Falcon Flies at Lake Merritt! And perches. And looks around. And takes a little circling flight. And perches. And sits looking down at the lake and across at the Bellevue Club for so long that the February 4th-Wednesday not-quite-Golden-Gate-Audubon walking party eventually strolls onward, heads buzzing with Peregrine Falcon delight but fickle eyes searching for new wonders…. Though the park offers a seemingly endless pigeon buffet, this was only the third peregrine sighting on the walk since record-keeping started in 2009: high point of the day and maybe the year.
Not that there wasn’t plenty else to see. The nest sites on the island tree were still unclaimed, but a Double-crested Cormorant with crests perched on one of the floats with another cormorant cuddled close, offering hope for this year’s season. The nearby waters held the usual crowd of American Coots, not-yet-ruddy Ruddy Ducks, and Greater and Lesser Scaup, along with the better part of a dozen moon-cheeked Common Goldeneyes, and farther out – toward the other side of the lake – a small flock of Red-breasted Mergansers swam with their long ragged crests blowing in the wind.
All along the lake, we saw lots of grebes – Pied-billed, Eared, and even one each Western and Clark’s. By contrast, the herons were almost missing. One lone lorn Snowy Egret was the only member of the whole class to put in an appearance, which feels like an excuse to add a sighting from the day before the walk: a Green Heron was fishing along the island rocks with all the feathers from the base of its beak over the top of its head raised in a 3″ tall punk hairdo. Though I’d never seen the like – a Green Heron’s head generally forms one smooth line through the spearpoint beak – it can’t be all that unusual: the first handful of images provided by Professor Google includes one from the Audubon field guide <https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/green-heron> that almost matches it, so you can see for yourself.
The lawns were jumping with small birds – mostly White-crowned and Golden-crowned Sparrows, but with a bunch of Yellow-rumped Warblers pursuing the ground-foraging segment of their jobs (eating everything anyone else eats, and more of it if they can get it). Western bluebirds hopped up and down between grass and branches, as always an astonishment of color in the near-summer-strength sun. They’d nested already – several were clearly juveniles (distinctive streaked gray bodies and blue flight feathers), even though the Sibley guidebook says to expect that plumage in May rather than February.
A Hermit Thrush brightened the ground in the Garden Center garden, which was also home to assorted hummingbirds, finches, and sparrows. Probably-a-Cooper’s-Hawk flew out very fast as we were entering, rocketing into the trees across the road. Then the walk wound up as it often does at the Sensory Garden, where we enjoyed (and were beginning to envy) the small birds splashing in the flat stone fountain, which has to be one of the pleasantest places on earth on a warm morning.
All told, and despite the herons playing hooky, we collected a total of 45 species on the day – down from 52 last year, but about the same as usual for the month. And at the end, as we stood around in the sort of it’s-all-over-but-don’t-wanna-leave conversation we often wind up with, I glanced up and saw the trunk of a birch tree break out in little knobs that moved around. “Creeper-creeper-creeper!” I squeaked, pointing. Sure enough, a Brown Creeper was making its way up the white bark, then fluttering down to the roots to repeat the trip. Brown Creepers are way up on the list of birds we don’t expect but always want to see, and this was only the second one recorded on a February walk: a splendid conclusion to a splendid morning at Lake Merritt, where every morning has splendors of its own to offer the attentive eye…