When we assembled for the November 4th-Wednesday not-really-Golden-Gate-Audubon walk, the day seemed perfect – sunny and still, with just enough nip in the air to make a thin jacket comfortable. What could be better? Six birders joined the two leaders, and their day started with an air show: a dozen American Crows chased a young Red-tailed Hawk over the trees behind the boathouse parking lot, dipping and diving and risking occasional wing strikes. (I kept hoping the hawk would flip over and grab one, but no such luck.)
Turning back to the lake near the dome cage, the scene was properly busy for the season, with the floats full of Double-crested Cormorants, both White and Brown Pelicans, and assorted gulls, and the water was lively with the same, plus American Coots, the occasional scaup, and a few Common Goldeneyes. Several Snowy Egrets patrolled the beach, but the local Green Herons stayed resolutely out of sight.
We strolled around the bird paddock, carefully studying each duck in the hope of finding the female Northern Pintail reported to be hanging out there, but no luck there either. Mallards one and all, with orange bills instead of black. The drakes were mostly Mallards too (with mustard yellow bills), except for the new white domestic ducky who’s taken up residence there: huge and sparkling clean, with a brilliant gold bill. The Muscovy Duck flock is down to two or three that I can’t tell apart; they’re all Idaho potatoes with feet and gnarly red faces, each one lumpier than the next.
From the Nature Center shore (still sheltered by the islands and unaware of impending trouble) we spotted a seldom-spotted Spotted Sandpiper, a species last seen here last February and not for five years before that, working the rocks edging the bird paddock. As usual, it was easily identified by its completely unspotted white breast and briskly pumping rump: another member of the Bird Name Frustration Club. Yes, it sometimes does have spots – for a few weeks in the spring when it puts on its party vest – but then and the whole rest of the year, it hardly takes a step without pushing its tail down and up and down again.
So then we headed alongside the playground in happy innocence, looking first at the Nature Center (to admire the newly re-inhabited Black Phoebe nest) and then at the inland bushes (to enjoy a flock of Lesser Goldfinches and some other small birds among the branches). Turning toward the lake, however, we found it hidden in shattered light. Reflected sun is often a problem around mid-morning, but normally it’s possible to stand a short way back on the grass and avoid the glare. Not on this day, however. The sun was at the precise angle and elevation to send a blinding blast from every bit of water worth looking at to reach every bit of land worth standing on.
Knowing the problem couldn’t last more than an hour, we fled to the Garden Center garden, entering through the back gate (the reverse of our usual route) and heading first for the sensory garden. There we were delighted to see that the area around the fountain rock has been replanted at last, making the long-desolate spot likely to become birdier and birdier as the vegetation grows back. No birds there at the moment, though – a flock of tiny human juveniles crowded the path and filled the air with their chatter.
The rest of the garden treated us to all the birds of the season – Titmice and Chickadees and Yellow-rumped Warblers, and one gorgeous male Townsend’s Warbler showing off his black burglar mask at a neck-friendly level among the branches of the monkey puzzle tree. Both White-crowned and Golden-crowned Sparrows fossicked among the fallen leaves, and somewhere a Nuttall’s Woodpecker blew its police whistle softly as it flew invisibly from branch to branch.
One of the dawn redwoods inside the garden had brilliant auburn needles and not-cones, something we hadn’t seen (or at any rate noticed) before, and the other was definitely reddish. “Are they sick?” one of the birders asked. “No, I think it’s just that they’re deciduous and conditions are right this year.” Most years, the needles turn brown and fall off without ceremony, leaving the strings of tiny balls the trees use instead of cones hanging like sand-colored tinsel all winter. “Let’s see what the one outside the garden is doing.” (I always have to visit that one anyway, as it’s the best tree in the park, perfectly symmetrical and beautiful at all seasons.) This time it was redder than usual, though not so bright as its lumpy cousin inside the garden – something special about the temperature?
Back at the lake, the sun had moved off the firing line, so we could see again. The scaup population (both Greater and Lesser) seemed somewhat larger than in recent years – though that might be wishful thinking, and in any case was far smaller than that of a decade ago – and the Ruddy Ducks were also out in force. We saw a few Common Goldeneyes but no Barrow’s, and a few small grebes but none of the big ones.
A mysterious raptor perched high in the tall tree behind the El Embarcadero pergola, partially hidden among the leaves, and we walked all the way down there and around the end of the lake trying to get a clear look at it. It turned out to be a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk, possibly the one from the earlier crow-fest; a single crow perched at the top of the tree peering down at it.
The area behind the line of inlet debris-catcher floats also rewarded the visit, as it was full of the Canvasbacks that had been notably absent from the rafts farther up the lake. That brought the species count back up to 46 (matching 2018, highest in recent years), despite missing the robins and several other expected birds. Which all just goes to show, wherever you look at Lake Merritt, you’re likely to see something you wouldn’t have seen if you hadn’t looked just there – which is part of what makes every day at Lake Merritt, like this one, a good day to be there.