The Door to Narnia

Two naturalists promote the exceptional fauna of Lake Merritt, Oakland’s heart.


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At the most recent count, 115 bird species were spotted flapping around the lake, everything from majestic white pelicans to Anna’s hummingbirds.

Stephen Texeira

Crouched on a muddy bank of Lake Merritt, Constance Taylor flipped over a rock,  peered closely into the muck, and then exploded in joy.

“There it is! Oh, my God! Transorchestia enigmatica!” she exclaimed as a few dozen tiny brownish creatures skittered across the sand. “One of the only places in the whole world these things are known to exist is right here at Lake Merritt. And here it is!”

Transorchestia enigmatica, a sand-hopping crustacean, was discovered by pioneering marine ecologist Jim Carlton in 1967 and is documented in the World Register of Marine Species. But to Taylor and her boss, Stephanie Benavidez, it’s only one of hundreds—302, to be exact—natural wonders of Lake Merritt.

The two, who work at the Rotary Nature Center, are on a mission to promote public awareness of the fauna that inhabits Lake Merritt and its environs. Most people see the lake as a nice place to go jogging, but Taylor and Benavidez want Oaklanders to see Lake Merritt as a thriving oasis of wildlife, a sort of urban Galapagos that’s unique in North America.

“Oakland is the body, and Lake Merritt is the heart,” said Benavidez, who’s been a naturalist at the lake for nearly 40 years. “When people come here, do they just want to see a park? You can see a park anywhere. They come here to see something exceptional. This place is exceptional.”

Stephen Texeira

Lake Merritt is the oldest wildlife refuge in the United States.

Lake Merritt, the oldest wildlife refuge in the United States, is a major stop on the Pacific flyway, attracting thousands of birds migrating annually along the coast. At the most recent count, 115 bird species were spotted flapping around the lake, everything from majestic white pelicans to Anna’s hummingbirds.

Determined to educate Oaklanders about the creatures in their midst, Benavidez and Taylor planned the first Nature Festival at Lake Merritt in October. They are also hosting periodic “bio-blitz” events where the public helps count species, and they are trying to raise money to overhaul the 1950s-era Rotary Nature Center.

It’s not enough to jog around Lake Merritt or even praise the new landscaping, they said. Oaklanders need to understand and embrace the squawking, splashing magic around them.

“It’s easy to dismiss it as this stinky body of water filled with trash,” Taylor said. “But there’s sharks in here, and rays, and jellyfish. Things are constantly changing and unfolding here. I learn new things every day. Lake Merritt is like the door to Narnia.”

Stephen Texeira

Constance Taylor hopes to build "a culture of observation" at Lake Merritt.

The 140-acre lake is a natural lagoon fed by three creeks, linking to San Francisco Bay at the 12th Street channel. Measure DD funds have paid for major restoration of the lake and its surrounding park, including the renovation of the pergola and old boathouse (now Lake Chalet), revamping the south side of the lake near the Kaiser Convention Center, and upgrading the landscaping. More projects are on the way.

Perhaps most importantly, more water from the bay flows into the lake, offering a boon to wildlife. Tiger sharks, otters, bat rays, striped bass, and other creatures are now regulars there. But Benavidez and Taylor aren’t sure how to scientifically measure these success stories, because no one did a full accounting of what lived there before the work started.

“There’s no baseline,” Taylor said. “No one thought to study the wildlife population. It’s a missed opportunity, but we’re hoping to change that. We think if we can get the public’s help, we can really study what’s living here. We can build a culture of observation, which will ultimately help us protect this beautiful lake.”

To help out, sign up to observe species at  www.INaturalist.org/places/lake-merritt--3 or visit the Rotary Nature Center, 600 Bellevue Ave., to donate, volunteer or learn more about the lake.

 

Published online on Nov. 7, 2016 at 8:00 a.m.

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