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
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.
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.