The 4th Wednesday of April fell on Earth Day this year, with the Earth rather quieter than usual in the Bay Area, and doubtless many other places as well. Golden Gate Bird Alliance cancelled the walk again as required, but I’d quietly passed the word that I’d be there anyway. My co-leader and two other birders joined me for a safely distanced bit of permitted outdoor exercise, plus a pause by the bird paddock to hang the Earth-from-space flag one of the birders brought.
It was a beautiful clear day, sunny and not hot, but the air seemed strange. Looking out from the starting point at the dome cage end of the boathouse lot – empty because this time the main drive-in entrances to the park really were blocked off – we saw a faint sparkle across the islands, like a thin gold mist. Not gold, but more valuable to the Violet-green and Northern Rough-winged Swallows that visit the lake in the late spring and summer: a fog of midges, more than we’d seen (or at least noticed) before. Which made it even odder that we didn’t see our most common flycatcher, the Black Phoebe, all morning – the first April since 2010 to miss that bird. Perhaps there were simply too many places for a phoebe to get breakfast for us to spot one in action!
As hoped last month, the Double-crested Cormorants have at last established their rookery on the island, with 9 busy nests. It’s smaller than usual, limited to the one really bare tree, so the tree they’ve only half killed seems to be getting the year off. That’s ideal, as far as I’m concerned: cormorants with fuzzy black babies to watch, plus a chance of recovery for a far from full-sized tree. (In case you were wondering, these birds – our only tree-nesting cormorants – prefer to build in the sun. If they can find exposed spots, they won’t bother trees with a lot of leaves… but they’ll take them if that’s all they can get, and the situation corrects itself over the next few years as their droppings convert leafy trees into nice sunny bare ones.)
A Green Heron prowled along one of the islands as we gathered for the walk. Though that’s always a welcome sight, this one was more frustrating than usual as the best the binoculars could do was show us a gray blob balanced on orange sticks floating from one gray rock to another, with a glimpse of the rufous breast and dark beak for those who knew what to look for and where to look for it. Normally the first response to a Green Heron is to grab for the spotting scope, which would bring the view within arm’s reach and show every feather, but our scopes are out of action for the duration.
Out on the lake, the winter migrants had mostly emigrated onward, but we still had a fair number of scaup – both species – and some gloriously ruddy Ruddy Ducks. Forster’s Terns dipped and dived, retreating to rest on the floats farthest from the nature center. They’re coming into full breeding plumage, with black caps and white wingtips; lovely creatures, like gulls redesigned for racing speed, and we rarely see them except in late spring.
Several Eared Grebes patrolled the water, mostly underneath, while putting the finishing touches on their party suits. (By next month, they’ll probably be gone, not to be seen again till September – when they’ll be all gray with bits of white and black, showing no trace of their current luminous metallic tones.) We also saw several Pied-billed Grebes, also due to be gone next month (though they’ll probably return by June or July), and one big Western Grebe, unlikely to reappear till next October or maybe even November.
Lakeside Park had its own rewards, too: droves of robins on the lawns (and we don’t see robins every month), plus chickadees and titmice and most of the other usual suspects. Bushtits appeared singly, a truly unusual sight! Most of the year, they fly in tight flocks of a dozen or two, but nesting couples split off to raise their broods (of up to 10 chicks!) alone, social distancing avian style. One of these flying mice landed about three feet over my head, ignoring me completely, focused on the serious business of staying alive.
As are we all in this second month of the declared pandemic – but nonetheless, with 36 species on view (a reasonable April total), it was another very good day at Lake Merritt, where every day….