Monday, July 1, 2019

Yellow-billed Magpies of Convenience

Any birder visiting California for the first time is absolutely drooling over the thought of seeing a Yellow-billed Magpie. Not only are they a stunning and fascinating bird, they are endemic to the state! With fall migration not far off (a time when many birders visit California, coinciding with pelagic season), I thought now would be a good time to give a few pointers on where to find them in my realm of our great state. Obviously you can check eBird for ideas of where to find them, but for birders who will find themselves in the greater bay area, or taking Highway 101 between the bay and southern California, let me make it easy for you.

While Yellow-billed Magpies can be locally common here along the western edge of their range, it is possible to miss them if you aren't looking in the right places. To prevent that devastating scenario, here are three of the best, most reliable and convenient spots to find them if you find yourself birding in these areas or just passing through.

Palm Avenue/Coyote Valley Open Space Preserve, Morgan Hill, Santa Clara County. Just south of the San Jose megasprawl, this site is just a few minutes from Highway 101 and is very, very reliable for magpies, both along the southwestern part of Palm Avenue and at the parking lot for the preserve at the end of the road. You can also walk the trails in the preserve (no admission fee) and see them there if you miss them on the way in. This is a great area for raptors in season (Golden Eagles, Prairie Falcons, Ferruginous Hawks) and a tame Rock Wren can sometimes be found at the parking lot.

Alternatively, you can see magpies at the west end of nearby Laguna Avenue, though they are not as reliably available for close views. This is another great area for raptors (I found a Zone-tailed Hawk here!) and other open country birds. Any blackbird flock will typically contain Tricolored Blackbirds, particularly from early fall through winter; this is another popular target bird for birders from out of the area and they are very regular here. Bird along the road from Santa Teresa Blvd southwest to where Laguna ends; the end of the road is best for magpies.

Tricolored Blackbirds and Brown-headed Cowbirds with their bovine companion in a pasture next to Laguna Ave. This site is not as legendary for seeing Tricoloreds as Moonglow Dairy (Monterey County) or Outer Point Reyes (Marin County), but they are readily available to be picked out of any blackbird flock in this part of Coyote Valley.

If you have more time available in the area, magpies are fairly widespread in Santa Clara County (more so than any other bay area county!) and are waiting to be found in a number of other places, though mostly not as close to a major highway.

Mines Road, Livermore, Alameda County. Highway 580 is another major regional artery and you may find yourself out that way, cutting between the east bay and the Central Valley. A highly dependable magpie stronghold here is the northern part of Mines Road; you can start looking for them as soon as you turn on to Mines off of Tesla Road. There are many eBird hotspots along Mines Road, but here is the general one for your edification.

Mines Road is a well-known birding area and can provide hours of birding entertainment, depending on the season and how far you are willing to go. Other target species further down this road include Northern Pygmy-Owl, Greater Roadrunner, Bell's Sparrow, Lawrence's Goldfinch, and Lewis's Woodpecker.

A confiding bird struts through one of the Bradley rest stops, which are popular loitering and rummaging ground for area magpies.

Highway 101 Bradley rest areas, Monterey County. This is well south of the greater bay area, but so many birders come through here on their way to or from the bay, I just have to mention it. If you are using Highway 101 to cover some significant distance, you will likely find yourself passing through the Bradley area in southern Monterey County. Just south of Bradley there are two rest stops, one for southbound traffic and one for northbound traffic. Both of these rest stops are very good for very approachable magpies; often you can see them before you get a chance to park. The southbound stop is particularly reliable for them...I have missed them here, but most of the time the magpie viewing doesn't get any easier.

That's about all there is to it! Magpies are loud and extremely conspicuous, so finding them isn't very complicated if you can get yourself to the right areas. I won't jinx you and say you are guaranteed to see them at these places...but it will be hard to not see them.


  1. This highly informative post was just a tad late for me and brings me pain. I vacationed in SF a couple weeks ago, picking up many lifers. Leaving Pinnacles NP on Hwy 25, I spotted two Magpies on a fence, turned around for better looks/photos, and they were gone. I never even saw the freaking yellow bills, unequivocally the best feature of a YBMA. So it goes for lifer #500. Also never made it to Moonglow Dairy for the Blackbird since I was with nonbirders. Life is pain as you say.

    1. Ugghhhhh sorry to kick you while you were down Josh...and for #500 no less.