Heermann's Gull is one of the many California specialties that the bay area is home to. It's just one of our common local birds, but visiting nerds from outside the state drool over a lot of the species we get to enjoy on the regular.
The bay area. Home to millions of people, millions of birds, and several thousand birders. Nine different counties come into contact with the bay, and almost all of them offer a multitude of high quality birding spots. If you put aside the unfortunate traffic factor, it's a perfect recipe for quality birding almost year-round.
Because the bay area has so much to offer in the way of birding opportunities, and is such a population center and transportation hub, we get a lot of visiting birders here. Aside from chaseable rarities, they are usually looking for the same set of species. Since we at BB&B are here to serve you, dear sweet most loveable reader, we thought we would slap together a quick post on where to find some of the most highly sought-after local goodness.
Before we dive in, I have to get the standard disclaimer out of the way...eBird and the local listservs are invaluable resources on where your target birds and bonus rarities have been observed lately. Check them thoroughly and frequently!
Ridgway's Rail can be challenging to see, but they have multiple strongholds in the bay where they are relatively common. They vocalize frequently and loudly, so if you are into counting heard-only birds, tracking this species down should not be problematic. Far and away the easiest place to see RIRA is at Arrowhead Marsh in Alameda County. They can be seen at any tide, and during winter king tides it's not unusual to see multiple individuals at once that have been pushed out of the marsh. Black Rails, while almost impossible to see, are resident at China Camp State Park (Marin), Martinez Regional Shoreline (Contra Costa), and the saltmarsh next to Alviso Marina (Santa Clara), among other places.
Mountain Plover is exceedingly rare in the coastal counties, but are regularly found in Solano County during winter. Explore the fields east and west of Highway 113 (east of Vacaville, west of Rio Vista) during the winter. Again, eBird may be able to save you some time and point you toward the right pasture.
Pacific Golden-Plovers are very uncommon and tend to only sporadically show up within the bay, but a reliable place in fall and winter is Schollenberger Park in Petaluma (Sonoma County), where they often roost at high tide, or can be seen feeding in the adjacent mudflats if you are there with the right tide and a good amount of luck. Spaletta Plateau on Point Reyes is another reliable place for golden-plovers during the fall.
Rockpipers are consistently in high demand. Surfbirds can be found both in the bay (the little island at the San Leandro Marina (Alameda), roosting on the south side of Marina Park Pathway at high tide at the Emeryville Marina (Alameda)), and along the coast. Wandering Tattlers are much easier to find on the coast than in the bay, but are the most difficult rockpiper to track down. Check structures off Fort Mason, the rocks at Sutro Baths (both in San Francisco), and the outer breakwaters at the Pillar Point Harbor (San Mateo County). Black Oystercatchers and Black Turnstones are common and widespread.
Thayer's Gulls are typically not hard to find, but often present a significant ID challenge to those inexperienced with them. We have no shortage of confusing hybrid gulls to confuse them with. Thayer's can be tracked down in winter in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park (Stow Lake and Lloyd Lake), the mouth of Pilarcitos Creek (San Mateo County) and the north end of Oyster Bay Regional Shoreline, among many other places. Herring runs can feature impressive numbers of Thayer's and regularly lure in a Slaty-backed Gull or two every winter; check listservs for San Francisco, Marin and Contra Costa counties if you are around in January or February, it is great gulling and a great spectacle.
If you can't get on a pelagic trip, there are several good spots for seawatching - try Pigeon Point (San Mateo), the south end of Ocean Avenue (San Francisco), Sutro Baths (San Francisco), or Bodega Head (Sonoma). Depending on the time of year, you can find sea ducks, loons, shearwaters, jaegers, alcids (including Ancient and Marbled Murrelets in winter), etc. Of course, a scope is a requirement and the earlier in the morning you go the better.
Burrowing Owls have lost much of their habitat around the bay to urbanization, but thankfully are still holding on in a few areas, especially down in Santa Clara County (i.e. Azino Ranch), near the east shore of Cesar Chavez Park (Alameda) and the access road to Arrowhead Marsh (Alameda). Fall and winter is typically best for finding these cute little bastards.
Yellow-billed Magpie is an endemic, and rightfully one of the most sought-after species in the entire state...luckily we get them along the western edge of their range. Try Mines Road, just south of Livermore (Alameda), where a little effort should reward you.
California Thrasher is widely distributed, but uncommon in patches of chaparral in many bay area counties. They are resident and can be found year round, but are easiest to find in spring when they are singing the most frequently. Mount Diablo and Claremont Canyon (Contra Costa County), and Mines Road come to mind as reliable areas...this species is relatively widespread in the bay area, but many of their strongholds aren't places that get besieged by birders.
If you are new to West Coast birding, you may not know how tricky (to put it nicely) it can be to find many western migrants here that are not as difficult in other parts of the state, both in terms of quantity and diversity. For example, spring birding in Kern County will easily bag you migrant Gray, Hammond's and Dusky Flycatchers...but those birds all come with a *rarity* tag here in the bay. Actually, I've never even seen a Dusky Flycatcher here, now that I think about it. I've seen more American Redstarts on the coast than I have MacGillivray's Warblers...migration is a bizarre and wonderful thing.
Despite how uncommon a lot of western migrants are here at any given season, I would be remiss to neglect mentioning Point Reyes, one of the best migrant traps on the entire west coast, best birded from late August to early November. While known as a magnet for eastern birds, the Outer Point patches will give you a better shot at bagging species like Hermit and Black-throated Gray Warblers than other coastal migrant traps through the fall. The patches at Bodega Bay (Sonoma) can also be very productive in fall. During spring migration, Mount Diablo (Contra Costa) can offer a nice variety of western migrants and breeders, including the drab but ever-popular Cassin's Vireo.
Tricolored Blackbird is a near-endemic, sought by many out of state birders. Luckily, a significant proportion of the population hangs out at Point Reyes during the fall. A quick look at the blackbird flocks at "B" Ranch or "C" Ranch always rewards birders. Rush Ranch Open Space (Solano) and Del Puerto Canyon Road (Santa Clara) are also good bets.
Lawrence's Goldfinches are a tough customer...you may just have to grind and grind to find one of these little cripplers. Sometimes they are present throughout the year, sometimes they don't linger so long, but spring and summer is your best bet, though you have a legitimate chance of getting them in the fall. Try Mines Road (in both Alameda and Santa Clara counties) and Del Puerto Canyon Road (Santa Clara County).
I know, I know, I probably didn't mention one of the birds you are looking for and you're pretty bummed about it, but life goes on. Some birds are just really tough to connect with (i.e. Northern Pygmy-Owl) and others are so common that you should have no trouble tracking them down (Allen's Hummingbird in season, Nuttall's Woodpecker, Wrentit, etc.). At any rate, hopefully this post will come in handy for a few people and some wanton lifering will be carried out. Good luck out there!