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9 of the Best Places for Bird Watching in the Bay Area

Learn about Bay Area Birding spots. Explore 9 awesome destinations to go bird watching in the San Francisco Bay Area. Discover Bay Area birds.
Over the years, I've developed a deep appreciation for birds. When I travel for work or for pleasure, I always search for birdwatching near me. 

I'm fortunate that I have had the opportunity to visit the SF Bay Area a few of times a year for more than a decade. 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. 

I have to say, my admiration for Bay Area birds deepens with every trip I take to San Francisco.

In this post, I'll share nine hidden gems for birding on the Peninsula, in the South Bay and East Bay that make it clear why the San Francisco Bay Area is a birdwatchers paradise. 

Bird watching Bay Area: hummingbird

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 from Europe.  

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 like 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. Mountain View Bay Trailhead to Find Copious 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. 

Getting to the Mountain View Bay Trailhead  

You'll find the Mountain View Bay Trailhead sandwiched between two of Google's campuses. Park near Crittenden Lane and walk behind Google's Crittenden campus to access the trail. 

Alternatively, head to the new and very impressive Google Bay View campus adjacent to the NASA Ames Research Facility and access the trail from this side of Steven's Creek. 

There are two forks to the trail on either side of Steven's Creek. There are a couple of bridges near the trailhead to take you between the different trails. 

Hike and bike bridge across Steven's Creek near the Mountain View Bay Trail Head

The rickety wooden bridge is your last chance to change your mind and cross over to the other fork. 

You'll find plenty of birds in the water, in the reeds, and sitting atop the "iron maidens" that bring power to the area no matter which fork you choose.

Moffett Field Bay Trail from the Mountain View Bay Trailhead

Take the right fork as you face the Bay (keep Steven's Creek on your left) to access the Moffett Field Bay Trail. I especially love walking this trail at sunrise and sunset for great light and highest probability of seeing the birds active.

Sunset over the Diablo mountain range near San Jose
Flock of Dunlins viewed from the Moffett Field Bay Trail at low tide
If you visit around sunset, just make sure to allow yourself enough time to get back to the trailhead before you are immersed in darkness. Safety first! 

The bird watching and scenery are irresistible in the South Bay and it can be tempting to just keep walking as the trail curves outward into the San Francisco Bay.
Moffett Field Bay Trail is great for Bay Area birdwatching
This trail is also part of the Stevens Creek Shoreline Nature Study Area Preserve. On one visit, I encountered a group of students in wellies and water-proof clothing counting birds and taking measurements in the area.
Bay Area Birding: Iron Maidens along the Bay Marsh Trail
The Moffett Field Bay 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
From the Moffett Field Bay Trail, you can look back and catch a glimpse of the Google Bay View campus rising like an artificial mountain from the horizon. 
View of the Google Bay View Campus from the Bay Trail in Mountain View

Steven's Creek Trail to Bay Trail Fork from the Mountain View Bay Trailhead

Take the left fork from the Mountain View Bay Trailhead as you face the San Francisco Bay (keep Steven's Creek on your right) to explore the Bay Marshlands. 

Birdwatching trail in Mountain View California
You'll emerge along the water where the iron maidens march out into the San Francisco Bay along an inaccessible wooden walkway. This section of trail is particularly magical in the morning just after sunrise when the light shines on the area perfectly.
Ducks on the San Francisco Bay at Sunrise in Mountain View, CA
Bring a good camera and if you're lucky, you'll get a shot of various Bay Area ducks and waders against a backdrop of golden landscape.

10 Portraits of SF Bay Birds that Will Make You Want to Hike from the Mountain View Bay Trailhead

Let me conclude this section with 10 portraits of birds spotted on the Moffett Field Bay Trail that will make you want to take a hike here.

Bufflehead duck on the SF Bay
1. Bufflehead

Portrait of an Egret on the San Francisco Bay
2. Egret

Common Goldeneye on the SF Bay
3. Common Goldeneye

Northern Shoveler on the San Francisco Bay
4. Northern Shoveler (my favorite duck!)

California Towhee in the marshlands of the SF Bay
5. California Towhee

Black Phoebe reflected in the water of the SF Bay
6. Black Phoebe

Northern Mockingbird on a branch
7. Northern Mockingbird

Northern Harrier on a wooden box in Mountain View, CA
8. Northern Harrier

Grebe on the waters of the San Francisco Bay
9. Grebe

Turkey vulture perched on an 'iron maiden'
10. Turkey Vulture

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 what 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

I 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 Black Phoebe 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 song sparrow blended into the reeds. Thanks to Bubba's bird blog for the assist in identifying this one! 
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 along the SF Bay 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? (Update: Sidewalk Safari readers concur that this is a California Towhee!)
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

9. Bird Watching Further Afield: Moss Landing in Monterey

Before I embarked on the drive from San Francisco Airport to Monterey along the California Coast, I consulted Google Maps for potential birdwatching or wildlife spots along the way.  

An hour and a half later, I pulled in at Moss Landing.  Situated behind an old power plant, Moss Landing is an idyllic spot teeming with life. 

Discover (through the photos below) how Moss Landing is a brilliant bird watching day trip to include on a trip to the SF Bay Area.
Power Plant at Moss Landing
Moss Landing is situated between a placid inlet and the raging sea.
Moss Landing Sign
Beach Warning at Moss Landing
The most amazing moment of my visit to Moss Landing came when I was looking out over the inlet and noticed something brown bobbing in the distance.  I zoomed in with my camera and was super-excited to see a sea otter floating on the water!  

I'd seen otters in captivity before but never in the wild.  So awesome!  As I watched more closely, I actually saw that there were several otters around.  

I'll never forget how at one point, I noticed a little duck swimming around near the break wall.  I thought "Hmm, I should take a picture of that one..."  I was distracted by the sea otters though and never did take that photo.  

Actually, I guess I did because before I knew it, one of the otters had that very bird in its grasp!  The otter was kind of licking and toying with it.  

Every now and again, it would submerge the duck under water.  The otter was definitely getting ready for a bit of a snack.  Nature in action...
Sea Otters at Moss Landing
I also saw a nice variety of ducks and shorebirds nearby making Moss Landing an ideal spot to stop and stretch your legs on the way from San Francisco to Monterey.
Birds at Moss Landing

SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: Looking for other ideas for things to do in the San Francisco Bay Area? Here are some of my top suggestions:
This post may be about birdwatching, but another great option (if you are less outdoorsy) is to take yourself on a self-guided tour of the best margaritas in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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. 

Click on the image to open up an interactive version in Google Maps.  

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: 9 of the Best Places for Bird Watching in the Bay Area
9 of the Best Places for Bird Watching in the Bay Area
Learn about Bay Area Birding spots. Explore 9 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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