All My Friends are Back in Town – Winter Birds Arriving at Lake Merritt by the Day

By Marissa Ortega-Welch

You may have noticed the plethora of bird related walks hosted by Wild Oakland this fall. That’s partly because so many of us here at WO identify as bird nerds, but also because fall at Lake Merritt is an exciting time for birds.

Hopefully many of you were able to make it to Lisa Sindorf’s bird illustration walk this October or at least have visited the lake on your own during the gorgeous warm weather we’ve been having. As we prepare for November and December’s bird-focused walks, take some time to notice what birds are hanging out on the water – because it’s going to change drastically.

Watching the transition at Lake Merritt from our summer to winter is an amazing testament to how the lake serves as a winter refuge for migratory ducks.

American Coot, a beady-eyed Rail common on the lake

In the summer, Canada Geese dominated our favorite picnic spots and Double-Crested Cormorants nested in the trees on the bird islands.If you visit the lake now, besides the geese and the cormorants, there are Snowy and Great Egrets hunting along the water’s edge, Black-Crowned Night Herons perched on lampposts, and Brown Pelicans diving overhead. The bird diversity on the water is low. Currently we mostly see American Coots, a duck-looking black and white bird that is actually in the Rail family, Mallard Ducks, and Pied-Billed Grebes with their oblong heads swimming in the water.


Ruddy Ducks have arrived in the last few weeks

Get used to these birds, because they’re about to be joined by over ten other species of ducks, whose numbers will be in the thousands. Diving ducks in Canada and Alaska seeking warmer weather and food are heading south right now to spend the winter at the lake. In fact, they are already starting to arrive. In the last few weeks on my walks around the lake, I’ve noticed a small flotilla of Ruddy Ducks that have appeared. They’re a small duck, most easily identified from afar by the cowlick shaped tail that pokes out behind them.  Western Grebes have also arrived at the lake, one of our long-necked larger grebes, and Horned Grebes, a much smaller grebe that seems to always dive as soon as you look at it. Soon 5 different species of Grebes will be seen on the lake.  

As this blog “goes to press” over thirty Scaups, a genus of duck dressed in subtle tuxedo colors, have arrived on the lake. By the winter holidays, we will have thousands of these birds –  both Lesser and Great Scaups – floating on the water.

If you’re a beginner birder, try to get down to the lake soon. It’s helpful to get comfortable identifying a few bird species at first, so that as the numbers of winter waterfowl increases, you’ve already got a few birds under your belt and you can start to differentiate the residents from the newcomer birds.

Greater Scaup, a recent arrival to the lake

As a birder, it’s hard to not to feel excited about the advent of our winter birds at Lake Merritt. It’s nerdy to admit it, but it feels like my friends from out of town are coming back to visit again. I swear I have human friends too.

Come join us on our November and December walks to share in the excitement and see who has flown in to spend the winter at the lake. Until then, I am going to be dreaming of Canvasback and Bufflehead ducks flying through the night by the light of the full moon, landing on Lake Merritt’s waters, for me to discover on my next evening walk. Who knows who will show up tomorrow?


Marissa Ortega-Welch will be sharing her enthusiasm for birds at the Wild Oakland Bird and Natural History Walk on November 10, 2012.


Birds Flying Across a Full Moon (in my dreams, not at Lake Merritt)

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One Response to All My Friends are Back in Town – Winter Birds Arriving at Lake Merritt by the Day

  1. francesca austin says:

    Where are the huge flocks of cormorants flying in from and where will they go next? There are so many, I have a great photo of them if the author emails me, I will forward it.

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