The still-unofficial 4th-Wednesday Golden Gate Audubon walk drew 13 birders – much less scary now with so many of us fully vaccinated – and the lake was as lively as it gets in these diminished days. The variety stays high and we resolutely avoid counting individuals, so we stay cheerful despite the ever-increasing amount of water between birds.
The bare island tree started out empty, but three gleaming black double-crested Double-crested Cormorants swooped up from the floats to pose near the biggest surviving nests – so it looks like we will have a season again this year. With any luck, we’ll have another nine-nest colony, fitting into one tree and offering plenty of entertainment without raining further death onto the island.
Around by the Nature Center, we got our first look at a Green Heron in six months. The bird was standing unusually tall and away from the water’s edge on a twist of roots on one of the islands, showing off its properly heron-long neck and helping us celebrate my scope’s return to the walk for the first time since the initial lockdown.
The scavenger flock was in truly fine looks, with both Greater and Lesser Scaup drakes shining in white-winged perfection, despite the lack of hens to admire them. (The brown hens mostly stay well away from the islands.) A Hermit Thrush foraged near the corner of the bird paddock, still surprising despite showing up for a fourth straight month. The species hasn’t graced a March walk since 2011 – and this time we saw two of them (or maybe one twice, but the other was near the monkey puzzle tree in the garden). Happy news, either way.
Northern Rough-winged Swallows swooped over the grass and water, flashing brown and cream. They look to be working closer to the islands now – at any rate, one darted out of the lake wall just below the playground, a good block west of where they nested last year.
Down toward El Embarcadero, we saw several Eared Grebes near or in full breeding plumage, gold fans sparkling beside their beady red eyes – worth a trip to the lake all by themselves. The Ruddy Duck drakes were also well into their astonishing transformation from secretive brownish slate to brilliant blue-billed auburn, making the black caps and white cheeks they always wear stand out rather than blend into the scenery.
Checking out the floats one last time before crossing Bellevue into the park, I gasped reverently, “That’s a merganser!” And not just any merganser (we’ve had them a lot recently, though not in March for almost a decade) but a fan-capped brown Hooded Merganser hen, missing from the walk since 2016. And while I was burbling and attempting to adjust the scope for a really good look, a sleek black head lifted from behind the floats and looked around, showing off deep white crescents on either cheek: a male Barrow’s Goldeneye, never glimpsed on a March walk and only once on any walk since 2019. He bobbed up several times, possibly dancing for a hidden female, but I don’t think anyone else spotted him – I had the scope and I wasn’t letting go of it.
Lakeside Park offered lots of tree-bird action, including pretty much all the seasonal regulars. The highlights were a male Nuttall’s Woodpecker energetically excavating a nest hole and a pair of Oak Titmice nesting in what looked like a tiny crack in a young oak, about 5′ from a big fat obvious hole (dunno if anyone else was using that or not), also a pair of Bushtits building their nest as we watched, weaving bits of this and that into the foot-long tube. They were unusually easy to see once spotted, in a hmmph-mph tree only about mumble feet off the ground – a real treat for those who were there, and not to be pinpointed in more detail for those who weren’t. A second pair of Bushtits collected spider webs in the garden, but we couldn’t figure out where they were taking their loot.
And a Cooper’s Hawk capped off the morning, landing high in a pine tree to survey lunch prospects for several happily crow-free minutes. That was another delight for the long-absent scope – in a morning chock-full of delights that included a full 50 species of birds (a many-March’s record) and some of the prettiest weather in months at Lake Merritt, where almost any kind of weather makes for a delightful day, though rarely so delightful as this..