Birds of Lake Merritt Channel

Note: For blog entries related to the Lake Merritt Channel, click here.

The Lake Merritt Channel is a thin strip of water joining Lake Merritt and the Oakland Estuary. It is located in the midst of some of the most urban, denaturalized terrain in Oakland -- an area defined by busy streets, the Nimitz Freeway, railway bridges, and an architectural mixture of hard-aging residential and commercial buildings and the blunt institutional buildings of the Peralta Community College District, the Oakland Unified School District, and featureless backside of the Kaiser Center.

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To a driver or pedestrian traversing 7th/East 8th Street or 10th Street, the channel appears as a briefly glimpsed and quickly forgotten break in the concrete and asphalt. It's not even worth using as a landmark when giving directions to destinations in the area -- much safer to reference a real landmark like the parking lot next door.

In all, it's a pretty strange place to discover nature. "Oakland" is not exactly synonymous with the great outdoors, in any case, but there are areas where green space can emerge more plausibly, such as in the hills, or tucked neatly out of the way like Mountain View Cemetery. But Downtown Oakland and the neighborhoods that flank it seem to be constantly choking on their own city-ness, whether in the form of urban decay or urban renewal.

In this context, the Channel almost seems to be another street: narrow, grubby, interlaced with cross-streets, and full of the noise of cars and humans. It's just a little...wetter, on average, than its neighbors.

That's how I thought of it for quite a long time. For years, whenever I happened to pass through the area, it left no impression on me at all, except that it was somehow a bit depressing.

When I came to work at the Peralta CCD district office, my perceptions of the channel did not immediately change. But I ride BART to work and exit at Lake Merritt Station, which means that I cross the channel at least twice a day, in the morning and the evening. And I often spend much or all of my lunch breaks there, as well. And at some point, I started to pick up on the rather startling abundance of bird life all around me.

Of course, birds as a class are not strangers to urban environments, or to any environment on (or above) the surface of the earth, just about. But the urban birds -- pigeons, crows, miscellaneous songbirds -- had always been, for me, part of the background noise of urban life -- stimuli well below the threshold.


The birds I began to notice at the channel were more remarkable -- not rare birds, necessarily, but weird. Like the Double-Crested Cormorant, with its studded green eyes, or the American Coot, with its rather human blend of curiosity and abject terror, or the escapee Egyptian Goose, with her distinctly alien plumage.

Egret at the 7th St. Pumping Station

Just as strange-seeming was how easily these birds appear to fare in an environment so suffused with the presence of humans -- that presence taking the form of noise pollution, actual pollution, trash flowing down from Lake Merritt and up from the Bay, and human intruders looking for places to eat lunch, make out, sleep, or relieve themselves.

While the birds will spook if approached too closely (except for the geese, who are both jaded and accustomed to handouts), they otherwise seem to take everything in stride. The 10th Street culverts, the 7th Street flood control station, the Nimitz overpass, abandoned pilings, small rafts of trash, are all appropriated for shelter, for shade, as fishing platforms, as places to break shellfish, or just as places to dry out one's wings in peace.

As I came to be more attentive, the undifferentiated mass of feathery residents and visitors began to differentiate itself into quite a lot of species. I'm a total novice birder, and so far I've been able to differentiate about 48 species. A more experienced birder would surely be able to identify far more, especially among the gulls and songbirds. And of course a more experienced (and better-equipped) photographer would be able to better capture representative images of each species.

But, so far as I know, there's no one who meets those criteria who also happens to have a pair of obsessive eyes on the channel quite so regularly as I do, which gives me something of an edge over those more competent hypothetical competitors.

7th Street Flood Control Station

It's hard to say what I'll be seeing in the future in the Channel, because there are so me pretty serious changes planned for the area by the city as part of Measure DD. Changes include the removal of the culverts both at 10th Street and 12th Street, where the Channel joins the lake, to be replaced by clear-spanning bridges, the creation of a bypass channel at the 7th Street flood control station, and alterations to the banks and paths.

It's hard to say what the net effect of these changes will be, in terms of bird life. If all goes as planned, there will be a great deal of additional pedestrian, bicycle, and small boat traffic, which may a negative imp pact on the avian population. However, some of the alterations to the banks are intended to restore the tidal estuary ecosystem -- whatever that means -- which would certainly be beneficial. And the bypass channel and clear-spanning bridges should improve bird traffic to and from the lake. The city has also said they would try (no promises) to limit construction to periods during which migratory birds would not be impacted, and that in the future, small boat traffic would similarly be restricted during migratory periods.

I'm currently working on expanding my collection of images, particularly with an eye toward the birds in the trees, rather than just on the water. I want to document the channel itself, as it is now, during the Measure DD construction, and once the changes are finished.


Big List of Species Observed (52)

Note: This list may well contain inaccuracies, and certainly demonstrates my sloppy approach to taxonomy. Please email if you spot any errors. The images on this page are mainly hosted on flickr, because this is an ongoing project, and it's simpler for me to manage these files there, at least for now. Once you click through to flickr, you can also browse through the species by tag.
Going forward, I'm planning on putting together a master set on flickr of some of the better images, and possibly some sort of slideshow. I'm also going to write a few more pages, discussing the birds in greater detail.