The October 4th-Wednesday (non) Golden Gate Bird Alliance lake walk drew a somewhat scary 12 participants, evoking a nervous “Hey, we’re a lot less than six feet apart” on at least one occasion. We do try, but especially under the trees the places from which a given bird can be seen don’t offer a lot of choice. If the turnout continues to grow, we may need to split the group for the park section of the trip in coming months….
But it wasn’t just birders who were crowding around. The day opened with a true feeding frenzy: a few hundred Double-crested Cormorants (mostly bronze juveniles) were playing hopscotch down the lake, clearly in pursuit of something fast-moving, while dozens of Brown Pelicans of all ages swooped and dived above them among a cloud of assorted gulls, American White Pelicans paddled along snarfing things up from the water, and both Great and Snowy Egrets lined the shore looking to grab anything forced close to them. Unfortunately, it was the far shore – making the details hard to make out, especially with only binoculars for optics.
So what were they catching? Fish, presumably, but we couldn’t see until a Ring-billed Gull came flapping over to the floats with something big and white clamped in its beak. “What’s he got? What’s he got?” A ten-inch feather, broad and blunt-ended, which provided several minutes’ play value for the gull and no information at all for the humans.
As the fisher-flock adjourned to the floats and islands to rest and digest, the birders proceeded past the paddock to head down the lake. The big pond in the paddock was full of ducks – practically shoulder to shoulder and beak to tail – almost all in the classic Mallard plumage but of a wide range in sizes. Some were small enough to be true wild birds; others clearly had had parents and grandparents on the farm, picking up the super-sizing genes developed there.
The area near the Rotary Nature Center was thin of company – just some coots and one adventurous Lesser Scaup – but the little olive tree just past the playground was aflutter with tiny birds. Bushtits for starters, looking as always like flying mice, but in numbers even more outrageous than usual. The joke about Bushtits is that if you have to report a count, say 17: a plausible prime number for lots. This time, I’da doubled that – lots and lots on every twig. And where they weren’t, there were Ruby-crowned Kinglets (the first of the season) and assorted warblers, plus a couple of Anna’s Hummingbirds hovering for some reason between the branches and the ground, with their scarlet gorgets catching rays of sun like little warning lights.
We walked close enough to the fountain at El Embarcadero to see the pair of Canvasbacks. That end of the lake was doing a brisk business in scaup – both Greater and Lesser, not that the difference makes much difference if you’re not a scaup yourself – and thoroughly non-ruddy Ruddy Ducks. And American Coots, of course, well on their way to their usual top-poundage-on-the-lake winter status. Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but plausible: they’re small birds, but there are droves and bunches of them.
Across Bellevue and heading towards Children’s Fairyland (where it was a come-in-costume day, adding miniature dragons and princesses and whatnot to the scene), we paused to enjoy a pair of juvenile Red-tailed Hawks circling overhead – either sister and brother or one much lower than the other, as it looked huge by comparison. The ground was jumping with sparrows, mostly White-crowned arriving for the winter, but some Golden-crowned and one Fox Sparrow, the first ever recorded on an October walk. And – common bird in an uncommon spot – a Black Phoebe sat like an angel atop my favorite tree, the prettiest Dawn Redwood in the world, which spreads its branches beside the Garden Center building.
All told, we encountered 47 species of birds, the most since 2015 (which gave us 48) – a throng of another sort. And it was a lovely day, sunny and not too hot, with only the occasional cheery chime from the bad-air-o-meter beside the Nature Center, so we had yet another in Lake Merritt’s unbroken string of very good days.