I have had birds on the brain recently. Just last week I was woken in the middle of the night by an owl right outside my window. It’s methodic and deep hoot was so loud I sat up in my drowsy state and wondered if it was in the house. This late-night wakening coupled with my son’s recent fascination with his North American Birds Encyclopedia has caused fowl to be on my mind. If you are like me, you may not give birds a second glance, or thought. I hear them, see them, dodge their droppings, and shoo them away when they come looking for my kid’s crumbs. Since I have been more curious about them in recent days, I have started to pay a bit more attention to them; their warbles and songs, their colors and beaks. I have known for quite some time that Lake Merritt is home to a bird sanctuary of sorts. In fact, its shores are home to the first wildlife refuge in the United States. This past weekend my family and I made two trips lakeside. The first was to enjoy an evening along the shore to burn off the energy that came from some very blue ice cream. The other was to attend the 1st Oakland Nature Festival, a wonderful event hosted by the Rotary Nature Center where I was inspired to learn more about our feathered friends.
The story of this lakeside refuge goes way back to when Lake Merritt was not a lake. In fact, it still isn’t a lake, it never really was. Originally a parcel of wetland acreage used by the Ohlone for fishing, hunting, and gathering, the area went on to become part of Luis Peralta’s Rancho San Antonio and was named “Laguna Peralta”, a name that is a bit more apropos to what it is; a tidal lagoon. Connected to the bay by a wide channel, the “lake” of the 1800’s was really a combination of tidal marshland and mudflats, with a few smaller bodies of water. Fed by run-off from the systems of creeks that flowed down the hills, and circulated by the tidal ebb and flow from the San Francisco Bay, Laguna Peralta was a perfect ecosystem for hundreds of birds, both native to the area and those using it as a stopping point. In 1869, Oakland Mayor Samuel Merritt dammed the channel that connected the lagoon to the bay, with small culverts being left for water to move back and forth to control the lake’s water level.
1857 map of the San Antonio Watershed on Rancho San Antonio; Laguna Peralta, ie. the future Lake Merritt, is the top right section of water.
Lake Merritt as it existed after the dam was built in 1869.
Top left: Dr. Samuel Merritt, mayor of Oakland 1867-1869 | Bottom left: Lake Merritt, 1890
Top right and bottom right: Lake Merritt, 1880’s
Merritt was focused on real estate development in the heart of Oakland, so in addition to damming the lake to raise water levels and encourage lakeside living, he also petitioned the State of California to declare the area a wildlife refuge to discourage hunting in the area, hence decreasing both noise and danger. Therefore, in 1870 the Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge was voted in by the legislature; the first wildlife refuge in our country. Lake Merritt is situated on what is known as the Pacific Flyway, the north-south path for migratory birds that stretches from Alaska to Patagonia. Therefore, the move to protect this area ensured a safe rest stop along the way, as well as a secure home for native species.
At the time it was dedicated, Governor Henry H. Haight stated that its purpose was to “educate and inspire through understanding the values of conserving the natural resources of this state.” While inspirational and well-intentioned, the actuality was a decline of natural wetland area as development along the lake continued. Sewage and storm drains continued to dump pollution into the lake. Dredging began in 1891 to combat the problems that arose due to the decreased tidal flow; the resulting silt piles became the foundation for Lakeshore Avenue. City beautification became priority and structures such as the pergola on the northeastern tip was built in 1913 and the Cleveland Cascade in 1923. The necklace of lights was lit for the first time in 1925, and that same year the first man-made bird island was built in efforts to replace the wetland and marsh areas that had become developed land. Four more islands were added by 1956, and the five islands became safe havens for roosting and nesting water fowl. Fresh water irrigation was put into place and the boom and rope barrier was placed to encircle and protect the area from boaters. In 1963, the Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge was added to the list of National Historic Landmarks.
The types birds seen in the refuge vary dependent on time of year, but it is home to species such as the black-crowned night heron, egret, cormorant, gulls, mallard ducks, pelicans and of course the infamous Canada geese. The population of Canada geese is highest during the summer months. During the winter, the duck population drastically increases and includes various migrating breeds such as the rare tufted duck called the scaup. A community project is currently underway called Owls For Oakland, a campaign to bring native barn owls back to the Lake Merritt area. The goal is to build and install owl nesting boxes around the lake. Before this can happen, a rodenticide-free zone must be created within one mile of the lake. Since owls feed on rats, to sustain a healthy population lakeside the use of these deadly chemicals needs to be reduced inside this perimeter.
The duck pond that sits along the shoreline was designed by renowned local architect Howard Gilkey. The pond was a much larger area than now exists, and it was the site of twice-daily bird feedings for several decades. In 1915 an oil spill in the bay caused slicks to move through the culverts into the lake and many birds were coated. After efforts were made to clean them, the City of Oakland decided to fund a feeding program that continued on for years to come. At 10:00am and 4:00pm a bell would be rung and the wild ducks, geese, and other fowl would come to the shoreline for a snack. In addition, every winter when the migrating ducks would arrive, the city held a Wild Duck Pageant. An eclectic event full of costumes, song, and dance that was part of the welcoming ritual as the bird population rose during the cold months.
In 1953 the Rotary Nature Center was built under the guidance of well-known local naturalist Paul Covel. Another interesting “first” that occurred within Oakland is that Paul Covel was the first municipal naturalist in our country; Oakland Park and Recreation Department hired him in 1948 to oversee our town’s native ecosystems. Covel’s dedication to the wildlife at the lake began well before that in 1931, when as a twenty-two year old he would attend the daily feedings to give lectures; its a tradition he carried on for decades until his retirement in 1975. I have found it to be an ironic twist that he apparently lived right around the corner from me.
The Rotary Nature Center is a fascinating place, an interpretive museum filled to the brim with exhibits; its walls lined with samples of the various birds seen around the lake. Now under the guidance of Covel’s successor Stephanie Benavidez, who has dedicated the past 38 years to the center’s programs, it strives to further education about the wildlife sanctuary and the whole Lake Merritt ecosystem through natural science presentations and summer camps. The geodesic dome which sits nearby was built in the 1960’s with donated materials from the Kaiser Foundation and was originally used to display wild birds; it is now used as a safe haven for sick or vulnerable ones.
So with birds on the brain and a new slew of knowledge about this important part of wildlife around Lake Merritt, I look forward to spending more time along this stretch of its banks with my family to become a bit better acquainted with the feathered residents of Oakland. While dodging goose droppings may be part of it, I at least can now appreciate why so many of them are here. The Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge was created as a special place for them to stop off, and so while this facet of our jewel may be a bit “marred”, it is because like so many non-feathered residents that have cropped up recently, they know Oakland is a special place to make a pit stop…or call home.
The Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge is located in Lakeside Park along Lake Merritt. If you are interested in visiting the best way to map yourself there is to use the address of the Rotary Nature Center: 600 Bellevue Avenue, Oakland, CA 94610
Rotary Nature Center Hours:
During the 4th Wednesday of every month a Bird Walk with the Golden Gate Audubon Society is held. The walk is held at 9:30am and the starting point is the Geodesic Dome.
1857 map of San Antonio Creek: www.oaklandmofo.com
Map of Lake Merritt after the damming: www.oaklandmofo.com
1st image of Lake Merritt right after the above maps: Lake Merritt Local Wiki Page, Courtesy of the Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room
All historical images of the Wild Duck Feedings at Lake Merritt: Courtesy of the Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room
Top left image of Samuel Merritt and bottom left image of Lake Merritt circa 1890: New England Historical Society post found here.
Top right and bottom right images of Lake Merritt circa 1880’s: Samuel Merritt Local Wiki Page
All other photos are by Adrienne Schell. Do not use without permission.