Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Urban Wildlife: It's Not a Myth

Dear Nature Lovers,

No, the title does not refer to the activities within our four walls, although we certainly have been leading a “wild life” here. This post is about the more familiar, outdoor use of the word wildlife.

During our several visits to the Oakland Morehouse over the years prior to moving here, we had never seen the place in the context of its larger neighborhood. All I had really noticed was that it was a large purple Victorian house on a quiet suburban cul-de-sac. What I hadn't realized until we were actually living here was that it's smack-dab in the middle of a big city. Oakland is the eighth largest city in California, and the Morehouse is about a half-mile from the 30-story glass office buildings at the edge of the downtown business district.

What makes this setup even more intriguing to me is the presence of Lake Merritt, which is situated between our house and the skyscraper district. The lake is a large brackish tidal lagoon that exists in complete bucolic contrast to the urban environment that surrounds it. It is ringed by a three-mile pedestrian path, and people in business suits walk to work along it, sharing the path with joggers, dog-walkers and mothers teaching their kids to ride bikes. All of this goes on while 30 feet away the rush-hour traffic whizzes by on Harrison Street. The Lake is also historically significant in that it was the first-ever official wildlife refuge
in the United States, having been so designated in 1870.

As many mornings as I can, I take a brisk solo walk for about 20 minutes along the lake. Of all the sensory stimuli I encounter, my favorite is the bird life. I have been a bird-watcher since I was a small child, and have tramped through deep woods and mud with binoculars and a field guide to catch glimpses of anything in feathers. I once stumbled upon several hybrid Blue-Winged Warblers in an overgrown pasture. I have stood motionless for 10 minutes watching a Pileated Woodpecker (a pterodactyl-like bird the size of a large crow) decimate a dead tree with its mighty beak, looking for insects. I have a modest “life list” of about 125 species of which I'm very proud.

Never, however, have I seen such a motley array of birds, many of whom I would have considered to be secluded forest-dwellers, be so comfortable within the confines of a bustling city. Along with egrets, gulls, geese, cormorants, and several types of ducks, there are some very odd-looking creatures, like the American Coot and the Eared Grebe. The latter I find notable for its demonic red eyes and the white feathers that sweep back on either side of its head, not unlike Paulie Walnuts in The Sopranos.

On my way to and from the lake, I pass Adams Park, a small oasis on the grounds of the Veterans' Memorial Building, which houses the local senior center. The last 75 yards of Glen Echo Creek emerge from underground here, run through the park under a wooden footbridge, and then under Grand Avenue before emptying into the northwest corner of the lake. The flow of the stream is so slow before it goes under the footbridge that it forms a quiet little pool. Trees overhang this pool, and it is simultaneously both secluded and completely available to be observed by anyone interested in stepping three to four feet off the sidewalk and standing at a wrought-iron railing above the water. 

Pretty much every time I stop to do this, I find some combination of the following: A Mallard (fairly common), a Black-crowned Night Heron (sometimes standing on one leg), and a large turtle warming itself on a rock. When all three of them are there at the same time, they're kind of a gang, even though they don't appear to be paying any attention to each other. I often take a moment to enjoy these smaller neighbors of mine before continuing home, sometimes stopping in at the Whole Foods on the corner before making my way up the hill the last three blocks to the house.

Lynne and I moved to California to be with a particular group of people; to immerse ourselves in and share our lives with our Morehouse family. Getting to live in the City of Oakland, and continuously discover its many and varied charms, has turned out to be an unexpected bonus

Thanks again for reading.

Best Regards,


There's no effort in being interested.

-- Vic Baranco

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