Bay Area birding trip offers numerous options

Water view at the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge.Photo courtesy of USFWS

When Oregonians think of the San Francisco Bay Area, they're not usually thinking about wildlife. Food, yes. Nightlife, scenery, people-watching, museums, big-time sports, food. Did we mention the food? But nature, not so much.

Around 90 percent of the Bay's historic marshes and shorelines are gone or altered. But the Bay Area has been the site of many struggles to save natural resources from the ever-expanding concrete jungle. What's been preserved can range from interesting to spectacular, and all of it is important.

On a recent visit we focused on birds in the south Bay, visiting the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Palo Alto Baylands and Shoreline Lake. Many guides to the region's wildlife are available. We used the superb "Birding Northern California," by John Kemper (Falcon, $18.95), a former University of California at Davis professor who retired to Medford.

The Don Edwards NWR was the first urban refuge in the national system, established in 1974 and named for a local congressman who championed it. Its 30,000 acres include salt ponds, salt marshes, mudflats, upland and vernal pool habitats and open water. It hosts millions of shorebirds and ducks during spring and fall migrations, and nearly 300 species of birds may be seen here, not to mention foxes, salamanders and the occasional harbor seal.

More than 80 species of birds nest here and raise young, including the endangered California clapper rail, the holy grail for visiting birders. There's a hiking trail that begins at the visitor center at 1 Marshlands Road, off Thornton Avenue south of Highway 84 and Gateway Boulevard. People you meet on the trail are likely to ask if you've seen a rail.

Unless you're very lucky, you'll probably have to answer in the negative. The secretive birds, like their cousin, the Rogue Valley-dwelling Virginia Rail, are more likely to be heard than seen. But they're drawn to the brackish marsh here, where a handful of mud can contain 40,000 tiny animals. If you're a rail, with a diet of crabs, snails, worms and frogs, this is a culinary nirvana.

"All the birds left a couple weeks ago," a volunteer said with a wry grin.

Although the best time to visit is October through April, their absence was greatly exaggerated. While we saw no rails, we saw such resident specialties as white-tailed kite, chestnut-backed chickadee and lesser goldfinch. American avocets worked the mudflats just within binocular range. Black phoebes hawked bugs near their weedy perches, and swallows (barn and cliff) did the same on the wing. Lovely cinnamon teal glided by, marsh wrens sang, and snowy egrets patrolled the water's edge.

But if it's snowy egrets you want (because you're highly unlikely to see them in the Rogue Valley), you need to either cross the Dumbarton Bridge or skirt the south end of San Francisco Bay and head up Highway 101 to Palo Alto Baylands. Go east on Embarcadero Road about a mile to the duck pond and park.

And behold: a tree o' snowies. The little (for egrets, about 2 feet long) egrets with the bright yellow feet nest and roost communally in low trees, as do others nearby. On our May visit they were nesting, and you could sit near the tree and watch the males forage, choose sticks and fly them up to the nests, where the female would inspect them and do the building.

Among herons and egrets, snowies are maybe the most fun to watch feeding. They stir up mud with their feet to flush small prey, which they then chase like crazy. Other birds forage near snowies to take advantage of this action. Some are even attracted to snowy dummies placed in foraging sites. Snowies were nearly wiped out by plume hunters a century ago and were later decimated by pesticides.

Toward the Bay from duck pond is the Lucy Evans Interpretive Center, which is seldom open, and another trail. We searched again for the elusive clapper rail, or the even more premium bird here, the black rail, with no luck. But we saw such wading birds as black-necked stilt, great blue heron and willet, as well as many species of gulls, terns and songbirds.

To the south of Baylands is Shoreline at Mountain View. If you've ever seen a concert at Shoreline (take San Antonio Road from U.S. 101), you may not have realized how close you were to, well, just what the name suggests. Drive past the amphitheater and follow the road to Shoreline Lake. Explore the lake and the brushy areas around it, which are frequented by hummingbirds.

We saw a red-tailed hawk being mobbed in the air by crows in a little drama that continued until the hawk actually turned mid-air and thrust its talons out. Another possibility here is the burrowing owl (park at the gold course and follow the paved shoreline trail).

Another bird that's exciting to see if you're from Oregon is the black skimmer. We saw them on a little island near Shoreline. They look a little like a Caspian tern with a black back and a gigantic, upside-down, orange and black bill. They were lazing about like dozing cats, bellies in the sand and heads stretched forward. We were told they like to fish at night, which would explain why.

Reach freelance writer Bill Varble at varble.bill@gmail.com.


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