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….