“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.