December in Stow Lake: Ducks and More

What better way to end the year than a walk round Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park? It remains one of my favorite places in San Francisco – user-friendly for people and waterbirds alike.
kid at water edge

Sbare areas with felled treeso I went down there on December 31st in the late afternoon with someone who wanted to try out a new Olympus camera. I carried my trusty Nikon Coolpix. (It’s a little less trusty now for having a strange gray line appear whenever I use the zoom; I’m going to have to fix or replace it).

Unfortunately, Strawberry Hill – the hill in the center of the lake, accessed by a bridge on either side – is a lot more bare than it used to be. They’ve been cutting down trees and removing vegetation. Before, you couldn’t even see the summit from the outside, and it always seemed green and lush.

gulls mallards coots at Stow Lake Dec 2014

We strolled around the lake,  enjoying the amazing birdlife and the clear evening light. On this trip, we saw not just the usual mallards and gulls, but a wealth of American coots…

This shot reminded me of a hen overseeing a flock of chicks. “Are you our mother?
Are you my mother

This gull allowed a close-up. I tried to figure out its species from my bird books, but couldn’t really narrow it down. Maybe a Thayer’s or a Glaucus-winged? Or a young Western gull? [Edited to add: A friendly bird expert thought it was probably a glaucus-winged, but just possibly could be a Thayer’s.] Gulls are confusing, the more so because some of them hybridize quite happily.

A gull

There were some Northern Shovellers amid the mallards, and I got a picture of this couple.
northern shoveler

Perched on a rock, and preening continuously, we saw this duck – I think it’s a female ruddy duck.
PC310014 female ruddy duck and coot

And there was this smart black and white bufflehead. [Edited to add: The picture shows the green/ purple iridescence, but that wasn’t clearly visible from shore without binoculars – which I forgot to carry with me.] We first saw it near the boat-house, but then it reappeared on the side near the waterfall. I couldn’t tell if it was the same individual or not, it was diving and moving quickly. There were at least two; I have another photo of them which is too blurry to publish.

A Double-crested cormorant swam around, low in the water. We saw a couple of others fly off.
double crested cormorantThey always remind me of a nonsense verse I read as a kid: ” The common cormorant or shag/ Lays eggs inside a paper bag/ The reason you will see no doubt/ It is to keep the lightning out/ But what these unobservant birds/ Have never noticed is that herds/ Of wandering bears may come with buns/ And steal the bags to hold the crumbs.” (It’s by Christopher Isherwood and of course it isn’t true – but as a child I had a strong mental image of the birds creeping into brown-paper bags to nest…)

The usual Muscovy ducks (which don’t actually come from Moscow) foraged around the edges of the lake.
muscovy duck at Stow Lake

There were a few of the Canada geese (formerly from Canada, but they live here now and particularly love the new Botanical Garden, which is goose heaven).
canada goose in a pine tree

Instead of a partridge in a pear tree, I offer you a wild goose in a pine tree.

It’s a couple of days late – but wishing everyone who reads this a wonderful year in 2015!

Stow Lake … with Alligator?

I was leafing through a sheaf of pesticide use reports from the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, as I sometimes do. It’s mostly about herbicides sprayed on plants. The parts about animals usually relate to rodents and yellow-jackets.

Not this report.  Some people had seen an alligator. In Stow Lake.

stow lake with alligator

I checked the date on the report, just in case it was April Fools. But no, this had a June 2014 date on it.

It wasn’t a very big alligator – two feet, said the report. SFRPD called Fish and Game, and Animal Care and Control. But though they went out to look a couple of days in succession, there was no alligator seen. They closed the case until there’s another sighting.

Do we have our own Nessie in Golden Gate Park?

stow lake alligator sighting

Stow Lake Walk (with Birds)

A few days ago, we went for a walk to Stow Lake. Golden Gate Park is so near Forest Knolls that the outing needs no planning – jump in the car and in ten minutes you’re there.  On this warm Friday afternoon, it was crowded in a pleasant way with both with people and with birds. I have a new camera (I’m back to a Nikon Coolpix – wasn’t that happy with my Canon)and wanted to see what a pocket camera could do for bird pictures. It felt like the birds were less shy than usual, or maybe the crowd just provided a distraction so any one person didn’t bother them.

night heron holds a pose 1
Night heron holds a pose

This night heron was hanging out near the water. This is the same species as the baby birds in the trees that were trimmed in Berkeley.  (Those have, happily,  been saved. Some day, they’ll be handsome adults like this one.)

redwinged blackbird foraging
Redwinged blackbird foraging

I also saw more red-winged blackbirds than usual, and this one was so busy eating seeds near the path that it waited to the last minute to fly away – and came back the minute we’d passed by.

seven half-grown ducklings still hang out with mom
Seven half-grown ducklings still hang out with mom

These half-grown ducklings had outgrown the brown fuzzy stage, but still attracted attention of adults and kids alike.

baby geese sleep while adults stand guard
Baby geese sleep while adults stand guard

The Canada geese had young ones, too. I love how they always have a couple of geese on guard while the flock feeds, or in this case, sleeps.

blurry pic of male wood duck
Male wood duck, Stow Lake, June 2014

There was a dramatic and handsome male Wood Duck. I looked at my bird book when I got back, and realized I’d seen him (or maybe another like him) almost exactly a year ago.  The picture I got was blurry, but I’m posting it here anyway. At least it’s recognizably a wood duck!  I didn’t see a female. Some years ago, I did see a female wood duck at Stow Lake, but she was hanging out with a duck of a different species.

hunting robin
American Robin listening for food

This American robin was apparently hunting.

muscovy bedtime
Muscovy bedtime

By the time we finished our walk, the Muscovy ducks had decided to call it a day. They were sleeping under a bush But the night herons were alert.  As we prepared to leave, this guy stood like a statue on the boathouse .

Night heron posing 2
Night heron, Stow Lake June 2014

Stow Lake September Twilight

Today was a day of intermittent sunshine and beautiful clouds. In the evening,  a misty fog blew in and Stow Lake looked like something out of a romantic historical film. You half expected to see a lady on a white horse, or an armor-clad knight.

stow lake twilight

But even without the fantasy, it’s an interesting place at twilight; you never know what you’ll see.  (The downside is that my current camera, which hates low-light conditions, doesn’t get very good pics.)

By the time we got there, most of the crowds had left.  Only a few late walkers like us wandered around the lake.  The last boat of the evening paddled toward the jetty. The mallards, geese and Muscovy ducks circled the edges of the lake hopefully before the last visitors disappeared.

A gull near the Boathouse hopped down to the edge of lake and came up with – something. It was reddish and scrawny and didn’t look like a piece of sandwich or candy. It brought its catch ashore to deal with it, and I got a closer look. It was a small red crayfish. I wouldn’t have recognized it, except that some months ago, I actually saw a much bigger crayfish at Stow Lake. The gull gobbled it down before I could even whip out my camera.

A flight of birds passed overhead, looking somewhat like swans and calling to each other. Then I realized it was actually Canada Geese, bleached by mist and twilight. They swept around and landed on the lake.

From Strawberry Hill, a Great Horned Owl called softly  It sounded tentative, almost thoughtful. Probably just waking up and wanted its coffee.

On the other side of the lake, we noticed some black-and-white critters contrasting with the broad yellowish bare path on Strawberry Hill. Though the light was now quite poor, I looked carefully and realized it was a Mama Skunk with two kittens, hurrying along the path and occasionally detouring off it. Then I saw a bushy tail on our side, but it quickly hid amid the rocks at the lake-edge. It may be in the picture below – or not.

stow lake with hidden skunk

We passed the old stone bridge, and then, on cue at 7.55 p.m, I saw a bat, followed soon by several others. I tried for a photograph, but as usual, got only some smudges.  (My technique is to point my camera in their general direction and keep clicking madly.) Spot the bats?

bat smudge 2

bat smudge 1

a bat-smudge

The geese took off in small flocks, flying away to an unknown destination – maybe the Botanic Garden. It was so quiet I could hear the whistle of the wind in their wings.

Further along, the city noises returned – the rush of traffic along the 19th avenue intersecting the park.  It was back to our car, and back to the real world.

twlight tree

Stow Lake Photo Swap

At Stow Lake yesterday, we came upon a couple looking at something. We stopped to see what it was. There on the ground was a red crayfish. We’d never seen one at Stow Lake before, and neither had they, though they visit often. I pulled out my camera.

“You have a camera?” the lady asked. “We came from someplace else, so we didn’t bring ours.”

Even better, my companion had an iPhone. He could take the photo and instantly send it to their email address.  Which he did.

Here’s the iPhone picture of the crayfish.

(We’re still wondering what it’s doing there, on the dry dusty path.)

When they emailed back to thank us, they sent us this enchanting picture of three baby Great Horned Owls in Golden Gate Park.

When I asked for permission to publish it, they agreed. In a follow-up they said, “One of the really nice things in the park is sharing wildlife, especially with people who may not have ever seen owls, or herons, or bats…

Couldn’t agree more. We’re so fortunate to have this wonderful park ten minutes from our neighborhood.

Stow Lake Surprise

Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park on a golden summer evening… it’s one of my favorite places to walk.  It was past seven when I got there, not crowded at all, though a few joggers and walkers and families were still around.  So also a few ducks and gulls, and something that splashed from time to time.

What was it?

A single pied-bill grebe was diving around the boat island, but it didn’t splash hard, it just dived in and vanished. But walking along the water’s edge, I came upon a possible splasher: a large koi fish, I estimate over a foot long. It was white and gold, not the usual well-camouflaged gray. So maybe the splashing was from fish? I still don’t know.

Stow Lake August ducklingI crossed the bridge beyond the boat house, and was startled to see a little bird bobbing along the reeds on the other side: a duckling. It busily swam along the reads, reaching up into the overhanging bushes. Its mother floated patiently along, just supervising junior. I was surprised because it’s so late in the season. I wonder if mallards can hatch a second brood?

I watched it for a while as it explored, for all the world like a toddler running ahead and stopping and looking, while its mother looks on. Here is again, hiding in the shadows of the overhanging tree.

Strawberry Hill was busy with squirrels, showing off their white shirt-fronts as they sat up to people-watch. They moved with the confidence of the popular, knowing that humans were more likely to admire than threaten. And maybe there’d be a nut or two on offer.

There’s been undergrowth removal on Strawberry hill, and maybe tree-trimming as well. It seems rather bare by comparison to what I remember from previous years. Steller’s Jay’s, blue birds with charcoal gray heads and crests, flew around the trees; the work seems to have opened up hunting grounds for them.

On the way back, I came upon the last surprise. Two people were looking at this: A crayfish. Never seen those before at Stow Lake, either.

Stow Lake with Winter Birds

Having Golden Gate Park so close to home is a gift.

It was a beautiful afternoon, and we headed for Stow Lake. So did a number of  winter birds, the ones that spend their summers in the Arctic and their winters in San Francisco.

I hadn’t brought my bird-book, and couldn’t ID them, being more of a wannabe birder than an expert; but they graciously posed for photos. After that, it was on to my Lone Pine Field Guide of the Birds of Northern California, and a little help from Google.

There were gulls.  Most people consider gulls a  white or brown-streaked aquatic version of crows and ravens. So I was surprised to discover several different species of gull at Stow Lake, besides the ubiquitous Western Gull.

Mew Gull


The first one I saw was a little self-conscious Mew Gull. These gulls visit San Francisco in winter, hanging out in Alaska and Canada during the summer.

Not a Thayer's Gull, but not yet identified

The Thayer’s gull, which resembled the snow owl from the Harry Potter books,  was so pretty I took a bunch of photographs. It looked like it was covered in lace. It also spends summers in the Canadian arctic. This is probably a young gull in its first year. As it grows older, it’ll look quite different — more like the Western Gull. [Edited to Add: This gull apparently is not a Thayer’s. It may be a cross between two other species of gulls. I didn’t actually know there were such things as gull hybrids, which complicates an already tough-for-amateurs identification problem. Thanks to expert birders in the SF Birds Yahoo Group, where the discussion continues.]

Herring Gull

This herring gull really did look like it was posing on that rock, standing sentinel. It’s another winter visitor, just like the Mew and the Thayer’s.

Feeding Frenzy

Someone brought Cheerios for the birds. Gulls have no table manners. Lots of violence and swearing. Luckily the kid couldn’t understand gull-speak.

White-fronted Geese

Usually the geese out at Stow Lake are the big Canada geese everyone knows. But today, there were three White-Fronted Geese cropping at the grass on the roadside, and ignoring people passing within a few feet of them. Don’t know why they’re called white-fronted — they look very brown to me. (The black bird in the picture above is an American Coot.)

And finally, there was this odd duck with a brown head and white throat. I don’t know if it’s a species I couldn’t ID, or if it’s just a variant of the Mallards we see everywhere.

An unexpected bonanza for what was planned as a lovely afternoon walk .