If you’ve been by the Rotary Nature Center of late, you may have noticed that the Center has been closed. The building is undergoing inspection and assessment, and is slated at the very least to getting a thorough cleaning. Animals have been relocated from the building. At this point (Nov of 2017), we are still waiting to hear from the City when the center might re-open, and in what capacity.
The Lake Merritt channel is not pristine land. it has over the years been subject to all sorts of development, and (as the picture at top shows) downright defilement.
Today, as of 2017, we are closer to its natural state then we have been for over 150 years. The end of the channel, near where the stadium is to be built is perhaps closest still to this picture of development and defilement. 880 runs overhead. A defunct poorly fenced bridge underneath that littered with trash. Train tracks further on run mere feet from the tide. A large pipeline crosses it, next to the tracks and the new Embarcadero bridge construction is beyond that. Further towards the lake, a tide gate and pumping station sits underneath where East 8th meets 7th. BART runs somewhere beneath.
You might notice the garbage collecting on tide gate grills. Or the homeless regulars. If you’re up earlier you’ll find people doing Taichi or Qigong excercises. Parks and Peralta maintenance people buzz by. Cop cars sometimes congregate under 880. Fisherman stand patiently on the banks casting for Striped Bass. Gardners work the in the Laney community garden.
You might notice the birds. Gulls dropping shells on the pedestrian bridge by Peralta, a squad of cormorants working the channel, egrets stalking the sides. If you go there often, you might notice that their numbers change fluctuate, species come and go. A kingfisher chitters by; an osprey snags a branch for its nest; a raven bullies a hawk, crows bully the raven, a Mountain Bluebird peers out of a nesting box, a ground squirrel pops up from below, Buffleheads bob and weave, Coots squeak, Canada Geese lead their goslings, Goldeneyes dive.
If your lucky, you might peer into the water and see a bat ray grace its way through the water, or see a halibut darts by, or fins a school of anchovies wave back and forth at the tide gate, a snowy egret perching on the tide gate waiting to snag the unlucky.
In the winder birds dot the channel from its opening to the lake. It is the tide that carries them, and everything underneath them back and forth from Bay to Lake, Lake to Bay. I overhear people all the time around the lake wondering about the channel, surprised that our lake is not a lake, making fun of the lake birds for being plastic eating birds, or enjoying explaining that our lake is not a lake.
People peer over the bridges, stop to look. Or don’t, they keep talking to their friends, they keep running, walking, talking. The city has spent nearly $200 million dollars, in part, to make it a place that people want to come and spend time by it.
We at Community for Lake Merritt think that it is great that the A’s have decided to stay in Oakland, but we have serious concerns along with others over the potential placement of the new stadium on the Peralta property along the Lake Merritt channel. (If you want a good round up of all the concerns about the lake in this neighborhood, look to the East Bay Express series of articles: “Laney or Bust”)
We understand why the owners want to move near the lake. Since 2012 and the passage of Measure DD, the city of Oakland has spent (and is still spending) 198 million dollars and countless person hours on the lake and its environs. And it shows! The opening of the channel is part of these improvements, and is vital to the health of the lake.
The tides that flow up and down that stretch bring the Bay to Oakland, cleanse the lake, and bring birds, bat rays, anchovies, striped bass, and lots of fish and invertebrates. This is an unique feature of Oakland — not many cities have a slough and a wildlife refuge at their heart.
Just the other day, across from where the stadium would sit, I walked the bank and saw a large striped bass in the water, at my feet more or less. I stopped to watch and it swam off languidly, disappearing into the water. How would the stadium construction deal with the channel, what would it stir up, would it be hardscaped? What birds would the stadium attract and what would it deter.
And then the thousands of people will likely bring erosion, and litter. I would love to see more people exploring the channel. Some in the stadium crown would likely enjoy it, but for most it would be a path. Nowadays it is just me, people doing exercise or gardening by Laney, some homeless, and some fishermen. Sundays are a little busier with the swap meet in the Laney parking lot. There’s much more that could be done to make it accessible, keep it beautiful, and connect it to other paths and trails to Jack London and Brooklyn Basin. A stadium might do these things for its own ends.
And to be clear, this not a NIMBY rejection (I personally would take the 2002 Uptown version in my backyard with no issue!), but a desire to protect the potential long term vision of what the lake and its channel could offer to all of Oakland residents.
…or, more technically, invertebrates…
Lake Merritt is justly famous for the many species of birds that overwinter on the lake . The occasional appearance of a sea lion or river otter makes headlines but did you know that the lake is also home to a great variety of micro-charismatic critters?
The most obvious (and perhaps least charismatic?) are the mussels that line the edges of the lake. They stick out in a low tide. Gulls love to feed on them — you may often see a gull with one in its bill. Gulls will also deliberately drop a closed mussel onto the pavement to open the shell and get at the meaty interior. Take a look inside an open mussel shell and there you will find yet other organisms.
Less obvious but more important for the food chain is the plankton in the lake. Plankton consists of tiny critters that one needs a microscope to see and can include diatoms, protozoans, small crustaceans, and the eggs and larval stages of larger animals. The Nature Center (when we reopen again!) has microscopes that school groups and other visitors can use to get an idea of the diversity of life in the lake.
The most “famous” invertebrate at the lake is a new kind of beach hopper discovered many years ago by a 14 year old boy, Jim Carlson, who went to great lengths to find out what it was. (You can find his story at Bay Nature Magazine). Like most of the rest of the lake’s flora and fauna this “bug” probably was introduced on the hull of a ship. No one could identify this critter and it turned out to be a new species dubbed Transorchestia enigmatica. These beach hoppers may still be present on the small stretch of remaining beach near the bandstand. See if you can find one. You’ll find a more typical species of beach hopper along the channel.
My all time favorite invertebrate — seen at the lake back in 2015 — was a family of sea hares hanging out under the pedestrian bridge. Sea hares are related to octopuses and can eject a stream of ink to hide from potential predators.
Take a walk around the lake at low tide and see what you can find in the water.
A couple weeks ago (November 13th, 2017), our group joined a whole slew of other groups who exist around the lake at the Lawn Bowling clubhouse to learn about each other and how we can support each other. This included people from some of the institutions around the lake: The Gardens, Fairyland, the Camron-Sanford House; there were environmental advocates from Lake Merritt Institute, Audubon, Laney College. There was the Lake Merritt Breakfast Club, Lake Merritt Band, and the Lake Merritt runners, city employees, and interested citizens.
We were all a little amazed that there were so many groups. LakeMerritt.org the creation of a an individual originally interested in showing off his awesome photography, but grew to be a resource for all the goings on at the lake. This will be our — the Lake Merritt Advocates — hub, the place you can find to find a fun event, or a volunteer activity. We’ll be sharing our opportunities there as well.
We hope that the advocates as a whole will provide a place where we can share larger concerns, and work together with the City and their departments to make the Lake that much more of a great place to be.
One of my favorite winter residents of the lake is the Eared Grebe. It’s a small diving water bird (most closely related to Flamingos) that is flightless much of the year. The males turn into demonic looking birds just before they head out for mating season in the Spring. If your lucky, you can also sometimes glimpse their forays underwater. Their favorite food seems to be the the Bay Pipefish which seem to provide the grebes a run for their money.
The pipefish seem to be getting a reprieve this year with no Eared Grebe’s in their “traditional” hunting grounds (aka the spots I’ve seen them in over the past few years). I had seen one Eared Grebe on the lake near the bird islands earlier this year, but I have not seen it since. Things have been left to the Pied-billed Grebes, an equally cute species but which seems to mostly confine itself to the the refuge area on the northern side of the lake. Eared Grebes in my observations have favorite spots dotted around the lake. Last year, I’d remarked a trio showing up by the pedestrian bridge at the Southern end of the lake in early October where they could be reliably found for months after.
There seems to have been some e-Bird sitings over the last couple of days, so perhaps they are still to arrive. I did note, however, the week they arrived last year would have coincided with the fires in Sonoma and Napa. With the air quality so bad, I wonder if the birds thought better of flight, and decided to stick it out where they are. According to my Bay Area Birds (David Lukas, 2012), Eared Grebe’s make great use of the South Bay Salt Ponds, and nest down in the Hayward.
Data in my various sources of citizen science data (iNaturalist and eBird) seems too thin to make any kind of call on that hypothesis. And at the end of the day, I hope they still show up.
A couple of years ago they finished the shoreline from the Boating Center up to the Geodesic dome. There’s a nice wide path, some benches looking over the lake, and new landscaping around the parking lot, and a healthy bit of shoreline between the path and water. It can be a good spot to see the comings of goings of birds and boats if you are so inclined.
Parts of the shoreline are still fenced off — letting plants get situated and take good root, I presume, there is a path of old rip wrap and stone set on dirt where one can sit at the shoreline and take it in.
I found myself there the other day on a lovely fall day, I unintentionally flushed a Green Heron from the bank. It did my the favor of sitting on a white float for a few minutes, a rare chance to hang out with the most elusive heron of the lake.
I’d passed a Great Blue Heron earlier in the day sitting in shallow water seemingly unconcerned by the humans stopping to goggle at it. It seems like it is the only Great Blue on the lake but it is often out in the open. Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets come in bunches and are hard to miss, and one can often find a Snowy Egret right at your feet as it forages the edges of the lake.
The Green Heron seems more secretive and has a rather narrow range on the lake (all the iNaturalist observations are in the Northern part of the Lake, though I’ve it a time or two further west).
The little heron flew on a few minutes later, and I settled in to watch a sparrow — before I was graced with a final visit from a White Pelican, flying not too far overhead.
In just a couple days, the Lake Merritt Garden will be opening up for its annual Autumn Lights Festival. Community for Lake Merritt is helping out the Pollinator Posse with a butterfly themed exhibit in the pollinator garden.
We’ll also be having a little UV light critter hunt — no live critters — but some exemplars of cooly lit local California fauna.
The festival is Thu, Fri, and Sat, October 19-21, 6-11pm. Make sure to get tickets in advance, it does sell out. The even is rain or shine.