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Winter is prime time for birdwatching in Northern California

When winter strips the leaves from the Bay Area's deciduous oaks, it does more than bring more light to a dark season. It also enables those enchanted by birds a better chance to see them, count them, and appreciate them.

This improved visibility is one of the reasons popular and productive citizens' science birding events, such as the Christmas Bird Count (sponsored by the National Audubon Society) and the Great Backyard Bird Count (sponsored by Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology), are staged in winter. Those elusive little brown birds are easier to see and identify when they aren't obscured by foliage, meaning counts are more accurate and provide a better gauge by which to measure the health of bird populations and the habitats that sustain them.

Birding, like wildflower blooms, newt migrations, butterfly and ladybug congregations, and displays of autumn foliage, offers walkers an opportunity to experience the Bay Area's open lands in a new way. For the amateur, turning an eye to the sky opens the hiking experience to a higher plane. For safety's sake, hikers focus on their feet, watching the trail so they don't fall down. You've got to look up to find the birds, which means you must stop, and stopping results in discovery. The place may be old and familiar, but by pausing, looking up, and listening to the birdcall, you will see that place in a different way.

On the trails described below, amateur birders or those who are curious about birds are guaranteed to see a variety of species, from songbirds to shorebirds to raptors. These trails also offer opportunities for expert birders to check off another species on their life lists.

Lower Tubbs Island

A long walk on former ranch roads and levee tops at Lower Tubbs Island, part of the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge, offers hikers the opportunity to see resident and migratory waterfowl, shorebirds, songbirds and the occasional raptor. The route is an 8.2-mile lollipop, but tidal and flood damage, as well as reclamation efforts - a multiagency restoration of pre-gold rush tidal wetlands throughout the preserve is ongoing - may curtail your ability to navigate the entire length. No worries: Even if restricted to former ranchlands inland from the shoreline by trail closures or muddy treadways, you'll still be in close proximity to the tidewaters and the seabirds and shorebirds that find safe harbor there, including ducks, pelicans, gulls, plovers and more. Songbirds include red-winged blackbirds, which call from the meadowlands. Raptors, including northern harriers and white-tailed kites, may soar overhead. The views aren't bad either: Located in southern Sonoma County, south of Sears Point off Highway 37, on a clear day you can see Mount Tamalpais, the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge, the East Bay hills, Mount Diablo and the San Francisco skyline.

For more information, visit www.fws.gov/refuge/san_pablo_bay

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Point Reyes National Seashore

Point Reyes National Seashore boasts that it offers “some of the finest birdwatching in the United States,” with more than 70,000 acres of habitat and nearly 500 different avian species documented as residents or visitors. The easy, 3-mile, out-and-back trail to Abbotts Lagoon is but one of many paths threading through prime birding territory at the national seashore. The singletrack path leads from pastureland through scrubland to the lagoons, and finally to the sea. Songbirds and shorebirds are commonly seen, including great blue herons. Portions of the beach at trails' end are fenced off in season to protect the nests of the threatened western snowy plover; you'll not likely see them, but it's reassuring to know they are there and safe.

Other great birding trails in and around Point Reyes include the Bolinas Lagoon, where you'll find an Audubon Canyon Ranch preserve built around rookeries for heron and egret, and the Giacomini Wetlands near Point Reyes Station, where a web of short paths lead into the wetlands surrounding the outlet of Lagunitas Creek at the head of Tomales Bay. Point Blue (formerly the Point Reyes Bird Observatory) operates a field station near Palomarin, at the southern boundary of the national seashore. For decades, the station has been a hub for study and education in the field of bird ecology, and visitors are welcomed. Hikes to Bass Lake and Alamere Falls also begin at Palomarin.

For more information on birding in the park, click here. For more information on Point Blue at Palomarin, click here.

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Hawk Hill

This one is short but sweet. Hawk Hill is located in the Marin Headlands, and is reached via an easy, quarter- mile climb from Battery 129, a World War II military fortification dug into the steep hillside. Views of the Golden Gate (bridge and strait), Lands End, the San Francisco skyline, and the Pacific Ocean are superlative on clear days.

In springtime wildflowers brighten the scrub. The endangered mission blue butterfly may be seen flitting by. And during the annual hawk migration, which peaks between September and November, raptors ride the air currents surging up the precipitous slopes, to the delight of all visitors, birders or not. During the high season, volunteers with the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory's Hawkwatch program are stationed atop the hill, counting and identifying the hawks, vultures, osprey, falcons and eagles that fly through. The less experienced can ask questions, and all can measure their wingspans against the average spans of common birds that travel the Pacific Flyway, from gulls to condors.

The trailhead and parking area is on Conzelman Road in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area on the north side of the Golden Gate. Take a walk through the battery tunnel, with its long-defunct gun emplacements, before heading up to the Hawk Hill summit, where concrete aprons provide viewing platforms. For more information, click here.

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Grizzly Island Wildlife Area

Located south of Suisun City outside Fairfield, on the flatlands east of Mount Diablo, Grizzly Island is a sparsely visited California Department of Fish and Game property. On a walk along the levees in the area, which includes nearly 13,000 acres of tidal wetlands and ponds managed specifically for the benefit of wildlife, you might spy members of one of California's rare tule elk herds. Other species calling the delta enclave home include the endangered salt marsh harvest mouse, the Suisun shrew, and river otters. Springtime bird migrations up the ante for prime viewing, with wading birds, including herons and egrets, tucked into the reeds and cattails rimming the ponds, songbirds such as warblers and sparrows, foraging and chattering among the grasses and in the brush, and raptors, including peregrine falcons and the occasional bald eagle, soaring overhead. An easy, 4.75-mile loop links the levees separating Pond 21 from the Roaring River Slough (which hardly roars) and Howard Slough, but a number of options are accessible off Grizzly Island Road. Pick up a map and explore.

The wildlife area is closed seasonally to permit hunting; it also may be closed in winter due to flooding. For more information, click here.

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Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area

The Yolo Bypass has been in the news recently, as it is part of the flood control system on the west side of the Sacramento metropolitan area. When water runs high in the Sacramento River, Putah Creek, and other waterways feeding into the San Francisco Delta, portions of the bypass are inundated. This might seem a drastic measure, but for the birds it's a boon, harkening back to the days when the Sacramento and its tributaries flooded with regularity. It's also part of the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, run by the California Department of Fish and Game, and an important link on the Pacific Flyway. A number of elevated maintenance roadways and levees loop through the wildlife area, offering flat, pleasant walking and plenty of opportunities to view the birdlife, which includes great and snowy egrets, great blue herons, a number of duck species, bitterns and other wading birds, songbirds, and raptors including peregrine falcons and Swainson's hawks. A nice, flat, 4-mile loop starts in parking lot F and traces the shorelines of several ponds below the easternmost levee.

The wildlife area, located east of Davis and west of Sacramento, is also open for hunting in season, and encompasses acres of cultivated rice fields. For more information, click here.

Tracy Salcedo is a Glen Ellen-based writer and editor who has written more than 25 guidebooks to locations in California and Colorado, including “Hiking Through History San Francisco” and “Best Easy Day Hikes San Francisco's North Bay.” She can be reached at laughingwaterink@gmail.com.

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