Lake Merritt, The Jewel of Oakland

Lake Merritt: the nation's oldest designated wildlife refuge, visited, and loved by many.



Lake Merritt is 3.4 miles in circumference, covering 155 acres of land. The water depth varies based on the amount of water filtering in from the estuary and the amount of rainfall.

Nearby parks and amenities to enjoy include:

  • Green space at Snow Park
  • Abundant wildlife at Rotary Nature Center
  • Lakeside Gardens
  • Fitness area and baseball diamond at Eastshore Park
  • Jogging path along the Cleveland Cascades
  • Athol Tennis Courts
  • Kayaks for rent at the Lake Merritt Boating Center
  • Main and Lakeview Libraries
  • Children's Fairyland


Lake Merritt is a tidal slough that is part of the San Francisco Bay.

In 1869, Dr. Samuel Merritt donated 155 acres that included the headwaters of "Indian Slough" and money to build a dam at the 12th Street Bridge, across the "neck" of the inlet. This created the present day lake. It became known as "Merritt's Lake" and later as Lake Merritt. The flow of tides was limited to pipes and culverts.

In 1925, Lake Merritt's Necklace of Lights was lit for the first time during the Dons of Peralta Water Festival. The Necklace of Lights has 126 lampposts, each given by an organization or an individual along with 3,400 pearly bulbs. The Necklace of Lights was illuminated every night until 1941 when World War II blackout conditions were enforced.

Measure DD projects starting in 2012 freed the Lake Merritt channel, removing culverts that limited the flow of tides into the Lake.

America's Oldest Wildlife Refuge

Lake Merritt comes from a wide, tidal estuary and salt water marsh known as the Laguna Peralta.

Lake Merritt is situated along the Pacific Flyway migratory route of birds up and down the West Coast. Along that route, the Lake serves as a sanctuary and stop-over for thousands of migratory birds.

Dr. Merritt declared the lake a National Wildlife Refuge in 1869. On March 18, 1870, Lake Merritt became the first protected wildlife refuge in America. The dam was built to regulate the tidal water flow and increase the water level.

In 1915, organized feedings of the wild ducks began. 10 years later, the first bird island was built, with an additional four islands added in 1956. These artificial islands house hundreds of egrets, herons, Canada geese and many other bird species. Two of the islands have fresh water ponds. To ensure that marine sports and boating activities based at Lake Merritt don't disturb the birds, a boom blocks access to the five islands during nesting season.

Birds of Lake Merritt

Lake Merritt, home to large breeding populations of herons, egrets, geese and ducks, is the oldest wildlife refuge on North America. Countless migratory birds make the lake their home during the winter months. Lake Merritt is a great place for beginning birders to get up-close views of many species, including the incredibly tame black-crowned night herons, snowy egrets and hundreds of scaups! The birds shown below are water-birds that you are virtually guaranteed to see on the Lake in the winter. From time to time, brown pelicans and great blue herons make an appearance on the Lake. Occasionally, strange and exotic birds such as Egyptian geese and Mandarin ducks make an appearance in the nature center as well. There are sightings of less obvious winter visitors too. A single female tufted duck lived near the lake throughout the winter of 2002. Other winter visitors include gadwalls, common and red-throated loons, Eurasian and American wigeons, pintail ducks, wood ducks, ring-necked ducks, white-eyed scoters and surf scoters.

Photos provided by Dianne Fristrom.

American Coot These chicken sized birds are related to rails and are common throughout North America. Rather than fully webbed feet like ducks, their separated toes have lobes on either side that aid in paddling. They feed by both dabbling and diving and even grazing on the grass at the edge of the lake. Note their distinctive forward and backward head movement.Photo of an American Coot

Photo by Dianne Fristrom

Double-crested Cormorant These large diving birds are excellent fliers and fishers typified by their long, hooked bills. They prefer to fish for themselves than to take handouts from the nature center and are often found near the freshwater inlets to the lake. Unlike most water birds they don't have water repellant feathers so are often seen sitting on the booms with their wings spread to dry.Photo of a Cormorant

Photo by Dianne Fristrom

Buffleheads The male Bufflehead is one of the easiest ducks to spot with its wide white band across the back of the head. Although there are quite a few of these on the lake in winter they don't seem interested in the handouts of fish and grain at the nature center.Photo of a Bufflehead Duck

Photo by Dianne Fristrom

Canvas Back Easily recognized by the red- brown neck and head and sloping forehead. Many take advantage of the easy pickings at the wildlife center in winter months but all leave for their nesting grounds to the north by mid-March.Photo of a Canvasback Duck

Photo by Dianne Fristrom

Goldeneye Two species of Goldeneye; Common and Barrows, are winter residents on the lake. The Barrows males have kidney-shaped eye patches and small oval wing markings that distinguish them from the common goldeneye. The females are very similar. They often congregate in mixed groups near the twelfth street bridge at the Lake outlet . Here one has a chance to examine the difference between the two species as well as differences in males, females and juveniles. All leave by the end of March for their breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska.Photo of a Duck

Photo by Dianne Fristrom

Mallard An urban "classic", the Mallard is the most common duck in North America . With legs positioned under the middle of their body, these ducks are good walkers and are out of the water much of the time. Because of this leg placement they "dabble" rather than dive, tipping heads down, tails up. They can be found anywhere on the lake and are present year round, nesting on the islands.Photo of Mallards

Photo by Dianne Fristrom

Ruddy Ducks Several "fleets" of these cute little ducks can be found in the protected arm of the Lake and in the vicinity of the islands. The males in breeding plumage (shown) have a bright blue bill. During mating display, the tail stands straight up.Photo of a ruddy duck

Photo by Dianne Fristrom

Scaup The commonest duck on the Lake, Scaups are very gregarious. They are good divers, with legs placed well back on the body. These birds are concentrated in the protected arm of the large with large flocks taking advantage of the handouts of grain from the nature center. Both Greater and Lesser Scaups are present but are very difficult to distinguish from each other.Photo of a Scaup

Photo by Dianne Fristrom

Great Egret These large graceful birds nest in trees on the islands. They eat almost anything that moves, fish, frogs, small mammals. They happily accept handouts of fish from the nature center as well as foraging for themselves. Look for them at the nature center or near the channel to the bay when the tide is coming in.Photo of a Great Egret

Photo by Dianne Fristrom

Snowy Egret Commonly seen around the edges of the lake at low tide, stirring the water with its bright yellow feet to lure small fish and crustaceans into striking range. Fluffy nuptial plumage in March and April is part of its dramatic mating display. Like the great egret they nest and roost in trees on the islands and at times it seems as if the trees are blooming snowy egrets. In addition to the great and snowy egrets at least one cattle egret (identified by a pinkish splotch on its forehead) has been spotted on the big island.Photo of a Snowy Egret

Photo by Dianne Fristrom

Canada Goose Part of a large year round breeding colony, these elegant birds hang out on the grassy areas surrounding the lake and on the islands. The fluffy chicks are a welcome sight in spring.Photo of a Canadian Goose

Photo by Dianne Fristrom

Grebes Four or five species of grebes are winter visitors to the lake. The largest and most striking is the Western Grebe (now divided into Western and Clark's grebe) with its elegant black and white neck. The smaller Horned and Eared Grebes have shorter necks than the Western Grebe and greyish rather than black plumage on neck and back. The Eared Grebe has a distinctive bump on the top of its head.
All of the grebes are strong swimmers and divers and can be found anywhere on the lake usually in ones and twos. None seem to have much interest in the handouts at the nature center. The Pied-billed Grebes can often be found near the fresh water inlet on the north arm of the lake.
Eared GrebePhoto of a Fristrome Eared Grebe

Photo by Dianne Fristrom

Pied-billed Grebe The least distinctive but most common grebe on the lake is the Pied-billed Grebe; smaller and shorter-necked than its cousins and a drab brown color it can be recognized by the dark mark in the center of its stocky bill.

Photo of a pied grebe

Photo by Dianne Fristrom

Ring-billed Gull This is one of the few gulls that are easy for the novice to identify. The dark band around the upper and lower bill (whence the name) is the thing to look for. It is NOT a seagull but a land gull (common in the Midwest) that winters on the Pacific coast.Photo of a Ring Billed Gull

Photo by Dianne Fristrom

Black-crowned Night-Heron The adult is a distinctive bird with its grey and white plumage and two long, white hind neck plumes. The juveniles have a similar stocky build to the adult but are much less striking with white-streaked brown feathers and no plumes. Large numbers nest on the islands and are dependent on handouts of fish from the nature center. At dusk one also finds them fishing near the channel to the bay at 12th street.Photo of a Night Heron

Photo by Dianne Fristrom