Birders have this game. When the day is going well – and more often when it’s going badly – someone will announce “I’d like to see a [bird that’s sort of possible but by no means guaranteed to show up]!” in a strong, directive voice, hoping that Someone Out There may be listening. Everyone chuckles and walks on – but if whatever-it-is shows up, which happens weirdly often, someone else will try again.
The fourth Wednesday of May was like that for the still-unofficial monthly birdwalk at the lake. It started with the call for an Eared Grebe, one of the most gorgeous birds of North America at this season, decked out as it is in metallic plumage straight from the Craftsman’s hand. They’re almost certainly all well on their way to a breeding area by the 26th, but the lake was very thin of company. Acres and acres of water empty except for molting Canada Geese, assorted Mallards, and Western Gulls. So “I’d like to see an Eared Grebe about now!” was the most natural thing to say as we passed the islands, and on call, an Eared Grebe bobbed to the surface – probably the only one for miles around.
“I’d like to see a juvenile Black-crowned Night-Heron!” sez I, thinking back to the handsome gray, white, and black adult that had watched us from the bird paddock. And there in a bush on the end of an island sat a fine streaky brown youngster, conveniently perched a few feet below another adult for comparison.
“How about a Green Heron?” Why yes, there-about a Green Heron, standing straight up against an island piling with the central cream panel on its chest lined up with the grain of the wood making it almost invisible. It took careful examination of every foot of the shoreline (for about the dozenth time) to find it.
“We never see House Sparrows anymore!” “No, it’s a pity the way their numbers seem to be declining, but I’d – ah! Like that cock sparrow on top of the New Zealand Tea, and I think there’s a female among the branches!”
“I’d like to see a California Scrub Jay,” someone tried, but the Monkey Puzzle tree in the garden didn’t oblige (as it often would). The request hung fire till we were out the bottom of the garden and looking across toward the Lake Chalet, when two of them chased each other through the bushes and buzzed us close overhead.
Similarly, we’d tried calling for a Caspian Tern – that gull-sized fish-diver with its comically huge red beak – several times with no luck, but at the last moment one cruised past as we were heading back through the Boat House parking lot at the end of the trip.
The Great Egret didn’t really count toward the game as no one had ventured to speak for it, but we were happy to observe one anyway, strolling along almost belly-deep and fishing in front of the island. We hadn’t seen one here since last December and didn’t expect to do so before July; they’re common enough in summer and fall but haven’t shown up for a May walk since 2017.
The day brought other surprises uncalled for. Most notably, a Ruddy Duck paddled through the area east of the islands: a male in adult nonbreeding plumage, appearing for the first May walk in my records. In addition, Tree Swallows joined the expected Violet-green and Northern Rough-winged flocks skimming the water around the islands, and a bunch of crows treed a young Red-tailed Hawk over the bird paddock. To top it off, a pair of Brown-headed Cowbirds fossicked through the grass near the back garden gate, accompanied by what was probably a youngster learning the Way of the Cowbird after leaving its unsuspecting foster parents.
We had the regular seasonal treats as well. Two pairs of Double-crested Cormorants are breeding in the big bare tree on the island this year (giving the smaller tree in front another year to recover from impending death-by-dropping), and assorted Snowy Egrets strolled through the shallow waters. Across Bellevue in the park, the Western Bluebirds, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, and Oak Titmice were tending youngsters, with the titmice providing a particularly endearing show as we sat in the shade near the main garden composting area.
And that game really worked! Our success wasn’t just imagination: we wound up recording 37 species – the highest May count in the decade-plus I’ve been tracking numbers in these reports. Last year’s count was 33; the prior record, set in 2016, was 36, and it was often nearer 30 or even below. So the variety made up for the somewhat scary drop in numbers of individuals, and we once again spent a very good day at Lake Merritt, where every day competes for the title of Best Day Ever….