Thirteen happy birders gathered for the still-unofficial April 4th-Wednesday walk at Lake Merritt – not quite so many as in a non-pandemic month, but close.
We got off to a really good start when a Red-tailed Hawk swooped to the top of the dome cage and prowled about, surveying the territory. “How can you tell that’s a redtail?” someone asked, observing its brown-and-beige striped tail. “It’s young yet” was the basic answer. Few descriptive bird names actually apply lifelong and year round, but redtails do better than most: almost all do get rust-red tails after about a year and keep them the rest of their lives. Besides, they have several field marks – the blocky shape, the cummerbund, the subtle light-colored V speckling the back, the black inside the elbows (invisible on a perching bird) – that help us identify them regardless of age.
Also from the meeting spot, we got a long look at a Green Heron on the island rip-rap. It was standing tall (showing off its truly herondous neck) and staring at us as though expecting a fish; no such luck. The water around the islands held an unusual number of scaup for the season, the drakes accompanied by more hens than generally venture near the islands. We also saw a lot of Ruddy Ducks, many altogether ruddy instead of dusty brown. Coots have never entirely eluded us in April, but they came close this time – only one lone lorn coot showed up all morning.
The Double-crested Cormorant rookery on the island is down to two nests this year, at least so far – there’s room for more pairs, so it wouldn’t be odd to see newcomers. Two is good, though. They’re entertaining to watch and not numerous enough to need to kill any more trees; the smaller eucalyptus seems to be recovering from the damage done three and four years ago. (If that sounds weird, the answer is simple: these birds prefer sunny nest spots but will build in the shade if that’s all that’s left in their chosen area. Either way, they go about their lives, ejecting former fish – lots of former fish; you do not want to stand in their shade – and changing the soil in ways their tree eventually cannot survive. The big tree is a goner, but the little one looks like it may make it.)
Hank-the-rescue-pelican had a friend this year, which is notable on two counts. Not only was this the first time she’s ever had company in April, it marks the first twelve-month period (since I started tracking trip reports in 2009) with at least one independent White Pelican showing up for every single walk. Could we have baby pelicans in the offing? Not likely – the visitor might not be one of the birds here last month or the month before, and indeed might not even be male, as I for one can’t tell the difference – but hope is a feature of springtime.
Thinking of springtime, the Eared Grebes are worth a trip to the lake all on their own. Their alternate plumage – to use the formal term for what most of us refer to as “breeding plumage” for obvious reasons – puts them among the most beautiful birds of North America. We saw several of them along the way, in different stages of the transition from demure gray to flashing steel and copper and gold. The ruby eyes they always have, but they seem brighter against the metallic background.
Over in Lakeside Park, the warblers were gone, but the usual suspects (House Finches and chickadees and titmice and Bushtits and the rest) were out in force. We couldn’t find the Bushtit nest hinted at last month, sad but unsurprising given how close it was to the ground. Highlighting that part of the trip were clouds of Cedar Waxwings fluttering from treetop to treetop, looking like exotic adventurers from another realm. We see them often, and pretty much always in April, but it’s still a thrill to meet that black-masked stare.
All told, we observed a record 43 species, well above the mid to high 30s recorded for past Aprils. Some of the increase may be an artifact of my new practice of sharing the preliminary list before completing the report, but I refuse to feel guilty about that. It was – as ever at Lake Merritt – a very fine day indeed, and much too fine for minor qualms.