Stories from Lake Merritt’s past

By Constance Taylor

October 12, 2013:

Jim Covel shows the crowd a picture from his father's book about Lake Merritt, "The People are for the Birds". Photo: Marissa Ortega-Welch

Jim Covel came to talk to us about growing up at Lake Merritt as the son of Paul Covel, the very first city naturalist in Oakland!  In fact, Oakland was the second city in the U.S. to have a municipality sponsored naturalist program- the first was in Cleveland, OH.

Lake Merritt’s fame had been growing ever since it was designated the first wildlife refuge in 1870, and in the 1940s thousands of people were coming during the winter to birdwatch and feed the ducks.  Paul Covel started doing unofficial presentations about the natural history of the birds and the area which caught the attention of the park superintendent at the time, William Mott, Jr.  Mott thought the program should be formalized, and in 1951 enough funds were raised to build the Rotary Nature Center, the headquarters for Oakland’s brand new naturalist program with Paul at the helm!

In the 1940s and 50s there was still quite a lot of wetland habitat around the Bay Area, which attracted migrating birds like wigeons, pintails, mallards, canvasbacks, scaups, and goldeneyes by the tens of thousands.  Banding stations around Lake Merritt were set up to answer questions like:

  • Where are the birds going?
  • Where are they coming from?
  • What are crucial migration stops?
  • Is there interchange between flyways, or do the birds migrate on the same path their entire lives?

Although now somewhat obsolete thanks to transmitters that can send real-time data to researchers, banding was cutting-edge wildlife science in the mid-twentieth century.  From the 1940s to the 1970s Lake Merritt was a hotspot of activity- it was one of the largest banding operations along the Pacific flyway, with millions of birds banded over these decades.

Said Jim, “The banding stations were a great way for people in Oakland to participate in wildlife science- it really gave folks idea of how Lakeside Park played a role in the larger ecosystem.”

Banding happened during the peak months of November, December, and January when there would be 4,000 to 5,000 birds at any given time at Lakeside Park passing through on fall and winter migrations.  A table would be set up to weigh, measure, identify, and band birds- often birds banded in previous years would be caught, in which case the band number was recorded and they were released.

There were two banding traps- one on land, and one in the water to catch diving ducks.  “Very few places had methods to band diving ducks- it was essentially a funnel that went underwater and popped out into a cage set in the water.  We’d go out there every day to band the ducks inside- there could be as many as 400 ducks in there at once!” said Jim.

In fact, perhaps due to the fact that not many other places in the country had diving duck banding traps, for 20 years Lake Merritt held the North American record for most Barrow’s Goldeneye ducks counted every year.  Ultimately, birds that were banded at Lake Merritt were found in places like Alaska, Russia, and places across the continent, giving us a new perspective on how far they traveled every year.

The mid-1970s heralded the end of the banding heyday because changes around the Bay Area (like building over most of the wetlands) were leading to fewer and fewer birds in the area, but Lake Merritt and its birds continue hold their own unique place in Oakland’s history.

Introduced natives

When Paul Covel first took the reigns of the nature center, he was determined to establish populations of wild geese in Oakland.  These were birds that were in the Bay Area, just not at Lake Merritt- occasionally some crippled Canada geese would be given to the nature center, but there were no migrating flocks that wintered in the city.  Paul decided to kickstart the population by establishing a small breeding group of nine Canada geese acquired from a farm near Dixon in the Sacramento Valley from a farmer who cared for injured geese he found during hunting seasons.

These nine geese were unable to fly, but they bred on the bird islands and their presence seemed to attract other Canada geese to the area.  Nowadays, Canada geese swarm the lawns during winter- it’s almost impossible to believe that just a few decades ago there were almost none!

American white pelicans were another species that spent time in the Bay Area but not at Lake Merritt. Biologists banding birds at Pyramid Lake had come across some pelicans who were injured and couldn’t fly- five of them were brought to Lake Merritt, where the injured birds acclimated to their surroundings and started catching smelt in the estuary water.  More and more flighted pelicans started stopping in the area- “it’s only a short hop from the Bay to Lake Merritt- the pelicans probably saw some of their own kind here, stopped to check it out, and decided that it was pretty good,” said Jim.  Now both brown and white pelicans make appearances throughout the year- they’re no longer an unusual species to see at the lake, as they would have been thirty years ago.

Hitchcock at Lake Merritt

Jim explains the Hitchcock story. Photo: Marissa Ortega-Welch

As Alfred Hitchcock was in the process of turning Daphne du Maurier’s short story “The Birds” into a hit film, there was a domoic acid outbreak in Monterey that was making the news.  Domoic acid, a neurotoxin produced by certain algae blooms, was frying the nervous systems of gulls and shearwaters and leading to some very strange behavior. Flying into buildings and windows, following people around, unusually aggressive behavior- Hitchcock decided this might be prime fodder for the movie and went to check things out. Somewhere along the way he learned about the large bird population at Lake Merritt, and arranged to film part of the movie there.

Hitchcock arrived with his film crew and set up camp for a few days next to the feeding station at Lake Merritt (right by the Rotary Nature Center).  This was in the beginning days of superimposing one layer of film over another, so first Tippi Hedren was filmed cowering in a boat, sans bird threat.  Next, after Hedren was safely ashore, the film crew started tossing fish into the air and the gulls immediately began swooping for them.  Insert a little Hollywood magic and film splicing, and you have Hedren being “attacked” by gulls right on the shores of Lake Merritt!

The buckyball appears

Geodesic dome. Photo: Marissa Ortega-Welch

Mott, the parks superintendent during Paul’s tenure as naturalist, had been to a talk given by Buckminster Fuller about a novel structural design that was freestanding and needed no internal support.  The Rotary Nature Center had an active wildlife rehabilitation program for sick and injured animals, and Mott immediately grasped that a structure like this, if large enough, would be fantastic for recovering birds- no internal support posts to collide into meant less of a chance of the bird re-injuring itself while healing.  But what was in it for Fuller?

Fuller was itching to prove the structural integrity of the geodesic dome in a “proof of concept” experiment.  He had constructed many small models, but never something on the scale of what Mott was proposing.  But what would they build it out of?

As luck would have it, Henry Kaiser was looking for a way to promote the strong yet lightweight qualities of a new metal alloy called “aluminum” (sound familiar?).  Mott talked Kaiser into providing the materials at no cost if Fuller would provide the design, which eventually culminated in the geodesic dome right next to the Rotary Nature Center!  It was built at no cost to the city in the early 1960s, and for a short while was the largest geodesic dome ever constructed until the 1964 World’s Fair.

Jim concluded the walk with a personal observation: “Something I’ve noticed again and again in all my years of being around Lake Merritt is that it’s a constant source of inspiration.  People will walk around the area and notice something that will catch their interest, and they’ll start to wonder about it.  Oakland has always been a place where people care about nature, and Lake Merritt really helps give people an appreciation for parks, open spaces, and other species.”

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