2017 Trip Reports

Lake Merritt
March 22, 2017
Leader(s): Hilary Powers and Ruth Tobey
# of participants: 12
# of species:  41

Standouts today included a couple of European Starlings in their fine spotted breeding plumage, as well as a Mourning Dove — two species often seen in the Bay Area but very rarely at Lake Merritt. We also saw three California Scrub Jays, even though months can go by without a glimpse of even one.  We heard House Sparrows for the first time this year, and saw three House Finches also for the first time in months. Violet-green Swallows were hawking for insects over the water, and we saw one brown Northern Rough-winged Swallow near the stretch of embankment where they’ve nested for the past few years.

On the islands, a Green Heron posed as for a portrait in a densely pink-flowering shrub, and a Great Blue Heron silhouetted itself against the sky. The Double-crested Cormorants — still showing crests — filled the newly bare trees with nests, and this was one of the few days of the year when it was easy to spot the male birds: they’re the ones carrying sticks through the air. Normally we can’t tell the difference (though they can), but while the nests are under construction it’s the males carrying supplies and the females doing the building.

The winter migrants have begun to leave, but we saw a lot of Ruddy Ducks — many living up to their name for a change. A few Common Goldeneyes showed off their full-moon cheek patches, and both Greater and Lesser Scaup were still here in substantial numbers, the males shining black and brindled gray and bright white as they prepare for the flight north.

Hank-the-rescue-pelican was on his own in the bird paddock, gloomily eyeing a smallish Cocker Spaniel that cowered by its person’s leg, both perhaps thinking of the possibility of doing lunch. Hank has his breeding bump prominent on his bill, but no one to show off for — the last of his companions left in November or early December, and he probably won’t see another of his kind till May or even June: they’re all down in San Diego and environs raising the next crop of chicks in a crowded nest neighborhood, and none of them have time for our solitary.

Best land sighting: Along the path to Children’s Fairyland, two Oak Titmice dashed back and forth from branch to branch and tree to tree, the one in the lead never getting too far ahead, and the one in the rear hopefully carrying a big black bug. Ah, love….

All told, we encountered 41 species — including a few of the big Western Grebes so notably missing earlier in the season — and a good deal of sunshine and no rain whatsoever despite the morning’s storm, and it was yet another genuinely good day at Lake Merritt.

Fort Mason
March 19, 2017
Leader(s): David Assmann
# of participants: n/r
# of species:  57

Pulses of avian activity made for some nice moments of excitement for the participants in the monthly GGAS walk at Fort Mason this morning. The best sightings were of one (or more) WESTERN KINGBIRDS in the Battery. A Kingbird was in view pretty much regularly for a 30 minute period while flycatching and perching at the tops of trees.  Although we never saw two Kingbirds at the same time, one would fly over and then another would be seen perched on the opposite side of the battery just moments later. Four BAND-TAILED PIGEONS flew over the Battery as well. At the beginning of the morning the HOUSE WREN was calling in the garden, and almost everyone had good views of the continuing BULLOCK’S ORIOLE in the Bottlebrush on the eastern fence of the garden. Activity quieted down when a SHARP-SHINNED HAWK came bursting out of an evergreen, scattering small birds in every direction. A LINCOLN’S SPARROW showed up twice in the garden, and the WHITE-THROATED SPARROW showed up at the very end.  From Aquatic Park we could see the GREAT HORNED OWL perched on the back of the palm north of the General’s House, and we watched a DOWNY WOODPECKER excavating a nest hole. A VIOLET-GREEN SWALLOW circled over several times. A HORNED GREBE in Aquatic Park was turning into alternate plumage. A male WESTERN TANAGER added some color to a mostly overcast morning, and small flocks of CEDAR WAXWINGS flew over periodically as well. Collectively we were able to identify 57 species.

Silver Lake- Valley Falls Raptor Survey
March 10, 2017
Leaders: Tom Lawler
# of participants: 3
# of species: 11+

Kara Jakse, Cindy Zalunardo and Diane Burgess assisted me with the Silver Lake – Valley Falls raptor survey. The weather was real nice to the southeast. This was the final count of the season which also turned out to be our lowest count of the season. 169 birds were sighted with eagles being the dominate species. Red-tailed, Roughy and Harrier numbers were way down compared to the previous year. We got some great looks at Sandhill Cranes which are beginning to make their push into the area. We sighted 48 cranes but these numbers will go way up in the next two weeks when hundreds of these birds gather around Paisley. Other notable sightings were two Turkey Vultures, a singing Northern Shrike, loads of Tree Swallows (at Summer Lake),  a Bobcat at Ft. Rock that was not 10 ft from the car but we did not notice it until it ran off, and lots of Pronghorn.

Species counted:

Red-tailed:                             61
Roughy:                                 11
Ferruginous:                           3
Unident Buteo:                       2
Golden Eagle:                      23
Bald Eagle (adult):               27
Bald Eagle (sub-adult)        15
Kestrel:                                   3
Prairie Falcon:                        1
Cooper’s                                  1
Harrier:                                   20
Great Horned Owl:                 2

Tilden Nature Area to Jewel Lake and Return
March 3, 2017
Leader(s): Alan Kaplan
# of participants: 44
# of species: 35

Today’s topic was “Nice to Sparrows: Margaret Morse Nice, 1883-1974.”
Margaret Morse Nice was the first female president of a major American ornithological society, the Wilson Ornithological Club (now Society), which since 1997 has awarded the Margaret Morse Nice Medal for “a lifetime of contributions to ornithology.” In 1942, the American Ornithological Union (now Society) awarded her the Brewster Medal for her studies on the Song Sparrow.

Niko Tinbergen wrote, on her 70th birthday, “Through your works you have become known to ornithologists throughout the entire world as the one who laid the foundation for the population studies now so zealously persecuted.” Ernst Mayr wrote, after she died, “I have always felt that she, almost single-handedly, initiated a new era in American ornithology and the only effective countermovement against the list chasing movement. She early recognized the importance of a study of bird individuals because this is the only method to get reliable life history data. She was one of the first people in this country to analyze a local deme.”

In her autobiography, Research is a Passion For Me, Margaret Morse Nice wrote, “I feel that the study of ornithology is a wonderful game in which strong sympathy and fellowship reign between the serious participants: we are friends and glad to help one another.”

Dover Publications has reprinted her two volumes of Studies in the Life History of the Song Sparrow,  and there is a nice sample of her work in The Watcher at The Nest.
Michael Elsohn Ross’s Bird Watching with Margaret Morse Nice is an excellent book for both young (its audience) and old.

Today’s Bird of the Day was Orange-crowned Warbler, of which there were many singing males.

McLaughlin Eastshore State Park
March 2, 2017
Leader(s): Emilie Strauss
# of participants: 11
# of species: 54

Highlights included a nice diversity of ducks and shorebirds, including Black Turnstone and Black Oystercatchers.  The Berkeley meadows were flooded and afloat with almost 10 species of ducks and shorebirds. After most of the group left, we saw a first-of-season barn swallow fly over the Berkeley Marina.

Lake Merritt
February 22, 2017
Leader(s): Hilary Powers and Ruth Tobey
# of participants: 15
# of species:  41

Our February walk was as early as it gets – so it was a bit of a surprise to see the Double-crested Cormorants on the spot. Most of the ones crowding the floats were beginning to show their bunny-ears crests, and a few were fully developed, as was the one bird who’d picked out a prime nest spot in the top of a dying tree. Besides being first on the field, that one was unusual in having crests that were not black like the majority of the local population and not white like the minority either; they were a fine brindled pepper-and-salt pattern, especially bushy and very distinguished.

Several Western Grebes swam with the scaup and Ruddy Ducks toward the Embarcadero fountain end of the lake: the first of their species to show up here since March 2016. Up by the islands, we saw one female Red-breasted Merganser and both a male and half a dozen female Common Mergansers (instead of the several pairs of each seen in recent months). The change may indicate a drop in salinity of the lake; Red-breasted Mergansers prefer salt water and Commons fresh, and with all this rain, unusual amounts of fresh water have been flowing into the lake from the Embarcadero creeks and the street drains.

Spring is definitely on the way. If the cormorants weren’t evidence enough, some of the Ruddy Ducks have mostly turned ruddy, the scaup drakes have shining white wings, and Hank-the-rescue-pelican is growing his breeding bump in lonely solitude. The Barrow’s Goldeneyes have departed. The rest of the winter visitors are still here – but see them soon or wait for next November.

The welcome-to-the-walk talk was interrupted by a Nuttall’s Woodpecker who showed off his fine ladder-pattern back and brilliant red head in a tamarisk near the dome cage where we meet – right at eye level, for a good long look with no neck strain. A couple of other males appeared later in the morning too, and also a rarely seen Downy Woodpecker. Yellow-rumped Warblers crowded the trees in the park, along with so many loud crows we were sure there had to be a raptor around, but we couldn’t find it and figured they couldn’t be harassing the pair of California Scrub-Jays (note the new name) that were watching them, so who knows? Pure crowly mischief.

Not a tremendously busy day – only 41 species, low for midwinter – but the clouds parted for welcome gleams of sun and dropped no rain at all: yet another good day at Lake Merritt….

Fort Mason
February 19, 2017
Leader(s): David Assmann
# of participants: 13
# of species: 45

Bullock’s Oriole, White-throated Sparrow and House Wren were the highlights.

Mount Sutro
February 18, 2017
Leader(s): Pat Greene
# of participants: 15
# of species: 22

We met at the UCSF Woods Lot where parking was permitted for a Sutro Stewards work day ( The weather was forecast to be rainy through ~10 AM, but the rain had stopped before daybreak, and I was surprised and happy as birders started arriving. We started under mostly cloudy skies with partial clearing through the morning. The temperature was about 55°F, and a breeze of 8-10 mph sent us up the fairly sheltered Northridge Trail to the Summit, instead of Historic Trail where the wind with cool temps can be uncomfortable. The summit meadow was surprisingly calm, but not very birdy–the birds seemed to hunkered down. SF had been experiencing extreme winds and a lot of rain during the previous 48 hours, so we avoided the narrow South Ridge and Quarry Trails, and descended Nike Road past the Sutro Nursery to Fairy Gates trail for the return to the start (

The birdiest spot of the day being the parking lot at the start; the best bird of the day for many of us was a Red-breasted Sapsucker. A large eucalyptus with Sapsucker tracks had been noticed a couple of years ago on the west side of the lot, but spotting the bird has not been a sure thing. On this morning it was working a tree on the east side of the lot. Views were filtered through foliage, but with patience, all were able to see the bird.  We also heard and saw many Robins, Song Sparrow, Townsend’s Warbler, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and Dark-eyed Junco before setting off on the trails.

The group was fairly large for birding on the sometimes narrow trails. But it was in interesting group, with Maryann Rainey, a Sutro Stewards nursery volunteer, providing commentary on the Sutro Stewards plantings along in openings created by trail building and hazardous tree removal. Another participant found a beautiful small salamander with orange legs and tail. Mushrooms were also up after all the rain. Alan Hopkins, well known in the SF birding community, also joined us and was a big help spotting birds, and helping share birds with the group.

Chain of Lakes Park, San Francisco
February 12, 2017
Leader(s): Mitch Youngman and Bonnie Brown
# of participants:
# of species: 34

Got lucky yet again with the weather! Sunny but started off chilly at 46F and warmed up nicely. Calm and clear morning, which I think we all really appreciated after all that rain. Another fun and friendly group today, Mitch gave a nice introduction and overview of GGAS (it was a Centennial walk after all!). We started at South Lake with a nice look at 5 Hooded Mergansers (with that being the first sighting I knew it would be a good day). Had a good look at a Northern Flicker low in the shrubs and pretty close up. Then we walked via Middle Lake, and it’s a lake again! Water has reappeared. A bit quiet through this area. Mitch brought his scope and we were all able to see the Great Horned Owl on it’s nest, one of the gals in our group had pictures of the owl and owlet from last season. That was fun to see! Then over to North Lake and there was a giant tree over the trail but plan B always works out and we took a secret shortcut to access the trail. Heard the Red Tails a few times and then they showed off for us a bit. A pair was seen on a tree and then flying, calling. Maybe they will take up residence in a nearby nest? A highlight this morning was certainly the Allen’s Hummingbirds, we saw at least 6. Twice we saw swooping behavior and also their impressive vertical flying maneuver. A lot of American Robins and Ravens observed today as well. And last but not least, we saw the Belted Kingfisher at South Lake right as we finished our walk. Not all got to see that one, but the few of us that did were quite happy with this last minute find! See you all next quarter!
View this checklist online at  Happy birding,

Brushy Peak, Patterson Pass
February 5, 2017
Leader(s): Steve and Carol Lombardi
# of participants: 8
# of species: 51

We had a fabulous raptor-y day at Brushy Peak and Patterson Pass Rd.  In the process, we discussed GGAS’s involvement with protecting birds from the Patterson Pass wind turbines.

As usual this fall, Brushy Peak and Laughlin Rd. were teeming with raptors.  Highlights included three Ferruginous Hawks, a Merlin, a Burrowing Owl, and a bunch of Kestrels, Red-tails, and Harriers. Loggerhead Shrikes were also relatively numerous.

Also, as usual this fall, Patterson Pass Rd. was relatively slow, although we had a nice look at an adult Golden Eagle, another Ferrug., and a bunch of Red-tails, Kestrels and Shrikes. Judging from recent postings, there is only one Mountain Bluebird in winter residence on Patterson Pass Rd. this winter. We saw him.

Tilden Park Nature Area
February 3, 2017
Leader(s): Alan Kaplan
# of participants: 18
# of species: 29

Our theme today was dual: Groundhog Day, and Mixed Species Flocks.

Two take-home lessons of Groundhog Day: The stars above us tonight (early February) are the star patterns of the Vernal Equinox sky of 3500 years ago, when (French folklorists tell us) there were spring celebrations that included The Bear (as Ursa Major, our Big Dipper). The “six more weeks of winter” (now closer to seven) marks off the time since today’s star patterns were those of the spring: “precession of the equinox” (due to the Earth’s axis wobbling in a 26,000 year cycle) causes the stars to appear a week earlier each 500 years. The Bear emerges from its hibernation, expecting a spring event, finds it is still winter, and goes back to sleep. The French say it sleeps for 40 more days, the Germans say the badger (another winter hibernator) sleeps for 4 weeks. German immigrants brought their folklore to Pennsylvania, and transferred their many early-February traditions to the groundhog. 2017 was the 131st year of the Gobbler’s Knob event in Punxsutawney, PA – the groundhog saw its shadow: six more weeks of winter! See H. Newell Wardle, Note on the Groundhog Myth and its Origin, Journal of American Folklore, 1919, vol. 32, pp 521-522 (it is available on line!). Thank you, Professor Alan Dundes, for this reference!

The other lesson is: Groundhogs wake up early in February so they can have grandchildren. Males go around to the wintering sites of females (who are still hibernating) and cuddle with them, a bonding activity that makes the male familiar when they meet in another month or so (maybe his scent is left in the female’s den?). Females are in estrus for only two weeks; ovulation is induced by copulation; gestation is 30 days; and the young are in the burrows for another 20-30 days, then out in the world and on their own soon after. Groundhog young need to have enough time to fatten for hibernation, so the earlier the males wake up from their hibernation, visit females for a “familiarity tour” (they may go to back to hibernate for awhile), and then mate when the females emerge, the better chance their offspring will survive to have offspring. So, the groundhog gets up early to have grandchildren!

New information on Mixed Species Flocks is available on line (you need to hunt around for a free PDF but it is available): Sridhar, H. et al., 2012, The American Naturalist 180(6):770-790, Positive Relationships between Association Strength and Phenotypic Similarity Characterize the Assembly of Mixed-Species Bird Flocks Worldwide. Birds in MSF’s are likely to be similar in size and shape, have similar foraging styles, and are often phylogenetically related.  Also, “Like Chasing Tornadoes” by Jack Connor (Living Bird, Autumn 2014. pp 38-39), and “Chickadees in Winter” by Bernd Heinrich (Natural History, March 2015, pp. 30-35) are fun to read, too.
Lake Merritt
January 25, 2017
Leader(s): Hilary Powers
# of participants: 21
# of species: 39

The species count was down for today’s walk, but the rarity count was way up. We had Barrow’s Goldeneyes for the first January this decade, and we had not one but two pair each of Common and Red-breasted Mergansers. A first-year Red-tailed Hawk sat on one of the islands till the crows ran it off, and a tiny Brown Creeper – another January first, and the first in any month since November 2003 – shared a tree near the playground with a Nuttall’s Woodpecker and a Western Bluebird. In the garden, a Fox Sparrow joined the White-crowned and Golden-crown sparrows in the vegetable beds.

So the 20-odd participants in the walk were delighted with what they saw and hardly noticed what common sights of past years they were missing: both Western and Clark’s Grebes, wild White Pelicans, even Double-crested Cormorants were least in sight (though I did see one cormorant after the walk, while loading the scope in the car). No Great Egrets or Great Blue Herons, no Green Herons, no Belted Kingfishers, no Titmice, no House Sparrows or House Finches….

A strange day, indeed – cold but sunny and bright, providing very good looks at what there was to see. Familiar wonders like the coots’ lobed green toes or Hank-the-rescue-pelican’s twisted shoulder, mild surprises like a Ruby-crowned Kinglet – usual description: if you didn’t see it, it was a kinglet! – fluttering around the front of a branch in plain sight for several minutes, raw if possibly misguided courage from the group members who slithered down a concrete goose-ramp to rescue a turtle the size of a salad plate from a salty death. (And came out dry, with the turtle in a plastic bag to bear off to a better home.) But a good day all round, well up to the standard of Lake Merritt, where every day truly is a good day.

Fort Mason
January 15, 2017
Leader(s): David Assmann,
# of participants: 25
# of species: 55
Fort Mason was quite active this morning, particularly after the sun came out. The participants collectively saw 56 species. Ducks in and around Aquatic Park included a female BUFFLEHEAD, two AMERICAN WIGEONS and a male RED-BREASTED MERGANSER. A COMMON MURRE swam just offshore. The WANDERING TATTLER was immediately below the sea wall, so participants were treated to stunning views from 10 feet away or less. While watching the Tattler bob its tail, two BLACK TURNSTONES flew in next to the Tattler. At least 14 FORSTER’S TERNS were fishing in the Bay, and a BONAPARTE’S GULL flew west. There were three EARED GREBES in Aquatic Park, along with several WESTERN GREBES. In one of the trees next to Aquatic Park, an ANNA’S HUMMINGBIRD sat on a nest. Raptors included a very visible RED-TAILED HAWK in the garden, a COOPER’S HAWK north of the garden, and a MERLIN in the Battery. The BULLOCK’S ORIOLE was chattering at the beginning of the morning, and perched out for the last participants to see at the end of the walk. A WHITE-THROATED SPARROW was visible periodically, and a LINCOLN’S SPARROW afforded good views on the north side of the garden. A RED-BREASTED SAPSUCKER was working the Avocado tree in the garden. We had several good sightings of an ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER. A HOUSE WREN called in the garden, and at the very end, a WESTERN BLUEBIRD was on the far south side of the Great Meadow, and a SAY’S PHOEBE was in front of the Headquarters.

Tilden Nature Area
January 6, 2017
Leader(s): Alan Kaplan
# of participants: 24
# of species: 32

Our theme today was Winter Survival of Birds: Life on the Edge and how they cope.

Highlights were: Corvid Grand Slam (Common Raven, American Crow, Steller’s Jay and Scrub Jay); Picidae Hat Trick (Northern Flicker, Hairy Woodpecker, Nuttall’s Woodpecker); Raptor Great Grand Slam (Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk and Golden Eagle). Mammal of the Day: Coyote (three of them on the road to Jewel Lake).

Strybing Arboretum, San Francisco
January 1, 2017
Leader(s): Kimberly Jannarone & others
# of participants: 12+
# of species: 30+

Happy 2016, birders! About a dozen of us welcomed it in by birding the Arboretum together this morning.
A real delight was a Pacific Wren rewarding our stillness and patience by hopping out near our feet, foraging around, and then going back to its business in the bushes. After this, we felt the new year had promise.
While we consistently arrived a few minutes late to where Ginny’s group had just seen some rarer birds, we enjoyed saying hello to over 30 species and getting great looks at many, including a Pied-Billed Grebe looking subtle and elegant on the pond, an acrobatic Downy Woodpecker who hung upside down in front of us for a long while, a open view in full sunlight of a Hutton’s Vireo, and a couple of very close Brown Creepers. We saw a pair of Fox Sparrows doing their double-scratch, and Song Sparrows were almost everywhere.