The January still-not-Golden-Gate-Audubon walk was a big day for species count – 55 in all, counting two reported from mid afternoon, a tie with the 2014 record for the month – but what the five of us (three birders and two leaders) were mostly saying was “Where are all the birds?” Numbers of individuals, especially scaup, were way low, leaving large expanses of the lake almost empty.
But only almost. Comforting ourselves by figuring the absentees were probably feeding elsewhere in calm waters, and with what we could see (eventually including two kinds of merganser drake, among the most decorative ducks to visit us here), we settled into our usual practice of savoring what was before our eyes. That began with the barrier floats, occupied by a few dozen Black-crowned Night-Herons of all ages, plus Hank-the-rescue-pelican, a Great Blue Heron, a Snowy Egret, and almost no gulls at all. The Red-breasted Merganser drake swam off to the right of the floats, and a few Common Goldeneyes bobbed up and down beside them.
Then we headed round to the bird paddock, enjoying the ride-‘em sheep toy still clinging to its spot by the dome cage door. The paddock was also relatively thin of company, but our female Northern Pintail was still in residence, standing on the edge of the pond and showing off her slate-gray feet – a big contrast with the orange-footed Mallards.
Along the lake shore, the first Mew Gull since 2019 sat in a line of Ring-bills. Nearby, a pair each of Clark’s and Western Grebes swam together, close enough to make it easy to tell them apart.
The day’s mystery slept on one of the near islands: a biggish lump lying perpendicular to the shore, black head twisted round and buried in a black back between bright white sides, with screaming orange bits on the ground in the middle. Huh what? Mutt Mallard? Careful observation showed the hint of a crest stirring along the back of the head, and that – coupled with the female Common Merganser cruising elegantly in front of the island – told us that this must be a male of the same species… in the least graceful pose ever encountered.
Wherever we went, lots of White-crowned Sparrows bounced through the grass, except along Bellevue outside the park, where they were Western Bluebirds instead. That was another treat, since we’d dipped on bluebirds the past two months despite being sure they had to be around somewhere. (They still feel like a novelty even though we’ve been seeing them here since 2013.)
As one does, we spent the latter part of the morning talking about regulars not seen yet – most notably, chickadees and titmice. Even the garden seemed chickadee-free from one end to the other, until we turned back toward the redwood grove hoping for Pine Siskins. Not a siskin to be found, but suddenly we were surrounded by Chestnut-backed Chickadees, hopping through the bushes at eye level and bouncing down to the path – to join the Oak Titmice foraging there. Ask and (at least some of) it shall be granted!
Also under the trees, we encountered the third of the day’s three hawks, a young Red-tailed Hawk that glided in to perch about 12 feet up to sit, and sit, and turn around and sit some more, allowing us to observe every feather. The Cooper’s Hawk that shot through the branches like a bullet and disappeared and the Red-shouldered Hawk that circled overhead were both delights, but couldn’t compare for satisfaction.
Cedar Waxwings moved from tree to bare tree in front of the Garden Center, seeming to multiply as they went. It takes much better counting skills than my one-two-three-many to begin to guess their numbers even when they stay put, and these just didn’t. By then it was well past noon, and we went off in search of fodder of our own, happy with yet another in Lake Merritt’s unbroken chain of good good days.