If you’re looking for something interesting, affordable, and local to do this winter (yes, summer’s really over), Mother Nature is putting on some pretty good free shows this time of year. Some of the best bird watching excursions in the state only take place in the early winter, such as the millions of migrating waterfowl in Sacramento Valley and raptor gatherings at the Marin Headlands. So grab your day-planner right now and carve out a few days for getting outdoors and enjoying a bird watching getaway to one of the top bird-watching spots in Northern California.
A WATERFOWL WONDERLAND
You’d think watching ducks and geese fly around would be kinda boring, but you’re just going to have to trust me on this one. Each winter parts of Sacramento Valley become literally blanketed with migrated ducks and geese—more than a million ducks and half a million geese. It’s an awe-inspiring sight to see thousands of white geese flapping their immense wings as they soar right above your head, so close your can hear the sounds of their wing beats (the photo ops are spectacular, particularly at dawn and dusk). The best place to witness this winter spectacle is at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, located about 90 miles north of Sacramento. The refuge has two viewing areas, or you can just sit in your warm car with your binoculars and bird identification book and watch the show. It makes for a wonderful weekend family getaway.
RAPTOR RAPTURE AT MARIN HEADLANDS
If you’ve ever wanted to take a trip to the Marin Headlands, now’s a great time to go. Each autumn, from August into December, tens of thousands of hawks, kites, falcons, eagles, vultures, osprey, and harriers are funneled by the peninsular shape of Marin County into the Headlands. It’s the largest known flight of diurnal raptors in the Pacific states. Abundant populations of small mammals protected by the park help maintain the large number of visiting raptors in the Headlands during the fall, and the strong onshore winds hitting the hills of the Headlands provide updrafts and thermals that allow these birds to fly more efficiently. Birds of prey can be spotted throughout the Headlands, but best place observe them is Hawk Hill off Conzelman Road.
POINT REYES BIRD OBSERVATORY
Even if you can’t tell a condor from a cormorant, you’ll enjoy an outing to the Point Reyes Bird Observatory in Bolinas, one of the few full-time ornithological research stations in the United States. This is where ornithologists keep an eye on more than 400 feathered species that live in the region. Admission to the visitor center and nature trail is free, and visitors are welcome to observe the tricky process of netting and banding the birds. It’s a wonderful way to spend the day with the kids, learning about the ecosystem of birds and other wildlife while playing “I spy” with your bird-spotting book and binoculars.
ELKHORN SLOUGH SAFARI
I’ve actually received letters from readers about how much fun amateur birdwatchers have had on this trip. Just north of Monterey on Highway 1 is Moss Landing, home of Captain Yohn Gideon’s Elkhorn Slough Safari. Friendly Cap’n Gideon loads guests onto his 27-foot pontoon boat, then embarks on a 2-hour journey of the Elkhorn Slough Wildlife Reserve. It’s not uncommon to see hundreds of species of waterfowl and migratory shorebirds on a single outing, and well as sea otters, harbor seals, and other marine mammals. An onboard naturalist answers questions, while Cap’n Gideon educates on the surroundings and hands out binoculars.
PINNACLES NATIONAL MONUMENT
The 24,000-acre Pinnacles National Monument is one of the Bay Area’s best bird watching destinations, and I’m betting you never even heard of it. Located southeast of Salinas, Pinnacles consists of hundreds of towering crags, spires, ramparts, and hoodoos—the eroded remains of a volcano formed 23 million years ago—that make ideal nesting spots for thousands of birds, including six endangered California condors and one of California’s largest breeding populations of raptors (bring binoculars!).
HUMBOLDT BAY PACIFIC FLYWAY
Humboldt Bay supplies a large portion of California’s seafood, but it’s also an important stopover point along the Pacific Flyway and winter home for thousands of migratory birds. The Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge provides an opportunity to see many of the 200 or so species that live in the marshes and willow groves—including Pacific black brant, western sandpiper, northern harrier, great blue heron, and green-winged teal. The egret rookery on the bay, best viewed from Woodley Island Marina across the water, is spectacular. Peak viewing for most water birds and raptors is between September and March.
If you have your own favorite bird watching spots that you’d like to share, feel free to add your own comments to our blog below. We’d love to hear from you.
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