Enjoy breathtaking bird watching at Lake Merritt

Enjoy breathtaking bird watching at Lake Merritt

Spend a day connecting with nature and viewing beautiful wild birds at the wildlife sanctuary at Lake Merritt, the oldest wildlife refuge in North America.   

The refuge is one of the least expensive excursions (admission is free) in the Bay Area for families, locals, national and international travelers to take part in. Upon your arrival via the 19th Street/Oakland BART Station in downtown Oakland, walk north on Broadway and turn right onto 21st Street. When you reach the lake, turn left on Harrison Street and follow the walking path around the lake, past Children's Fairyland until you reach the sanctuary (it's about a 20-minute walk). 

The Rotary Nature Center at Lake Merritt offers information about local wildlife.

Rotary Nature Center

Pack a picnic lunch (or visit many diverse restaurants in the area), your binoculars, a bird guide and head to the Rotary Nature Center, an informative interpretive museum and much more.

Here, you can learn about birds, their physical characteristics, and how to observe them. I enjoyed the Bird Identification Sightings Chart that interns, volunteers, staff and visitors add to each day. 

An American White Pelican

Rotary Center Supervising Naturalist Stephanie Benavidez (for 42 years) calls the Refuge a “living legacy in the heart of Oakland.” She reminds staff and visitors alike that we are all ambassadors of this unique urban oasis. 

Ducks floating on the water of Lake Merritt

Remember to pick up a naturalist flyer (and map of the lake with points of interest) inside the lobby that contains a directory with drawings and thorough descriptions of 21 of the most common residents and migratory waterfowl at Lake Merritt. This handy flyer will help you identify the difference between a snowy egret and a great egret, two majestic birds with bright-white plumage that gently glide over the brackish water tidal lagoon during the day or just perch on the many rest stops around the Lake. You can also check out a colorful list and description of birds here. And here's a visual guide to lakeside birds.

Lake Merritt's Bird Island is actually comprised of 5 islands.

Venture out to the yard just outside the main door (toward the water) where you will be dazzled by the many birds that perch on Bird Island (actually Bird Island is made up of five small islands). Some birds are residents, while others are migrants.

Take a stroll around the circumference of the lake (the footpath is 3.4 miles, and the sidewalk is 2.7 miles), and pause at one of five viewing stations. Colorful mallards, black-crowned night herons, American white pelicans (my favorite), and cormorants are just a few of the birds you will encounter on your visit. 

A ruddy duck

Yes, you can feed the birds for $1 (please return the used bag afterwards for reuse). Obtain bird seed inside the Rotary Nature Center office.

If you are intrigued to learn more about birding, the Rotary Nature Center offers a bird walk with the Golden Gate Audubon Society the fourth Wednesday of every month (9:30am). Meet at the geodesic dome cage.

The geodome at Lake Merritt.

You never know what breathtaking birds you will see at the refuge as every day there are different sightings depending on the time of year and time of day. Thus, a visit to this Oakland jewel by BART is a reminder that the beauty of wildlife is all around you.   

For more information about the wildlife refuge or if you have accessibility concerns or questions, call (510) 238-3739 or visit them online.

The refuge is open seven days a week (including holidays), from 10am to 5pm, Monday through Friday; and 10am to 4:30pm, Saturday and Sunday.

For more information on Lake Merritt and walking tours of the refuge, visit the calendar of events.

Quick facts:

  • Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge is a wildlife sanctuary and part of the Pacific Flyway for countless numbers of migratory birds.
  • On March 18, 1870, Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge became protected under the California Wildlife Act.
  • In 1963, Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge was registered as a National Historical Landmark.
600 Bellevue Ave.
Oakland, CA 94610
Nearest BART Station: 
19th St. Oakland
Walking time: 
20 minutes (1 mile walk)
(510) 238-3739
Monday through Friday, 10am to 5pm
Saturday and Sunday, 10am to 4:30pm
Nearest BART Station: 
19th St. Oakland

Plan Your Trip

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E.g., 04-28-2017
Author: Janice Armigo Brown
Janice Armigo Brown, a freelance writer, has always called the East Bay home. She can be found exploring the Bay Area on BART when not working in Special Education or volunteering on the BART Accessibility Task Force. Janice also spends time with her husband and two cats, Cinder and Tippy.
Photographer: Felicia Kieselhorst
Felicia is a freelance photographer based in Emeryville. Wedding and product photography are her bread and butter but she often takes on gigs in different subjects, including shooting for BARTable! Whatever the job, Felicia can often be found traveling via BART from her home station, MacArthur. When not working she spends her time gardening, kayaking around the Bay, watching A’s games at O.Co, or walking her pooch Qispi.

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