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8 Awesome Places for Bird Watching in the Bay Area

Bird watching Bay Area: hummingbird
I've developed an appreciation for birds recently that only deepens with every trip I take to San Francisco.  Bay Area bird watching is some of the best in the world in my opinion with a wide range of bird species to look for. In this post, I'll share four hidden gems for birding in the South Bay that make it clear why the San Francisco Bay Area is a birdwatchers paradise. 

1. Bayfront Park for Bay Area Birdwatching

Bayfront Park sits right next to the San Francisco Airport.  I often stay at an airport hotel when I first land in the Bay Area so that I don't have to drive far when I'm tired and jetlagged from the long flight to Dublin.  An added side effect of this is that I'm often up early the next morning which is the perfect time to take a bird watching stroll through Bayfront Park.  My Bay Area birding finds included huge flocks of American Avocets and a variety of ducks and other waterfowl against a backdrop of departing and arriving aircraft.
Bay Area Bird Watching: Flock of Avocets at San Francisco Airport
Bird watching Bay Area: Birds of Bayfront Park

2. Bay Area Birding in Alviso

Alviso in San Jose is another great weekend destination.  Driving there, I almost felt that I would plunge into the far reaches of the San Francisco Bay as the road snakes dangerously close to water's edge.  There are a variety of trails through the marshlands and it's amazingly quiet, peaceful, and relaxing: The perfect place for Bay Area birds!  I spotted huge groups of pelicans in flight and many other waterfowl.  I even spotted an Osprey thanks to the help of a fellow birder who was also appreciating his surroundings.
Bird watching Bay Area - Alviso - Pelicans in Flight
Bay Area Birding: Heron at Alviso

Bay Area Birds of Alviso (including Osprey)

3. Bay Marsh Trail for Bay Area Birds

During the week, I tend to stay close to Mountain View when I'm in California for work. This doesn't mean that I have to stop looking for Bay Area birds.  I worked in this area for a good few years and there are still trails and Bay Area bird watching spots that I'm only now discovering.  The Bay Marsh Trail is one good example.  It's an easy 15 minute hike behind my office and is a spur of the Stevens Creek Trail. 
Bay Area Birding: Iron Maidens along the Bay Marsh Trail
Bay Marsh Trail is great for other kinds of flora and fauna too. One morning was particularly foggy and I spotted a snail soaking up the moisture (hard to come by in California these days!) on a stalk of wild fennel.
Bay Area Bird Watching: Snail on wild fennel
Continuing on, I came to a gate that was sending mixed messages.  It was wide open but covered with barbed wire.  After a moment's hesitation, I passed through and entered an extension of the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge.  This area is also used as a hunting ground for ducks during certain times of year.
Bird watching Bay Area: Entrance to Bay Marsh Trail
I saw a wide range of Bay Area birds including ducks, loons, pelicans, and other shorebirds.
Bay Area Birds of Bay Marsh Trail

4. Shoreline Park for the Best Bay Area Bird Watching

Shoreline Park is also about a 15 minute walk behind my office through a rather posh golf course.  I like walking between the lake and bay as you never know what Bay Area birds you will spot.  On this trip, I was lucky enough to see some hummingbirds holding still long enough to photograph.  I also spotted a belted kingfisher.  Before the trip, I thought twice about bringing my 'good' camera as it can be a bit heavy to lug around.  However, I'm so glad I did as I never would have gotten these photographs of various Bay Area birds without the 50x zoom.  I'm going to bring my 'good' camera on all my trips to California from now on!
Bay Area Birds of Shoreline Park
The most amazing thing I witnessed in Shoreline Park when I went bird watching in the Bay Area during this past trip was a Red-tailed Hawk making a kill.  I caught a glimpse of a bird of prey high in a tree but it flew away before I could get a picture.  Five minutes later, I found it eating I think was a large coot or Canadian goose.  Truly amazing nature...
Bird watching Bay Area: Red-tailed Hawk with a kill in Shoreline Park

5. Bay Area Birds in the Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve

Bay Area Birding: northern shovelers at the Palo Alto Baylands
Take a hike through the Palo Alto Baylands located just behind the Palo Alto airport.  A long trail frequented by joggers is the main attraction.
Bay Area Birding: Palo Alto Baylands - trail

We spotted all kinds of ducks slicing smoothly through the water.

Bay Area Birds: Mallard ducks at the Palo Alto Baylands
I saw what I think was a western wood-pewee perched on a chain link fence at the edge of the lake.
SF Bay Area Birds: Western wood-pewee
I loved the reflections of the whimsical clouds over the water.
Cloud reflections on the wetlands at the Palo Alto Baylands
A saltmarsh sparrow blended into the reeds.
SF Bay Area Birding: saltmarsh sparrow at Palo Alto Baylands
Hummingbirds flitted about at the edge of the path.  I love how the color can change so dramatically due to iridescence caused when light hits air bubbles on the surface of the feathers of these tiny creatures.
SF Bay Area Birds: Hummingbirds at Palo Alto Baylands
As with many parks for bird watching in the Bay Area, electrical poles tower over the Bay.
Iron maidens running through the Palo Alto Baylands
The other side of the park was flanked by the Palo Alto airport and we were treated to the sight of private planes coming in for a landing.
Bay Area Birding near Palo Alto Airport
We spotted a channel of water tunneling into the wetland from the bay.
water channel for bird watching in the Bay Area in the Palo Alto Baylands
Northern shovelers and teals relaxed at water's edge.
SF Bay Area Birds: northern shovelers at the Palo Alto Baylands
A ruddy duck swam happily past.
SF Bay Area Birding: Ruddy duck in the Palo Alto Baylands
We could have kept going and hiked all day, but we were short on time and turned back.  After a brief survey of the trail map near the edge of the road, we took one more short detour to the northeast past Mundy Marsh.
Bird watching Bay Area: Harriet Mundy Marsh
More imposing iron maidens greeted us.
Iron maidens in the wetlands at Palo Alto Baylands
We rounded a corner and noticed a few people gathering with cameras held out.  I crept closer to get a better look and was treated to a sighting of this hawk posing for its audience.  It must have sat there for 10 minutes as onlookers happily snapped away.
SF Bay Area Bird Watching: Hawk at Palo Alto Baylands
Eventually it tired of us and with a tremendous flap of its wings was gone.
SF Bay Area Birds: Hawk taking flight at Palo Alto Baylands
We walked back to the car past a group of American avocets grinning ear to ear from a great Bay Area birding experience.
SF Bay Area Birds: American avocet at Palo Alto Baylands

6. Bay Area Bird Watching at Casey Forebay

Casey Forebay is another great spot to find Bay Area birds and is located at the very end of San Antonio Road where it spills into the Bay (map). 

A Nature Walk at the End of San Antonio Road

I parked the car where San Antonio Road meets the Bay and set out on foot to explore the area around Casey Forebay, Charleston Slough, and Soap Pond. Carved swifts greeted me as I entered the park; a nice touch.
Bay Area Birding - swift sculpture

A dusty walking and bike trail wound through the watery channels.
Bay Area Birding - Casey Forebay

Beware the Low Tide

I arrived in late morning which happened to be low tide. The basin was dry and cracked. Beware if you have a sensitive sense of smell as it can get a bit stinky at low tide. However, this is a small price to pay to see the shorebirds darting to and fro looking for their next meal.
Bay Area Birding - Casey Forebay

Common Terns

We spotted a variety of Bay Area birds on our trip including a flock of common terns. This one tern on the pole seemed to be posing just for me!
Birding in Palo Alto California - Common Terns

Seabird Frenzy

The path twists and turns a bit. I could hear a cacophony but couldn't see what was causing it. I rounded a bend and soon realized the source of all the noise. A flock of seagulls was tormenting the poor pelicans who had staked a claim on a small island in the middle of the slough. The pelicans didn't seem too happy about it but were quite stoic as the gulls swarmed around.

Birding in Palo Alto California - Seabird Frenzy plus pelicans

Pelicans on the Move

When we visited the area in June, there were tons of giant pelicans around. Just look at that massive wingspan. These are truly gorgeous creatures.

Birding in Palo Alto California - pelicans

Stalking Herons

Herons may be common but they are beautiful birds and I always enjoy watching them. They are so patient, standing stock still until the moment they strike out at a fish just below the surface of the water.
Birding Palo Alto - heron

Ruddy Ducks Showing Off

I love seeing Ruddy Ducks in the spring when their beaks are bright blue during the breeding season. Now that's a handsome fellow!
Bird watching Bay Area - ruddy duck

Prancing American Avocets

We spotted a number of American avocets digging around in the sand. This one almost seems to be aware of its mirror-perfect reflection.
San Francisco Bay Area Birding - American Avocet

Wading Western Willets

The San Francsico Bay is home to a variety of waders. The Western Willet is just one of many that call this area home. 
SF Bay Area Birding - Western Willet

Identifying a Mystery Bird

After hiking for a good hour of so, I returned to the entrance of the park and spotted this little brown fellow on the way back to the car. It seems to be part of the finch or sparrow family based on the shape of the beak but I couldn't find a match in my birding book. Does anyone have a guess as to what this is?
Birding Palo Alto - little brown bird

For identifying birds in the U.S. in general, I recommend The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America. This is definitely not a book to carry along on a hike (it's 816 pages long!) but I like to review my photos and try to match up the different species that I saw afterward.

7. Birdwatching at Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge

Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge in Fremont is an ideal place for an East Bay bird watching walk.
Bird watching Bay Area: red shack at Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge
A boardwalk led from the parking lot out toward the San Francisco Bay.
SF Bay Area Birding: boardwalk at Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge
Barn swallows flitted about everywhere I looked.
SF Bay Area Birding: Barn swallow
I walked along the path on a gorgeous summer day in June until I arrived at the shore and could have reached out to touch the waters of the Bay if I'd wanted to.
Birdwatching Bay Area: boardwalk and slough at Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge
I took a separate trail up a hill to get some perspective on the slough and salt flats below.
Just a short drive away, I checked out the La Riviere Marsh Trail. Great egrets fished below the expansive boardwalk.
Bay Area Birding: Egret on La Riviere Marsh Trail

8. Bay Area Birdwatching by the Dumbarton Bridge


We've driven across the Dumbarton bridge which spans the San Francisco Bay many times.  While speeding across we've often noticed a lovely nature reserve sitting just below the bridge.  On our recent trip to San Francisco in March, we decided to pull off the road on the Silicon Valley side of the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge and have a little look around.
Bird watching Bay Area: Dumbarton Bridge
The grassy, marshy area just below the bridge is actually quite stunning.  I really like how this old railroad bridge seems to be almost shimmering in the early morning mist.
Bay Area Birding: Derelict rail bridge near the Dumbarton Bridge
Various pools of standing water reflect the sunshine above.
Bird watching Bay Area: SF Bay Water
This area clearly was once used for a more industrial purpose, perhaps harvesting salt.
Bird watching Bay Area: swimming cormorant
Shorebirds happily waded in the shallow water.
SF Bay Area Birds wading near the Dumbarton Bridge

As we walked further out along the trail orthogonal to the bridge, the traffic sounds began to fade away.
Bird watching Bay Area: view of the Dumbarton Bridge
Markers along the water gave hints on what birds and other species we might find here.
Markers describing the Bay Area birds near the Dumbarton Bridge
We spotted an egret prancing along a narrow strip of land between two pools.
Bay Area Birds: little egret
Cormorants zipped about diving for food. The iron maidens are a popular roosting point for birds.
Bird watching Bay Area: swimming cormorant

Bay Area Bird Watching Map

Here's a handy map of all the Bay Area bird watching sites mentioned above if you'd like to see for yourself the amazing array of birdwatching opportunities in the Bay Area.  If you are looking for additional spots for see SF Bay Area birds or guided walks, check out the Golden Gate Audubon Society website. I hope I have a chance to add to this list of the best bird watching spots in the Bay Area on future trips! 

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Sidewalk Safari | Part-time Travel Blog: 8 Awesome Places for Bird Watching in the Bay Area
8 Awesome Places for Bird Watching in the Bay Area
Learn about Bay Area Birding spots. Explore 8 awesome destinations to go bird watching in the San Francisco Bay Area. Discover Bay Area birds.
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Sidewalk Safari | Part-time Travel Blog
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