Birds are usually masters of social distancing: if you’re there, they’re not. But something – pandemic frustration? – was in the air for the December 4th-Wednesday (Non) Golden Gate Bird Alliance walk at Lake Merritt this year, and it wasn’t affecting the humans. Only six birders joined the leaders (who’d discussed splitting the group if it got too large), and all seemed extra-attentive to the need to not-get-stupid with vaccines in sight.
The birds, on the other hand…. I lost track of the number of times a small bird – a Chestnut-backed Chickadee, a Yellow-rumped Warbler, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, even a Townsend’s Warbler – landed at eye level, close enough to see every feather without binoculars, and others in the group had the same luck. One warbler came so close to another birder it seemed about to jump onto her arm. Bewick’s Wrens hopped cheekily within three or four feet, and White-crowned Sparrows ignored us as we walked past their flocks. The shady oval under the oak by the garden composting station was especially rewarding; besides a mixed party of bug hunters, a male Anna’s Hummingbird flew into the center and hovered, swiveling in mid-air as though checking out the humans for possible nectar.
The view from the starting point (the boathouse parking lot) included four of the five expected herons: both Great and Snowy Egrets, all age phases of Black-crowned Night-Heron, and a Great Blue Heron slouching hip-deep in leafy branches, where some argued it was just another Black-crowned. (It eventually settled the question by turning its head far enough to reveal the gold bill, but the back view with the head tucked down and the legs out of sight made it a real question.) We also got good looks at some Common Goldeneyes from there, including two brilliant black-and-white males chasing each other back and forth, and also two Red-breasted Merganser drakes swimming and diving along the floats, one a bit scruffy looking but the other in crisp green cap, white collar, and rust-red shirt front.
In the bird paddock, the Northern Pintail duck reported but not seen last month was hanging out in the near corner of the first pond with two Northern Shovelers, a duck and a drake just beginning to put on his party clothes. Both species are very rare visitors to the lake, the last (and first) shoveler showed up in January of this year, and the last pintail sighting was in January 2019. In breeding plumage, the males of both are knock-your-eye-out gorgeous.
The water in front of the nature center featured some Canvasbacks, more American Coots, and a few scaup. We don’t see many scaup of either species in that area these days, since the official feedings stopped, so it was pleasant to have them close enough to point out the details of head shape and bill markings that said these were Lesser Scaup (size won’t do it) and what to look for to identify the Greater ones.
A few American White Pelicans lingered on their usual island, but the Brown Pelicans were gone, as they usually are in December (we haven’t seen them at this time of year since 2015). The whites will probably be gone next month, too – Hank-the-rescue-pelican just never gets year-round company.
The big treat along the eastern islands was a Spotted Sandpiper that landed on the wooden wall and then strolled up the dirt toward one of the trees, pumping its tail and looking for whatever it is Spotted Sandpipers look for away from their usual water’s-edge haunts. Bugs, probably, bugs are tasty and creep everywhere….
Heading toward El Embarcadero, we saw all the usual suspects in the big rafts – lots of Greater and Lesser Scaup, lots of Ruddy Ducks and Coots, a fair number of Canvasbacks, Pied-billed Grebes, and Eared Grebes. No Horned Grebes this month (unlike November, when it was all Horned and no Eared), but we did get the first big grebe since last April, probably a Western, which looks like a giant Horned Grebe, so it all evens out.
The day was brilliant, just on the edge of chilly, and the advancing season had moved the sun out of last month’s laser attack mode. And we saw lots and lots of birds – back to 48 species (matching 2018’s four-year record), despite missing Oak Titmice and several other seasonal regulars – so it was a very good last hurrah for a year very grim everywhere but Lake Merritt.