Sunday, November 17, 2013

How To Bird The Bay Area (Winter Edition): Part 1

WINTER IS COMING...and yet the onslaught of visiting birders never ends. I frequently get asked by out of state birders where to go around these parts, so instead of writing the same thing over and over again, I'm just going to lay it out all right here. I'm keeping out of state/country birders in mind here, so you locals please excuse all the titmouse-stroking that is about to occur.

Before we get started, there are some precious resources out there...make use of the new eBird Hotspot Explorer, the fantastic San Mateo County Birding Guide, this site and this site for Sonoma County...there are several more out there as well if you are willing to get a little dirty and do some cyberdigging. Being on top of all the listservs (and there are many) and eBird RBAs will keep you current on all the relevant rarities...but you already knew that, of course.

Short-tailed Shearwaters begin arriving off our waters in October, but are still far outnumbered by Sooty Shearwaters. Though this bird was photographed off of Bodega Bay, Bodega Head can be a very productive seawatching site.

Let's start with ocean birds. If you come in November, you might still be able to hop on a late-season Shearwater Journeys trip for pelagics, which could be very fruitful. A second option would be doing a whale watching trip that runs out to the Farallon Islands...this has been especially popular with birders in the past year because you can see the Pacific Ocean's only Northern Gannet that lives out there (yes, its still there). This won't be quite as productive as a real pelagic trip, but its far better than being stuck on land.

Northern Fulmar is the most abundant tubenose in winter months, and can sometimes be seen from shore. Photographed off Half Moon Bay.

If you are stuck on land and care to try your luck at seawatching, you can try places like the Pigeon Point Lighthouse (San Mateo County), Bodega Head, and various spots in San Francisco. You probably aren't going to be able to pluck out an albatross from the ether, but birds like Red Phalaropes, Ancient Murrelets and Northern Fulmars are possible. Of course, a scope is necessary. Red-throated, Pacific and Common Loons are common and can occur in many places along the coast.

A Black Oystercatcher at Miller-Knox Regional Shoreline, in Richmond. Oystercatchers are common along rocky shores and breakwaters up and down the coast, as well as various sites in the East Bay. They may blend in with wet rocks, but their piercing (borderline annoying) calls are hard to ignore.

For rockpipers, you have a lot of options...don't expect to be slinging glass at Rock Sandpiper (they are further north), but Black Oystercatcher, Surfbird and Black Turnstone are all common in the area, even in the east bay. Wandering Tattler is more common in fall, but is a winter possibility as well. Good places to see rockpipers include the Sutro Baths (and offshore rocks), Pillar Point Harbor, and the jetties at the mouth of Bodega Bay.

Long-billed Dowitchers (above) and Short-billed Dowitchers alike often roost in large flocks at the Radio Road Ponds in Redwood Shores. Photographers especially will be interested in visiting this place, where you are free to crush at will.

While we're at it, why don't we cover other shorebirds? San Francisco Bay supports huge numbers of shorebirds, both in migration and during winter. There are a multitude of places to get good looks at shorebirds...Radio Road, Foster City Shell Bar (Redwood Shores), Corte Madera Marsh (Larkspur), Bolinas Lagoon and Bodega Bay, Schoellenberger Park (Petaluma) to name a few. Of course, if you are planning on tracking down shorebirds anywhere around here, it's good to know what the tide is doing. Schoellenberger is the best place in winter for Pacific Golden-Plover, and there is often a Ruff around someplace in the late fall and winter months. Mountain Plovers winter inland, in Yolo and Solano Counties.

Cinnamon Teals are common and widespread in the bay area. The Radio Road ponds, where this bird was photographed, is a good place to see all three teal species, Eurasian Wigeon, Black Skimmers and Red Knots.

The bay area has a lot of good waterfowl to offer as well. Eurasian Wigeon, Harlequin Duck, Barrow's Goldeneye and Tufted Duck are all present in winter months. Lake Merritt in Oakland has had at least one Tufted Duck every winter for many years in a row now, and is very reliable for Barrow's Goldeneye in small numbers...also expect close-up views of five species of grebes, Canvasback, Common Goldeneye, both scaup, and some of the tamest night-herons you will ever meet.

Eurasian Wigeon can readily be found at Radio Road and Bolinas Lagoon, among other places, and may be present in any large concentration of American Wigeon. Black Scoters are regular off of the Great Highway (San Francisco) and near Mussel Rock, in Daly City; the latter site can have Harlequin Duck as well. If you are in the Point Reyes area, the waters around the Fish Docks on the outer point can yield Harlequin Duck, Long-tailed Duck, and three species of scoters. This area is very reliable for Red-necked Grebe as well.

Thayer's Gulls are fairly common in the bay area, but pose a difficult ID challenge nonetheless. A small female Herring Gull bellows in the background. Miller-Knox Regional Shoreline, Richmond, CA.

The bay area has been blessed with great gulling. Good gulling can often be found at Golden Gate Park (San Francisco), the Yolo County Landfill, Pilarcitos Creek (Half Moon Bay) and various creek mouths along the San Mateo coast. It's really not hard to find a good gull flock around here. A few Glaucous Gulls are found every winter, and it's definitely worth being on the lookout for Lesser Black-backed, Kumlien's Iceland Gull and Slaty-backed Gull, the latter particularly at Venice Beach (specifically, the Pilarcitos Creek Mouth) and nearby gull flocks in Half Moon Bay.

A pleasing first cycle Glaucous Gull photographed in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. The small "lakes" in Golden Gate Park often attract a nice variety of gulls, including a number of Thayer's and the occasional Glaucous. Be sure to check Lloyd Lake for friendly Hooded Mergansers.

Of course, one of the highlights of bay area birding are the winter herring runs that occur December to March. At this time of year, herring come into San Francisco Bay en masse to spawn in shallow water, and when they do there can be tens of thousands of gulls feeding on both the adults and roe. Usually the listservs light up about the huge feeding congregations, so they can tell you where to go look at filthy gulls all day.

I'll wrap this post up with rails...aside from many coots, some Common Gallinules, and Virginia Rail and Sora, the bay area also hosts numbers of Clapper and Black Rails (and a handful of Yellows). I should stress your chances of actually seeing a Black Rail are very, very low (I've neither seen nor heard them) but it is not out of the question for the dedicated and/or lucky. A quick check of eBird will show they are found in a number of spots in the bay area (Palo Alto Baylands, Martinez Regional Shoreline, etc.); I recommend doing some research and going out at an extreme high tide where they are prone to be flushed from a marsh or pursued by predators (egrets, herons, gulls). And, of course, don't be a dick and blast rail calls into the marsh, they are a state listed and very sensitive species.

Unlike their smaller/excruciatingly timid cousins, Clapper Rails are not so secretive...their extremely loud calls and "duets" often give them away. The Palo Alto Baylands and Arrowhead Marsh (Oakland) are good places for these birds.

I think that covers a lot of good spots, although I know I left some out, (i.e. the huge network of salt ponds in Santa Clara County). Stay tuned for where to track down your most sought-after raptors and passerines. 


  1. You've got to make sure people visit the really nice older man we met in Bolinas. Very inviting.

  2. Also, excellent post idea. Hopefully I'll be visiting down there this winter.