By Hilary Powers
Note: this blog first appeared in the May 2018 edition of The Tidings
A few participants in the April 4th-Wednesday Golden Gate Audubon walk – not including me, alas – got to see one of the finest sights springtime has to offer: a pair of Eared Grebes in full copper and steel and gold breeding plumage rise up and run side by side across the water. By the time others whirled to look, the two were swimming sedately. Still a treat, every move and turn perfectly matched, but with no sign that surface speed was any part of their lives.
It was a quiet day – at 32 species, tied for the lowest count in several Aprils – but well filled with brilliant moments: the fledgling Double- crested Cormorant spreading its new wings on the edge of an island, the would-be papa cormorant circling the islands to build the height needed to deliver a heavy branch to a nest for the second wave of breeding, the lone Horned Grebe in a group of Eared Grebes.
Across the street behind the bird paddock, Cedar Waxwings filled a tall snag over the garden. (I’d have missed them entirely as it never occurred to me to search in that direction, but that’s one of the big advantages of birding in a group: the more eyes on watch – within reason – the more birds everyone gets to see.) A pair of Western Bluebirds shared the Necklace of Lights with brown Northern Rough-winged Swallows, while a crowd of English Sparrows sorted through the lawn below them. You’d think English Sparrows would be too common to mention, but lately they’ve been rare at the lake: this was their first appearance this year. We saw them only three times last year and four the year before; they haven’t shown up in April since 2015.
Human encounters had charms of their own. We got a scope focused on an active Black Phoebe nest, and a young mother lifted her daughter from a stroller so she could look too. The child beamed happily and told us of seeing wild Keas in New Zealand: a good start to a life with birds.
Later, a six-foot-tall woman stopped us to demand, “Can you answer a bird question? I keep seeing Kookaburras in the trees, but I thought Kookaburras live in Australia?!” “You’re seeing kingfishers – and you’re right, Kookaburras are kingfishers that live in Australia. But there are lots of different kinds: all Kookaburras are kingfishers, but not all kingfishers are Kookaburras; these ones are Belted Kingfishers, smaller and a different color, but a lot alike.” “That answers my question!” She grinned and strolled on, a goddess in white shorts and loose top.
And thus another trip along the lake – far enough to see the few scaup remaining in front of the fountain at El Embarcadero, with one big Western Grebe among them – then back across Bellevue and around the Garden Center and through the garden, moving from overcast to bright sunlight and enjoying every moment of yet another good day at Lake Merritt.