May 27, 2020
Leader(s): Hilary Powers and Ruth Tobey
# of participants: 7
# of species: 33
The Pandemic continued to cast its shadow over gatherings in May, but the officially cancelled 4th-Wednesday walk at Lake Merritt drew seven birders – including three newcomers who’d been meaning to join the trip for years and decided this was the month to start.
The bird turnout was typical late-spring light (the more-or-less usual 33 species) – but we hardly noticed, with three sets of new eyes to see through. New birders make everything interesting again: the difference between adult and juvenile Black-crowned Night-Herons and adult and juvenile gulls, the way to tell a domestic goose from a wild bird , the reason we see so few species of ducks in May.
Story sharing brought out the news that we have a Crested Duck back at the lake – over on the Harrison Street arm rather than in the bird paddock where it belongs, but enough to trigger the origin tale, untold for several years. Crested Ducks are gorgeous domestics – shaped like the common barnyard waddler and colored anywhere in that range, but one and all wearing some sort of ball of feathers for headgear. The new one is particularly fine: all shining white, with an orange beak and a huge puffy white feathered beret. A pleasure to see – but a tad grisly to consider once you know that only one of that bird’s parents was a Crested Duck; the other had to have been the ordinary smooth-headed variety. Why? Because the gene that causes the trait kills with a double dose: the skull doesn’t fuse and the baby dies in the egg. And people still breed for it…. At least our new Crested Duck is hanging with a very attentive smooth-headed drake.
A Green Heron visited the tidal flats in front of the dome cage at the beginning of the trip, high-stepping through the couple of inches of water-logged algae and occasionally snapping up something small and wriggling. It may have the way my toes curled as I watched, but it really looked as though the heron didn’t much like the footing despite the rewards of hunting there.
Later, we enjoyed another Green Heron appearance, this one on the near island’s east-side rip-rap – in an expected location, but not prowling for tidbits or watching for them. Instead, it had a crow crowding it along the shore and attempting to dive-bomb it. The heron responded by moseying away from the ground-level approaches and making a spirited attempt to spear the crow when it dived too close. An astonishing encounter; something I’d have called unique had I not seen almost the same thing a week or so earlier. On that occasion, my companion Lyla captured part of the action, visible at https://www.facebook.com/hilary.powers.16/videos/2886075981507787/ – no Facebook account needed for viewing.
Over in Lakeside Park, we encountered all the usual tree birds – the chickadees and titmice and juncos and robins and the rest – but no warblers and no rarities. It was hot enough to make deep shade very welcome, so we sat awhile under the oak by the composting area in the garden. While we rested, a Cooper’s Hawk made the day by buzzing up the path past us about ten feet off the ground; it skimmed over the fence and away, failing to snag a snack en route. Good days are thin on the ground now – even thinner than a month ago – so it was a very good day to be at Lake Merritt, where they’re still to be relied upon….
April 22, 2020
Leader(s): Hilary Powers and Ruth Tobey
# of participants: 2
# of species: 36
The 4th Wednesday of April fell on Earth Day this year, with the Earth rather quieter than usual in the Bay Area, and doubtless many other places as well. Golden Gate Audubon cancelled the walk again as required, but I’d quietly passed the word that I’d be there anyway. My co-leader and two other birders joined me for a safely distanced bit of permitted outdoor exercise, plus a pause by the bird paddock to hang the Earth-from-space flag one of the birders brought.
It was a beautiful clear day, sunny and not hot, but the air seemed strange. Looking out from the starting point at the dome cage end of the boathouse lot – empty because this time the main drive-in entrances to the park really were blocked off – we saw a faint sparkle across the islands, like a thin gold mist. Not gold, but more valuable to the Violet-green and Northern Rough-winged Swallows that visit the lake in the late spring and summer: a fog of midges, more than we’d seen (or at least noticed) before. Which made it even odder that we didn’t see our most common flycatcher, the Black Phoebe, all morning – the first April since 2010 to miss that bird. Perhaps there were simply too many places for a phoebe to get breakfast for us to spot one in action!
As hoped last month, the Double-crested Cormorants have at last established their rookery on the island, with 9 busy nests. It’s smaller than usual, limited to the one really bare tree, so the tree they’ve only half killed seems to be getting the year off. That’s ideal, as far as I’m concerned: cormorants with fuzzy black babies to watch, plus a chance of recovery for a far from full-sized tree. (In case you were wondering, these birds – our only tree-nesting cormorants – prefer to build in the sun. If they can find exposed spots, they won’t bother trees with a lot of leaves… but they’ll take them if that’s all they can get, and the situation corrects itself over the next few years as their droppings convert leafy trees into nice sunny bare ones.)
A Green Heron prowled along one of the islands as we gathered for the walk. Though that’s always a welcome sight, this one was more frustrating than usual as the best the binoculars could do was show us a gray blob balanced on orange sticks floating from one gray rock to another, with a glimpse of the rufous breast and dark beak for those who knew what to look for and where to look for it. Normally the first response to a Green Heron is to grab for the spotting scope, which would bring the view within arm’s reach and show every feather, but our scopes are out of action for the duration.
Out on the lake, the winter migrants had mostly emigrated onward, but we still had a fair number of scaup – both species – and some gloriously ruddy Ruddy Ducks. Forster’s Terns dipped and dived, retreating to rest on the floats farthest from the nature center. They’re coming into full breeding plumage, with black caps and white wingtips; lovely creatures, like gulls redesigned for racing speed, and we rarely see them except in late spring.
Several Eared Grebes patrolled the water, mostly underneath, while putting the finishing touches on their party suits. (By next month, they’ll probably be gone, not to be seen again till September – when they’ll be all gray with bits of white and black, showing no trace of their current luminous metallic tones.) We also saw several Pied-billed Grebes, also due to be gone next month (though they’ll probably return by June or July), and one big Western Grebe, unlikely to reappear till next October or maybe even November.
Lakeside Park had its own rewards, too: droves of robins on the lawns (and we don’t see robins every month), plus chickadees and titmice and most of the other usual suspects. Bushtits appeared singly, a truly unusual sight! Most of the year, they fly in tight flocks of a dozen or two, but nesting couples split off to raise their broods (of up to 10 chicks!) alone, social distancing avian style. One of these flying mice landed about three feet over my head, ignoring me completely, focused on the serious business of staying alive.
As are we all in this second month of the declared pandemic – but nonetheless, with 36 species on view (a reasonable April total), it was another very good day at Lake Merritt, where every day….
March 25, 2020
Leader(s): Hilary Powers
# of participants: 1
# of species: 42
The March 4th-Wednesday Golden Gate Audubon walk was cancelled, like pretty much everything else in this first month of the recognized pandemic, but I strolled down to the usual starting place at the usual time. (Strolled ’cuz I left the spotting scope home – scopes want to be shared, and there’s no way to share a scope and maintain social distancing and surface cleanliness – meaning I wouldn’t have to slog back up the hill with it. And with all the news of beach closures, I didn’t like the chance of the entry being blocked to cars – which it wasn’t, but the exercise was good.)
Anyway, one intrepid birder joined me for much of the walk, carefully hovering six feet away, and we saw or heard 42 species of birds – more than in any of the past three years, despite the reduction in eyes and optics on the hunt – mainly because the weather was rather better than in preceding March trips. Partly cloudy, meaning partly sunny, and often without cold winds….
The first biggest observation: the island trees held zero nesting cormorants. The remnants of last year’s nests clung to the branches, but no one was rebuilding. We did see half a dozen Double-crested Cormorants on the floats, including one with beautiful white crests like an Easter Bunny costume, so maybe April will see some action. On the other hand, another cormorant on the floats was so pale it looked like a new-fledged juvenile; maybe they’re nesting elsewhere this year.
Lots of courting action on the lake: Two male Common Goldeneyes were trying to impress the same female with the length of their necks (a drake can reach his tail with the back of his head, even though they usually look like they don’t have necks at all), and several pairs of Eared Grebes were swimming side by side and showing off their gold and copper and steel party clothes, some of the flashiest among North American birds. Ruddy Ducks were everywhere – the most numerous bird on the lake – and many of the drakes lived up to their name for a change: brilliant russet backs to go with their black caps, white cheeks, and sky-blue bills.
Hank-the-Rescue-Pelican had a friend, a first for March since 2010 (and that may have been a misguided checkmark for Helen, the lake’s previous rescue pelican). Hmmmm. Hank can hope, and so can we, but the chances aren’t good. Meanwhile, Snowy Egrets fished wherever we looked, standing in the water to shake their golden toes in hopes of attracting edible attention, occasionally turning to chase one another with their crown feathers fanned out like fright wigs. And a Black-crowned Night-Heron flapped briskly toward the Children’s Fairyland side of the park carrying a stick – I couldn’t find it later but fondly believe it meant to nest within the park boundaries and not in downtown Oakland.
Featherless bipeds around the lake were mostly keeping their distance, except for a few pairs of adults with small juveniles who probably shared nest space away from the lake. Most startling observations for the species: two adult males (not together) walking along nose-down in actual paper books.
Most of the predicted feathered species showed up in the trees, though I had to rely on my admittedly unreliable ears for the Chestnut-backed Chickadees and Bewick’s Wrens. Almost everyone spotted jumping through the branches turned out to be a Yellow-rumped Warbler, many in their most brilliant black-gold-and-gray party clothes, but there were a lot of crested gray Oak Titmice as well. And the air was buzzing with Anna’s Hummingbirds, including one perched against the sky and looking like an alien creature: the gorget and forehead feathers, usually almost magenta, shone crimson and metallic gold instead. I posted a what-could-it-be note to a local birding list, but the next message I opened was an Audubon newsletter that started with a pic of an Anna’s displaying exactly that view. Wonders everywhere, even among old friends – as is only fitting for a day at Lake Merritt….
February 26, 2020
Leader(s): Hilary Powers and Ruth Tobey
# of participants: 21
# of species: 52
“That’s the bird of the day!” sang out one participant, looking up at a catalpa tree across from the Garden Center. As always when approaching the pair of trees flanking the path about midway though the walk, I’d stopped to point out the horizontal rows of holes in the bark and explain that they were made by Red-breasted Sapsuckers – the slim rusty-hooded woodpeckers that farm these trees, drilling holes and then returning to them to clean out both the sap that bleeds in and the bugs that come to eat the sap. Also as just about always, we scanned the trees, found no sapsuckers – recorded on only seven other occasions in more than a decade of monthly visits – and crossed the street, heading for the garden. Then someone toward the rear of the group looked back and said, “SAPSUCKER!!”
We crowded round and got all the available scopes on the bird, which spent a satisfactory few minutes walking slowly up the trunk and providing good views for all. A number of unusually bright golden Lesser Goldfinches moved through the catalpas while we were watching, adding to the fun.
The day, warm and sunny and windless, was already off to a good start when the sapsucker took center stage. We’d seen Red-breasted Mergansers from the parking lot near the dome cage, along with many of the remaining winter migrants (Common Goldeneyes, Bufflehead, assorted scaup), plus both a Green Heron and a Belted Kingfisher, two of the showiest attractions of any walk. Strolling past the Nature Center toward El Embarcadero, we’d passed an active Black Phoebe nest and spotted the remaining winter ducks (Canvasbacks and Ruddy Ducks – some actually starting to turn ruddy), plus both kinds of egrets, all five wintering grebes, and the first few Double-crested Cormorants (still crestless and ignoring nest sites) of the season.
Hank-the-Rescue-Pelican (alone last month) had not one but three visitors, all starting to show their breeding bumps. Could this be the year Hank’s company stays? And on top of everything else, we spotted a still-spotless Spotted Sandpiper fossicking around the shore of the bird paddock, looking like a regular despite not being seen since a year ago. Spotted Sandpipers are fun to watch, and they’d be easy to recognize if they were called “Pumping Sandpipers” or somesuch – they all always waggle their rumps up and down while walking or perching, but they have spots on their otherwise plain white breasts only a few weeks a year, and this wasn’t one of them.
Also at the lake, a Northern Rough-winged Swallow (the earliest since 2015) buzzed past, possibly scoping out nesting holes in the wall, and perched in one of the bare island trees. In the park, we picked up an American Robin – an uncommon sighting here these days – and the first Steller’s Jay (the dark blue crested one) since 2018.
All told, we counted 52 species – up from last year’s 45, 44 in 2018, and only 39 back in 2017 – so it was an exciting morning, especially as long as we could squint and not-see how few of each kind of duck dotted the lake. Aside from that, and ignoring the basic wrongness of 70-degree-plus sunshine in late February, it was yet another wonderful day at Lake Merritt, where every day has wonders of its own.
Chain of Lakes Golden Gate Park
February 16, 2020
Leader(s): Bonnie Brown and Mitch Youngman
# of participants: 15
# of species: 42
We had a very productive morning with pleasant, mostly sunny weather, a bit cool in the shade, and an enthusiastic group of about 15. Our morning highlights were seeing the female Great Horned Owl on her nest, the light breeze blowing her feathers made it a little easier to see her, many Allens Hummingbirds, close up of a stationary juvenile Sharp Shinned Hawk – first it had it’s back to us, then it turned around so we got great views of it. Having the Sibleys book handy was key to identifying this bird (no white at tail tip and it had an eye band), just after that sighting, we saw a Coopers Hawk flying overhead. Probably one of the higher species counts that we’ve had on one of these walks!
View this checklist online at https://ebird.org/checklist/S64615217
February 16, 2020
Leaders: David Assmann
# of Species:
Today’s field trip participants were able to see most of the overwintering special birds, including the male ORCHARD ORIOLE, a YELLOW-SHAFTED NORTHERN FLICKER, an Intergrade NORTHERN FLICKER and a RED-BREASTED SAPSUCKER in the garden. We were able to observe three different hummingbird nests, including an ANNA’S HUMMINGBIRD feeding young at a nest in the garden, an ALLEN’S HUMMINGBIRD nest above the steps leading down to Aquatic Park, and an ANNA’S HUMMINGBIRD on a nest in a Cypress tree above Black Point (unfortunately about 20 feet from a sign saying that tree removal would start there on Tuesday – don’t know if the tree with the nest is slated for removal). Three WHITE-THROATED SWIFTS flew over. A WHITE-THROATED SPARROW was foraging in the Battery. A NASHVILLE WARBLER was in the garden early in the morning, and we observed two ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER – one in the garden and one in the Battery. The WESTERN BLUEBIRDS were checking out the nest holes in the Cabbage Palm next to the Chapel.
February 15, 2020
Leader(s): Steve and Carol Lombardi
# of participants: 12
# of species: 36
14 of us including Carol and I had a great time pounding the back roads of Eastern Alameda County on a delightful, windless, faux-spring day. We birded at Brushy Peak Preserve, Cedar Mountain Winery, and then along Patterson Pass Rd., Midway Rd., and Old Altamont Road. Highlights were Mountain Bluebirds, Golden Eagles, and a close look at a Ferruginous Hawk.
Hilltop Lake Park, Richmond
February 12, 2020
Leader(s): Cathy Bleier
# of participants: 8
# of species: 38
Eight of us had a very nice walk on a sunny, warm winter day. Birds are getting ready for spring and were super active. Ducks were mostly gone (since January), though a Canvasback and a couple female Ruddy Ducks had dropped in, and a pair of Ring-necked and female Buffleheads remained. Judy saw an Allen’s Hummingbird. Oak Titmice, which have been verrry vocal everywhere the last 2 weeks, did not disappoint here either. We checked the napes of all our Northern Flickers for intergrade signs; none seen. Yellow-rumped Warblers were the most abundant bird, with at least one Myrtle’s included (and nicely photo-documented by Becky).
Today’s list is at https://ebird.org/checklist/S64408573.
Ballena Bay Alameda
February 1, 2020
Leader(s): Megan Jankowski
# of participants: 18
# of species: 41
Saturday was an unusually foggy day all over the bay, which made terrible conditions for scoping rafts of ducks off of Alameda. Upon arriving at 9 a.m. conditions were bad and only got worse. After seeing a few birds, including a Spotted Sandpiper on the shore, we decided to reverse our route and bird the inner Ballena Bay before walking along the outer SF bayside.
Ballena Bay is a great spot because aside from the offshore ducks you can reliably see a nice variety of landbirds such as Western Bluebirds, Western Meadowlarks, and usually a Say’s Phoebe. Walking among the buildings the first bird we spotted was a lone Red-breasted Nuthatch low on a trunk, which was slightly unexpected. Moving in to a small courtyard to view Bushtits, we found a Black-Crowned Night Heron hidden in the leaves.
Moving on further brought coots, a few Common Goldeneye, more Spotted Sandpipers, Lease Sandpipers and a Snowy Egret. Crab Cove was not visible through the fog, and the marina wall and docks were empty of roosting shorebirds.
Toward the end of the walk conditions were just starting to clear, and we saw only a handful of Surf Scoter. Most notable however was a first winter Ring-billed Gull that walked right up to the group. It had an obviously injured left wing, so I captured it and drove it to International Bird Rescue. IBRC confirmed it has a fractured ulna. With their expert care and a bit of luck, hopefully this bird will fly again.
Full eBird list: https://ebird.org/checklist/S64014142
January 22, 2020
Leader(s): Hilary Powers and Ruth Tobey
# of participants: 27
# of species: 48
The first thing to strike our Audubon crew (aside from the new fences closing off the area between the dome cage and the lake except for a lockable but open gate) was how very much water there was. The surface looked at least three feet higher than usual… and the level was still rising: threatening to overflow by the Rotary Nature Center a bit before 10 am, and actually onto the path around 11:30 when we were heading back toward Lakeside Park.
Perhaps it was the extra water that lured in our one real lake-rarity: a handsome male Northern Shoveler sat gleaming on the edge of one of the islands like a comic caricature of a Mallard. In all the record-keeping for the trip, he was the first of his kind to appear.
The lake also had virtually all the winter regulars: all five kinds of grebe, both Greater and Lesser Scaup in substantial numbers (for this depleted age), not-ruddy Ruddy Ducks (better called Stiff-tail Ducks for now), and lots of Bufflehead. A party of nine Red-breasted Mergansers clustered in the waters below the islands, including a handsome male in full copper, green, and gray breeding plumage, and the Common Goldeneyes were out in force – unaccompanied by the rarer Barrow’s variety this time, alas.
For those willing to look at gulls (mostly birders bored with sparrows), we had several Glaucous-winged Gulls (gray backs and gray wingtips). They joined some of the duck-sized Western Gulls, a few smaller and yellow-legged California Gulls, and a huge flock of Ring-billed Gulls, the easiest species to identify, having (you guessed it) a clear black band around the bill.
The oaks along the park between the islands and El Embarcadero sheltered most of the birds we usually find across Bellevue and in the garden – crested gray Oak Titmice, Bushtits (also gray and much more mouselike), typewriter-chattering Ruby-crowned Kinglets – plus a pair of Hutton’s Vireos.
Most of the rest of the forest birds turned up later, though we dipped on robins and House Finches. The prize of the last hour was a really good look at a Downy Woodpecker (one of only two dozen sightings over more than a decade) digging a nest hole at the top of dead pine tree.
For some reason, raptors are the princes of any day list; birders greet them with delight, which is weird when you stop to think about it – they eat the rest of the objectives. It may be a simple matter of relative rarity – predators have to be less common than prey – and birders want rare; crowds headed to Fresno from the Bay Area a few years ago when a real Blue Jay showed its beak in the wrong half of the U.S. Anyway, months go by at Lake Merritt without a raptor sighting, and this trip had two: a beautiful Red-shouldered Hawk, all russet breast and black-and-white checks and stripes, circling overhead long enough for really good looks, and a rosy-breasted gray adult Cooper’s Hawk that landed in a nearby pine tree to give the group the stink eye.
Adding to the delight, it was sunny and pleasant for what felt like the first time in a long time, and we saw so many species – 48 in all – that there isn’t room for them all here. Yes indeedy, it was a wonderful day at Lake Merritt, where every day….
Blake Garden, Kensington
January 8, 2020
Leader(s): Sonja Raub
# of participants: 44
# of species: 25
Our group partook in finding the winter resident birds in UC Regents’ Blake Garden. Meghan, the head gardener, gave a synopsis of the garden’s history to begin our tour. Although it was cool and overcast we found or heard 25 bird species. The birders who stayed the two and a half hours until the end of the walk witnessed a mixed flock of about six species. Bob Hudson submitted the official bird list to ebird and shared it with those participants who shared their ebird contacts or email addresses.
It was an enjoyable experience and hopefully there will be returning birders to the Blake Garden.
We will repeat this tour on February 5, 2020. We plan to offer a guided birding walk through the Blake Garden once a month in 2020.
Tilden Nature Area
January 3, 2020
Leader(s): Alan Kaplan
# of participants: 46
# of species: 34
Our walk went from the Tilden Nature Center parking lot to Jewel Lake, then a bit into Wildcat Canyon to see “birds on the wires” and back. White Pelican fly-by and White-tailed Kite were Birds O’ the Day! Winter Survival tip from a Raven at the Little Farm: Grab an egg when you see it! From Great Egret at Jewel Lake: Carpe Diem (Seize the Fish)! View this checklist online at https://ebird.org/checklist/S63109858