The September not-quite-Golden-Gate-Audubon walk attracted eight masked birders – a record for the pandemic – for a round of amazing delights in perfect air. (Really perfect. For a change, the particulate-meter at the nature center didn’t tinkle even once when we were near enough to hear its penetrating chime.) At various points we encountered three species never recorded on earlier walks:
- First, a female Yellow Warbler prospected through one of the oaks along Bellevue. With the natural human response to a treat – “what have you done for us lately” – we looked hard for a red-streaked male, but we couldn’t find one.
- Second, a Willow Flycatcher (and we were fortunate enough to have a participant savvy enough to identify it by its overall brownish tinge and lack of eye-ring, rather than writing it off as one of the near-dozen near-identical “tyrant flycatchers” that frequent wilder parks but almost never appear here. We’ve recorded them on only six occasions over the years, and only named one other (a Pacific-slope Flycatcher in 2018).
- And third and most astonishing, a series of fluting honks along the lake shore alerted us to a pair of Greater Yellowlegs (Yellowlegses?) flying beak to tail westward right at the level of the path and a few inches out from the wall. We just don’t see them at Lake Merritt – not the Greater like these and not the Lesser Yellowlegs either, species distinguishable mainly by voice rather than appearance.
We also picked up two new-for-September birds – one Golden-crowned Sparrow (common visitors later in the year) and a whole flock of Steller’s Jays (rare in the park and mostly as singles rather than half a dozen at once). This time, they showed their crested black heads and their natty navy-blue jackets twice, one pair and later five or six birds together, much to the outrage of the smooth-crowned California Scrub Jays that regard the park as their own territory.
Despite all these wonders, my personal favorite of the day was an old friend in a new place. “There’s a Bewick’s Wren right over your head!” someone called, and I looked up to find it true: About three feet up, a wren was picking its way along a narrow branch, dipping its beak into cracks in the bark and showing off its striped undertail coverts and pearly gray breast, features I’d never noticed before.
The Western Pond Turtle – not a bird, but we’re not snobs – lounged on the shore of the garden pond, always a cheery sight. It’s the only native turtle I’ve seen in the park; the rest are one and all Red-eared Sliders, invasive refugees from the pet trade and instantly recognizable by you-know-what. If you’re looking at a turtle that doesn’t have red patches on the sides of its head, chances are it’s our native.
Overall we counted forty species of birds on the lake and in the surrounding area – more than in any of the three preceding years, though a couple were reported by members of the group as they walked home, which feels a little like cheating (but not enough to keep them out of the total). They were there, after all, even though the relatively few eyes on the job missed them the first time through, and all part of yet another good day at Lake Merritt, where every day….