present, but personally, I can’t really tell the two apart.
Ruddy ducks make up the other fleets, and they seem to mostly spend their time at the Lake sleeping. They’re distinguished from scaups by their smaller size, pointed tails in the air, and bills ducked under their wings. Unfortunately, they tend to leave right before the male’s get their bright blue breeding bills.
Mixed in with these larger groups, either sleeping alongside or diving nearby, are Goldeneyes, Canvasbacks, and Buffleheads. Though not as numerous as the other two, there are still plenty of them to spot around the lake.
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American Coots, chicken-like birds with funny, big, lobed feet, tend to come earlier and leave later than the other winter visitors, but they don’t make a permanent residence. They can be heard honking at each other, and you can see them swimming in the water and walking around the grass looking for food.
Some surprise or rarer species make an appearance as well. Every now and then, Spotted Sandpipers bob their butts near the shoreline. This year, too, Greater-fronted White Geese, stopped over, mingling in with the much more numerous Canada Geese.
Perhaps the most conspicuous winter bird is Hank, the White Pelican, a permanent resident of the Lake since 2004 when she broke her wing and was left unable to fly. White pelicans are very common in the summer months, fishing around the Lake in groups with Hank. Alone in winter with her broken wing, she relies on neighborhood volunteers to feed her. One day this year, while on a field trip with Golden Gate Audubon, Hank was swimming around with cormorants, snowy egrets, and a lone blue heron who were all excited about some food in the water.
The Lake’s fish population (not to mention fish populations in other parts of the Bay Area) was devastated by a bad algal bloom in the fall of last year. Thousands of fish died off, impacting the local bird population who rely on the food supply. For a few weeks, rather than a Lake active with birds all around, the dark waters were dotted with dead fish that floated to the surface and washed up on shore during low tides. The water is back to normal, it seems, and though the fish population may not have fully bounced back, thankfully the birds returned for the winter.
More on Lake Merritt
Lake Merritt, sometimes called the “Jewel of Oakland,” is well loved, and there are many ways to learn more about it. Here are just a few other ways to explore.
Bird Note episode: ”The First North American Wildlife Refuge” – a two minute introduction to the Lake, its birds, and its role as a respite for people
Birds of Lake Merritt Book — An illustrated guide to birds of the Lake with commentary by Oakland community members who also love the Lake and its resident birds
Golden Gate Audubon — the local chapter of the Audubon society. Among many other activities, they host monthly field trips around the Lake as well as many other birding hot spots in the Bay Area.
Rotary Nature Center Friends — a volunteer group that advocates for the center as an interpretive education and science center for all the people of Oakland and as the Steward for the Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge. They host fireside chats on assorted topics about the Lake and its wildlife.
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