Eager for egrets? Here are the best spots for bird watching on the Peninsula right now
Birds are flocking to the Bay for their annual migration — here’s where you can see them.
Although we might associate summer with tourist season, winter in the Bay Area is high season for birds traveling the Pacific Flyway. Open spaces on the Peninsula fill up with quite the variety of beaky beauties this time of year — the speckled and the striped, the large and the little, the singers and the squawkers. Whether you get emotional about egrets or if you’re still trying to figuring out the hype around herons, we think you’ll find birding an uplifting experience. It’s why we’ve pinpointed a handful of local hot spots for you to check out.
But hold it. Before you race out the door, equip yourself with binoculars (to spy on unsuspecting shorebirds) and attach that long-range zoom onto your camera (to capture each individual feather) — also consider packing a sketchpad to capture these models with their long, graceful necks and legs that go on for miles (just don’t expect your subjects to hold their poses for very long.) Okay, now you’re ready to make some feathered friends. Pick one or more of our favorite birding haunts and get out there.
Avid aviphiles will want to walk Alviso’s boardwalk and dirt trails. Choose the Alviso Slough Trail and you’ll loop around the levees that border the salt ponds. From a bird’s aerial vantage point (or from the view out an airplane window) the patchwork of salt ponds looks a little like a behemoth pink quilt. In the wintertime, travel the appropriately christened Mallard Slough Trail to commune with quacking companions. White pelicans swoop in during the winter too. It’s quite the sight to watch them swooping the skies with impressive nine-foot wingspans, then suddenly plummet from the heavens to scoop up fish in their bucket-shaped bills. A few other birds that make an appearance include egrets, herons, double-crested cormorants, and Caspian terns.
“We’ve created some nesting islands for Caspian terns, and we use decoys and sound systems to draw them in,” says wildlife biologist Rachel Tertes. “It’s worked really well. We’ve stopped using the decoys, but the birds have continued to come out. We just had a piece in the New York Times about the reintroduction of the Caspian terns using social attraction.”
Bair Island (actually three islands separated by sloughs) is described by the Peninsula Open Space Trust as a “complex mosaic of twisted tidal channels, mudflats and salt marsh vegetation.” It’s flat hiking trails and viewing platforms provide panoramic views of the bay and its birds. Utilize those binoculars to follow the swooping dives of pelicans and peregrine falcons. Make sure to train them too on the great blue herons and egrets as they stalk slowly through the shallows on stick-like legs — then strike fast — scoring a fishy feast for lunch.
If you’re an all-around wildlife enthusiast, look forward to sightings of cottontail rabbits flitting between the sea-lavender and coyote brush, harbor seals splayed out on beds of sand and leopard sharks cruising the waters of the Smith Slough.
Peter Cowan (Director of Conservation Science at the Peninsula Open Space Trust) notes only the innermost island is accessible by trails and highly recommends boating around the other two islands. “It’s really impressive to be someplace that feels so wild when you’re so close to Silicon Valley,” he notes. “If you’re out in a kayak, you can look up at all of Silicon Valley. Meanwhile you’re in this space where you’re seeing flocks of birds coming in and landing or even Harbor seals.”
The Baylands’ mishmash of paved, dirt and wooden boardwalk trails weave along fifteen miles of tidal and fresh-water habitats. Native Americans once lived off the area’s fish and fowl — and it remains a thriving space today. Both spring and fall seasons draw a plethora of birds seeking either a destination location or a stopover on their long migration flight. But winter is its prime time. The extreme high tides of the area draw flocks of birders from around the globe. They come seeking the Baylands’ avian guests such as the long-billed curlew, the cormorant, the American avocet and the northern shoveler. An endless number of ducks and stilts are also common visitors.
Side note: if you’re an artistic soul as well as a nature lover, you’ll appreciate the Byxbee Park area of the preserve with its environmental art displays. These include sculpted earth and site-specific sculptures.
“My favorite bird here is probably the American avocet because of all the fun noises they make,” says Baylands park ranger Angie Richman. “It sounds like this high-pitched chirp. You find them in big groups, so they’re really loud when there’s a predator around. We get some birds of prey around here (a lot of northern harriers) and whenever they alarm the shorebirds, you can hear it from pretty far away.”
If you don’t own binoculars, try checking out Ravenswood Pond’s two observation platforms equipped with viewing scopes. This park, tucked discreetly into the shadow of the Dumbarton Bridge, offers encounters with all kinds of shorebirds and nesting birds. Forster’s terns and Caspian terns wheel about the sky with their long, pointed wings and forked tails. Also overheard are black skimmers, curious birds with chunky lobster-shaped beaks. If you’re an education junky, check out the kiosks and interpretive panels dedicated to topics like the area’s restoration process and the different local species.
“You can really get out of the hustle and bustle of the Bay,” says wildlife biologist Rachel Tertes about the park. “We have people that stop and just take a walk there to decompress after that commute going over the bridge. There’s not a lot of people there, so you feel like you’re in your own space for a little bit.”
Over the years, housing developments and golf course tycoons have eyeballed Wavecrest’s breathtaking bluffs. Thankfully, this Half Moon Bay trail continues to hug the coastline for elevated views of sanderlings skittering along the ocean’s edge. In the winter, raptors of all kinds (from red-tailed hawks to northern harriers to American kestrels) appreciate its vole-heavy grasslands. At dusk, barn owls and short-eared owls also appreciate the meal options.
You’ll also encounter the snowy egret with black stilts for legs and feet as yellow as a pair of rubber galoshes. In the season of love, the males bring their A-game. A feathered bachelor will curve his snake-long neck into crazy patterns, ruffle his plumage and change the color of his toes to an amorous orange-red to let all the ladies know he’s single. It’s a display slightly less romantic after he opens his big beak and lets forth a series of raspy, raucous calls.
Peter Cowan (Director of Conservation Science at the Peninsula Open Space Trust) says he particularly loves to watch for white-tailed kites. “They do this kiting behavior where they will flap their wings and tilt their bodies up so they stay in one spot,” he describes. “They’re looking on the ground for prey to go after. It’s always kind of exciting to see a kite fly and start kiting because you wonder ‘Is it going to see something? Is it about to go and take a vole or some other small mammal?’ Then I always kind of wonder what the view is like from up there — what they’re seeing and how they see the world differently then I do.”
This short, half-mile trail, flanked on both sides by water, is inhabited by an entire host of feathery characters from black-necked stilts and great blue herons to cormorants and coots to pied-billed grebes and pintails. Make sure to check low tide times when the mudflats lure in hundreds of shorebirds. Listen past the ruckus calls of snowy egrets and shovelers, for the kek-kek-kek of the clapper rail, an endangered species that’s also chosen to take up residence along this particular strip of shoreline.
“This is one of my favorite spots because we have a very small, but pretty consistent, population of breeding western snowy plovers on that parcel (which is a threatened species in our area),” says Karine Stevens who handles bird research and management on many of the properties belonging to the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. “It’s an important habitat to support a population that needs some attention. And the little chicks when they hatch are really adorable. They look like cotton balls on toothpicks running around!”
Other spots to check out:
- Coyote Creek Trail at Naglee Park
- Colma Creek Public Shore
- Bedwell Bayfront Park
- Pillar Point Harbor
- Windy Hill Open Space Preserve
- Shilling Lake Trail at Thornewood Preserve
- Newark Slough Trail
- Fitzgerald Marine Reserve
- Burleigh H. Murray Ranch Park Property
- Ulistac Natural Area
- Coyote Valley (this one’s a drive, but it’s worth it)
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- Peer into the beautiful tide pool wonderland of Fitzgerald Marine Reserve
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