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Why winter is the best time for animal sightings in the North Bay

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From elephant seals to eagles, salmon to sea slugs, the North Bay area teems with wildlife this time of year. And in our region, with a little advance planning and a sense of adventure, you can observe these animals in their native habitats.

Whether you’re looking for an easy stroll, a learning opportunity for your kids or a strenuous trek into new territory, our local, state and federal parks have wildlife offerings aplenty this winter and spring.

Visiting animals in their native habitats requires a patient and ethical approach. Tread lightly, speak softly and when you do encounter critters, respect their space and follow all posted rules and guidance from the experts. It’s also best to leave dogs at home. They can harass wildlife and may literally “put them off their lunch,” even from a distance.

Of course, there are no guarantees you’ll spot a particular species, but with many animals on the move, breeding or nesting at this time of year, chances are better than average.

Here are some of the best places in the North Bay to spot animals. Some parks offer guided hikes, with the added advantage of hearing about species from the experts.

Point Reyes National Seashore

What you might see: Elephant seals and gray whales.

Point Reyes National Seashore is one of the few places in California to see northern elephant seals in their natural habitat. These champion long-distance swimmers spend most of their lives out of sight, deep in the Pacific Ocean. Fortunately for us, nature compels them to come ashore for brief periods to breed and later, to molt. And, of course, to sleep in the sun.

Elephant seal breeding season extends from late December to early March, with most pups born in January. Listen for the belligerent trumpeting of males and watch for their aggressive chest bumps as they protect their harems from rivals.

The females typically give birth to a single pup, weighing between 60 and 80 pounds. Once their pups are weaned, the females mate again, then head out to sea for several months for some well-earned feasting. Left to fend for themselves, the pups must teach themselves to swim, gradually venturing into the surf when they get hungry enough.

Once driven to near extinction by commercial hunting, the northern elephant seal has made a remarkable comeback. From as few as 100 in the early 1920s, the population has rebounded to about 150,000. About 124,000 of these are found in California waters. So important is Point Reyes to the recovery of elephant seals that Park staff are very careful to prevent disturbance. Key beaches may be closed and vehicle traffic is limited. On weekends and federal holidays, you can catch a shuttle bus from Drakes Beach to the Elephant Seal Overlook at Chimney Rock (the road is open during the week).

About the same time the seals are busy breeding on the beach, gray whales are on their way south from their Artic feeding grounds to the warmer waters off Baja California to give birth. From late December through January, some 20,000 gray whales make this southern migration, the longest round trip of any mammal, right past the Point Reyes peninsula.

Miss your chance this month? Come back in March when the whales pass Point Reyes again on their way back north. The return trip offers even better whale watching opportunities — the mothers and calves swim very near the shore.

Make a day of it and catch the shuttle bus from Drakes Beach to Chimney Rock to see the seals, then continue up to the Lighthouse Observation Deck for some whale watching. On weekends and federal holidays, winter wildlife docents are at both places, armed with spotting scopes to sharpen your focus and ready to answer all your questions about marine wildlife.

Shuttle bus tickets are available at the Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center for $7 (children 15 and younger ride for free) from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. For shuttle bus, road and weather conditions and seal and whale sightings, listen to the recorded message at 415-464-5100 or go to nps.gov/pore/planyourvisit.

Ukiah, Cache Creek, elsewhere

What you might see: Bald eagles, herons and egrets.

Winter is the best time to see bald eagles in California as hundreds of breeding pairs arrive from the north to join their cohort of resident birds that never left the state.

Once nearly wiped out in the Lower 48 by pesticide poisoning, the bald eagle is well on its way to recovery. In the mid-1960s, there were fewer than 30 nesting pairs in California. Now, there are about 400.

Bald eagles nest at the tops of tall trees and always near water, so lakes, reservoirs and estuaries are good bets for a chance to see them. In the North Bay, some of the best spots are the Cache Creek Natural Area in Lake County, the Russian River estuary near Jenner, the Laguna de Santa Rosa and Lake Sonoma.

The Bureau of Land Management Ukiah Field Office offers free 5-mile guided bald eagle hikes every Saturday through Feb. 8. Hikes leave from the Redbud Trail parking area just west of the North Fork Cache Creek Bridge, 8 miles east of the community of Clearlake Oaks on Route 20. The hikes are limited to 25 people and you can reserve a spot by calling the BLM Ukiah office at 707-468-4000.

The trail includes a 600-foot climb in the first mile, so hikers should be in good physical condition and dressed for cold weather. Bring sturdy footwear, lunch and binoculars, as most eagle sightings are from a distance. You might also see tule elk, golden eagles, osprey, herons, red-tailed hawks and egrets.

For a less strenuous outing to see eagles, try your luck at the mouth of the Russian River or Goat Rock Beach near Jenner. Here a single nesting pair of bald eagles has delighted so many with their antics, they even have their own Facebook page (facebook/JennerBaldEagles). The best time to see the pair is between sunrise and midmorning, before too many people show up. Check out the Highway 1 pullouts just north of Jenner for an elevated view or try the viewing deck overlooking the Russian River estuary at the Jenner Visitors Center. 707-869-9177 or orstewardscr.org/sonoma-coast-jenner-visitor-center

Salmon strolls and treks

What you might see: Coho salmon, steelhead trout.

While massive marine mammals and regal eagles may grab the headlines, myriad smaller aquatic creatures share our habitats and offer some of the most intimate and memorable wildlife encounters.

January is spawning season for coho salmon and steelhead trout in our area. Both have complex life cycles that include an arduous annual journey upstream from ocean feeding grounds to spawn. Juveniles start their lives in these natal streams then migrate back to saltwater to feed and mature. Only the ocean provides the nutrients the young fish need to grow large enough to attempt the return trip upstream.

The North Bay populations of coho salmon and steelhead are both listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, and both are struggling to recover. But remarkably, it’s still possible to encounter these elusive animals in the wild.

The best window to seek spawning salmon is one to three days after a good rainstorm. To strike out on your own, there are several viewing areas and short hikes in Samuel P. Taylor State Park along Lagunitas Creek and at Muir Woods National Monument along Redwood Creek. Contact the parks’ respective visitor centers or visit the Point Reyes National Seashore website.

Perhaps the best opportunity to learn more about salmon ecology and their ancient connection to our iconic coast redwoods are the guided creekwalk hikes offered by the Turtle Island Restoration Network on San Geronimo Creek. The 1- to 2-mile hikes occur rain or shine. Upcoming hikes are Jan. 18 and 25 from 10 a.m. to noon. Meet at the San Geronimo Restaurant and Bar on the former San Geronimo Golf Course at 5800 Sir Francis Drake Blvd. A $15 donation is suggested, free for children 12 and younger. For information, contact Harry McGrath at hmcgrath@seaturtles.org or seaturtles.org/campaigns/creekwalk-tours.

Coastal tide pools

What you might see: anemones, hermit crabs and sea slugs

Tidepool habitats along the North Bay coastline offer some of the most colorful wildlife watching in the region, especially at very low tides. Duxbury Reef in Bolinas is especially magical in wintertime when crowds are thin. Part of Point Reyes National Seashore, it can be accessed from Agate Beach County Park in Bolinas. Plan to arrive about an hour before low tide for ample time to get to outer pools, where you’ll be greeted by florescent green anemones, humble hermit crabs and a rainbow of spectacular jewel-like sea slugs (nudibranchs). Duxbury Reef is only accessible during low tide, so check the tide tables in your local paper or online. For information, visit ptreyes.org/activities/tidepools

Guided tidepool explorations are offered by Sonoma County Regional Parks at the Pinnacle Gulch Coastal Access Trail at Bodega Bay on Saturday on March 7 (2:30-4:30 p.m.) and April 4 (2-4 p.m.). For information, email Kristina.stanton@sonoma-county.org or call 707-539-2865. Online registration is required.

For those nervous about navigating rocky reefs, Regional Parks offers free one-hour tidepool talks at the Jetty Amphitheatre at Doran Regional Park one Saturday a month. Upcoming talks are from 11 a.m. to noon Feb. 8, March 14, April 11 and May 9.

Other outings

What you might see: Newts.

Sonoma County Regional Parks offers a range of learning opportunities and hikes throughout its vast network of parks and wilderness areas. The new 2020 Winter/Spring Activity Guide can be viewed or downloaded at parks.sonomacounty.ca.gov.

During the rainy season, Spring Lake Regional Park offers a chance to see California newt breeding areas on a self-guided hike. Start at the Discovery Center and ask for directions to the Frog Pond. 707-539-2865 or SonomaCountyParks.org

Newts are also a favorite find during the guided nature walks at Glen Ellen’s 535-acre Bouverie Preserve. Docent-led walks are held from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on selected Saturdays in winter and spring. 707-938-4554, ext. 306, or egret.org.

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