Business has brought me to California this week and I’ve got to say, flying into Oakland is pretty sweet. Not only is the airport nice and clean, it sits less than a mile from premier birding habitat! Arrowhead Marsh, part of the Martin Luther King Jr. Regional Shoreline Park, is a birding bonanza, a waterfowl and wader wonderland. Within minutes of picking up my rental car, I was into some stellar western U.S. avifauna. (Actually I picked up Brewer’s Blackbird, the quintessential parking lot bird, where else but in a parking lot, but that doesn’t count!)

Anna’s Hummingbird

Driving into the park, I passed pools thick with American Wigeon, American Coots, and throngs of gulls, including Western, Ring-billed, Glaucous-winged, and my first California. Just a few yards later appeared what appeared to be a mixed flock of White-crowned and Golden-crowned Sparrows, like the subjects below:

White-crowned Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrows

It wasn’t until I consulted the Sibley that I learned that my golden-crowns were merely first winter white-crowns. That orange bill is a dead giveaway. Unfortunately, I didn’t look closer to pull out actual golden-crowned sparrows. Fortunately, there were abundant birds to capture my attention.

The highlight of Arrowhead Marsh is, of course, the waterbirds. Though I didn’t catch the specialty rails and stilts, the waders really impressed – lots of Willet and Greater Yellowlegs with a buffy Marbled Godwit for good luck. Sifting through the Calidris sandpipers in winter plumage did not strike me as fun, but one Dunlin stood out from the crowd. The waterfowl were also spectacular with Horned and Eared Grebe, Common Goldeneye, Greater Scaup, Mallard, Bufflehead, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, and, amazingly, two pair of Surf Scoter, a species more likely to be found on the ocean. Getting this close to these garishly-colored birds is a real treat.

As I combed the gully for Canvasback, acting on a tip from a gentleman I met along the path, I came upon my first California Towhee, a beautiful yet understated brown bird, along with Yellow-rumped Warbler (the lovely Audubon’s race), House Finch, Black Phoebe, Song Sparrow, and Anna’s Hummingbird, the last preening splendidly on a barbed wire fence. Of the canvasback, I found only duck decoys. I didn’t much like the humor of the welcoming committee, but he also suggested Greater White-fronted Geese on the other side of the park, and how could I ignore that possibility?

Coming around, I viewed Great and Snowy Egrets and lots of cormorants, presumably all Double-crested though Brandt’s was possible. Turkey Vultures soared overhead and a beautifully spotted red-shafted Northern Flicker, my only woodpecker of the day, flew into the trees. Then I came upon the geese, an assorted flock of Canada and Greater White-fronted. Taking photos of the white-fronts, I realized that the Canada geese had some miniatures in their midst. Lo and behold, I found my very first Cackling Geese, presumably of the Aleutian variety.

Cackling Goose
Cackling Goose

These little guys peeled off from the larger Branta canadensis a couple of years ago. They look exactly like their cousins but are quite noticeably smaller.

All in all, I had an amazing couple of hours, adding 19 birds to my year list and 3 to my personal, not Core Team life list. But, like the bluesmen of old, I can’t be satisfied. With only one free day clear on the other side of the country, I was determined to make every second count. Stay tuned tomorrow when I recount the rest of my day combing the magnificent Oakland Hills for tasty passerines!

Written by Mike
Mike is a leading authority in the field of standardized test preparation, but he's also a traveler who fully expects to see every bird in the world. Besides founding 10,000 Birds in 2003, Mike has also created a number of other entertaining but now extirpated nature blog resources, particularly the Nature Blog Network and I and the Bird.