Lake Merritt Docents: The Wonder of Birds

By Maureen Lahiff

Ducks and waterbirds come in close toward the paved path around the lake. Gulls drop mussels on the path to crack their shells. Black-crowned Night-Herons sit motionless in the trees. 

For the past several years, passionate Golden Gate Bird Alliance volunteers have helped passerby notice, understand, and appreciate these everyday moments at Lake Merritt. 

Like many of the people I greet at the lake, my parents did not have many chances to engage with nature and birdlife as kids or young adults. They did their best to nurture my interest and provide opportunities for me and my sisters, even though there was no money for luxuries like binoculars. Since 2014, I’ve been part of the Lake Merritt docent program creating a space for Oakland parents and their children to have the same sorts of life-changing experiences.    

Golden Gate Bird Alliance Docents at Lake Merritt
Lake Merritt Docents educating the public on the local birdlife

At the beginning of our mission statement we say “The Golden Gate Bird Alliance engages people to experience the wonder of birds…”.

I can’t think of a better way to sum up the goal and rewards of being a Lake Merritt docent. To give you an even fuller picture, here is what three of my colleagues have to say about the work we do.  

Patrick Meeker

I have found being a docent has been incredibly rewarding. I often get to teach someone something new each time I’m out there. I get to see the changes in people’s faces when all of the sudden, people who have been walking in places they’ve lived for years no longer just see “ducks on a lake ” but instead, they see the differences between Lesser and Greater Scaup, know what time of year Ruddy Ducks will show up, and understand the story behind where the Canvasback got its name.    

Canvasback in shallow water
A Canvasback floating in shallow water

Hilary Powers

Among my long-term favorite things are; watching birds, talking to people about birds and watching a hitherto-non-birder look through a scope for the first time to really see the intricate interplay of light on feathers. My new favorite thing, in this not quite post-pandemic world, is talking to other humans at all. It’s a huge break from restricted routines. The Lake Merritt docent program has it all!

Hilary Powers outside of the Geodesic Bird Dome with a group at Lake Merritt
Hilary Powers outside of the Geodesic Bird Dome with a group at Lake Merritt

Blake Edgar

I was already a docent at the Oakland Zoo when I joined the Lake Merritt team in 2019, and I enjoyed being able to apply my zoo experience to engaging folks about our backyard birdlife. Being able to show someone their first Green Heron, Belted Kingfisher, or Black-crowned Night-Heron was gratifying — as was hearing the excitement of kids finding a bird by themselves using binoculars. 

You encounter a very wide range of interest and knowledge and have to calibrate your delivery accordingly. I recall one guy cruising by on his bike who slammed on his brakes at one of my pitch lines (perhaps “Want to see Oakland’s official city bird?”) and admitting that the only bird he knew was a pigeon. With its distinction as the nation’s first wildlife refuge and its array of attractive avian visitors, Lake Merritt is a treasure and a pleasure to share with the public. 

Black-Crowned Night Heron
Black-crowned Night-Heron by Eddie Bartley

Lake Merritt: a place of continual change

Often called the “crown jewel” of Oakland, Lake Merritt was the first place in the U.S. set aside specifically for wildlife, when the State of California created the Lake Merritt Wild Duck Refuge in 1870. 

Today, Lake Merritt looks much different than it did 150 years ago.  Although the wetlands that once surrounded it are gone, it is still a wintering spot for thousands of migratory waterfowl and a year-round home to a great variety of resident birds.

Because of its rich history, continuous diversity of birds, and location in the heart of Oakland, Golden Gate Bird Alliance has had a docent program at Lake Merritt for several years. Originally, we had a spring program focused on the nesting colonial birds on the sanctuary islands.  A succession of Snowy and Great Egrets, Black-crowned Night-Herons, and most recently, Double-crested Cormorants have used those trees as a rookery. For the past couple of years the rookery has been abandoned. 

In hindsight we should have taken advantage of the outreach opportunity the wintering birds provide as well, which is why in 2019 we started the Winter docent program.

Now entering into the “high season” for wintering ducks, we are continuing to recruit and train people to serve as docents at the lake.

Jogger passing a group of White Pelicans at Lake Merritt
Jogger passing a group of White Pelicans at Lake Merritt by Lee Aurich

Want to join in the fun?

We are planning to have small teams of Golden Gate Bird Alliance docents at Lake Merritt on selected Saturday mornings from 10 a.m. to noon, November through February. New volunteers will be mentored by veteran docents.

We will have a Zoom meeting for docent training in the evening on Tuesday, October 19, which will be recorded and made available to those who cannot attend live. 

For more information, and to sign up, please email me

 Maureen Lahiff is the chair of the Golden Gate Bird Alliance Adult Education Committee. She is fiercely proud to live in Oakland. She leads field trips, teaches adult ed classes, and enjoys being an ambassador for the birds and for Golden Gate Bird Alliance at Lake Merritt.