Winter Birds in Oakland

By Kevin Hong, Wild Oakland Intern

See the birds of Lake Merritt in action!

Video by Dianne Fristrom

Kevin the intern here!

On November 10th, Marissa Ortega-Welch led the Bird Natural History and Identification walk. We met in front of the Rotary Nature Center. There was a great turnout! When enough people had arrived, we grabbed binoculars and began our walk eastward to the Pergola.

As we walked, Marissa began to tell us about two lake mascots: Hank the white pelican and the tufted duck. They represent, respectively, the residents and the migrants, reflecting the lake’s dual nature as a pit-stop for migrating birds and an environment that sustains life year-round.

Marissa also told us about some of the lake’s natural history. The lake is, to be more precise, a tidal lagoon of brackish (mixed salt and fresh) water. In the 1800s, all the sewers emptied into the lagoon and the natural sewage drain was even a source of pride for the people around it – until the tide went out, leaving the lagoon a stinking cesspool of waste. The mayor at the time, Samuel Merritt, decided to redirect sewage and build a dam between the estuary and the bay so the tidal flow could be controlled, turning the lagoon into an artificial lake.

The same Mayor Merritt, after getting sick of stray bullets from hunters damaging property and livestock, petitioned the state of California to turn Lake Merritt into the first ever wildlife refuge in North America. Tens of thousands of birds made the lake their home.

In the 1920s, the first artificial island bird habitat was built on the lake. The other four were built in the 50s.

In the 20s, bird banding began. Birds were caught in traps, bands were put on their legs, and then they were set loose. It started out as an enterprise to find out more about the migrant birds that passed through the lake, but it quickly became a popular social event among Oakland citizens. Interest began to wane after a while, but was revived when a duck with a band from Lake Merritt was found dead in Siberia. The program ended in the 70s.

Along the walk, we saw many different birds. Goldeneyes and tufted ducks were the latest arrivals amongst the migrant birds that had recently flown in – the overall trend has been a decrease in migrant bird sightings during the day, as they have been more frequently feeding farther out on the bay estuaries.

Here’s a list of the birds we saw, excluding the usual fare (pigeons, gulls, mallards, cormorants, etc):



Grebes (Eared, Horned, Western, and Clark’s)

Scaups (Lesser and Greater)

Ruddy Ducks

Bufflehead Ducks

Goldeneye Ducks (Common and Barrow’s)

Tufted Ducks

A Brown Pelican

A White Pelican

Great Blue Herons

A Kingfisher

As we wrapped up, Marissa told us about some development through Measure DD that will expose more mud flats, change the sort of wildlife we see in and around the lake, and possibly introduce more marine wildlife (like sea lions!).

She also told us about the upcoming Audubon Christmas Bird Count event. As part of a large collaborative survey, laymen are invited to participate in a mass counting of their local bird populations. It’s free to participate! You can find more information here:

Thanks to Dianne Fristrom, Wild Oakland Guiding Committee member, for the video of the walk.  You can see all these birds at Lake Merritt right now… be sure to come to our December 8 walk if you missed this one!


This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *