by Rex Burress


Although the five manmade islands at Oakland's Lake Merritt are generally referred to simply by number, they were officially given names in an "island naming" contest several years ago. Lack of signage led to a reversion to the old number system, but I do believe the largest "number four" island was chosen as "Pelican Island."

There must be many pelican islands around the world, but on Lake Merritt's version, the name is quite appropriate, as now two famous pelicans are buried there. Hector and Helen, American White Pelicans, rest in fill-soil on a plank-contained island in the middle of a city ... far from their Pyramid Lake birthplace. "Maybe they have flown back on spirit wings to their homeland!" Such were some of the sentimental statements during the memorial ceremonies.

A week after the burial I went down to pay my respects, handily escorted over in a creaky rowboat by Helen advocate Stephanie Benavidez, bird caretaker during much of the pelican's lifetime.

I had particularly been interested in Stephanie's report of two downy chicks she spotted when Helen was being buried, and she thought they were gulls. Gulls had never nested at the lake previously, and I wanted to record such an event. Most gulls flock to off-shore rocks for nesting, or go to inland lakes like Mono Lake or Pyramid Lake, especially California Gulls.

As we rounded the dominant island, two Western Gulls suddenly wheeled overhead, screaming at our intrusion, and actually bombarded us with defecation bombs! They definitely had something to hide.

We passed the gravesite, hardly a crease in the earth, with only a clump of Amarillis - the Naked Lady flower - blooming pinkly above Hector's grave. I disembarked and plowed through the pampas grass in search of wild gulls.

Overhead there was no lack of wild cormorants and egrets tending dozens of nests flimsily anchored in the dying casuarina tree. Strange that those segregated color forms had struck off a sharing attitude in the tree, although I imagine the inner play of possession was fierce. "Segregation is segregation!" Other than being principally fish-eating birds, their anatomies are quite different. The dark-feathered cormorant with the fan-like tail and hooked beak and large webbed feet sits in bill-raised defiance as they open their wings for drying.

The slim white egret, on the other hand, tiptoes around on long skinny legs and long, unwebbed toes, resting in a hunched appearance with the dagger-like yellow beak poised for a quick thrust into the water. The fishing methods are also quite different, as the cormorant "flies" along the bottom like a deadly submarine, snatching any unfortunate fish caught out of hiding. The egret is a stalker, prowling the edges in slow-motion readiness, poised to release the final plunger.

How the Western Gull managed a nest operation in between the tree occupants is a strange story. Just like the first Black-crowned Night-Herons that started nesting at Lake Merritt in l970, the same year Helen arrived, is a story of some individual pair deciding to do it at some selected spot. How does a bird finally decide where to nest in a world of unlimited opportunities???

As I broke out of the brush, volunteer Joseph spotted a bird running under a shrub, and on closer inspection, it indeed was a half-grown gull, gray with large black spots on the upper body!

I broke through the brush and got several pictures of a downy-clad chick that stood surprisingly calm, head held aloof just like the proud-acting parents that seem to always walk around with their heads high and chest out. Some would say they are bully birds bent on biting into any food-enhanced situation. They are not reluctant to be vocal as well as bold!

I had previously seen only one Western Gull nest, anchored on the pier at the Port of Oakland. In spite of giant ships banging against the pilings, and a clatter of machines tending the cargo, the gulls determinedly held their ground, and ship traffic actually gave them space! Gulls are also reported to nest at the Alameda Naval Base Least Tern Refuge, so a pair at Lake Merritt is possible. Gulls actually always hang out at the Lake Merritt Refuge anticipating food from Refuge feedings or public brown bag benefactors!

I suspect the dense tangles of berry vines and brush on the island have limited nesting choices for the space-loving gulls. Next day, I watched both gull chicks poking around at the water's edge while the alert parents watched from the pilings. At some undeclared moment, a parent ran down on the island, and the two youngsters dashed in pursuit, a ceremony that ended with the adult coughing up a fish mixture and the two babies pecking it off the ground.

Nearby, a baby Forster's Tern was crying to be fed, even though the juvenile was fully grown and feathered! Young Snowy Egrets also chased their parents in demands for more easy food. In whatever bird world you watch, you will see the eternal story of family interaction, and the tedious moments toward independence.

 © 1999 Rex Burress
August 19, l999