Saturday, December 27, 2008

An Indispensible Aid

In this year of birding, particularly for shorebirds (because we can), we have become quite fond of the Northern California Almanac, which features daily tide tables and lists of seasonal wildlife for every month. We'd found our current edition at Borders last January, but there was no trace of it in this year's calendar offerings. We turned to the web, and found the website at WildNature, but no list of stores carrying it.

Shorebirds are deeply affected by tides, and we schedule our viewing accordingly. Too high, and all the birds are huddled in a great mass at the shoreline. At very low tide, the birds are happily spread out over acres of mud flats, busily sucking down grubs, which is great for them but less inspired viewing for us. The almanac also lists wildlife you're likely to see in certain months, a help to us newbies.

So we were delighted to take advantage of a break in the rains to dart over the hill to Half Moon Bay. At Coastside Books on Main Street, we found the 2009 edition of this year's Northern California Almanac, with photos by Wyn Hoag and illustrations by John Muir Laws. Once again, independent bookstores rule!

This year the printing is more elaborate on the calendar pages -- the tide tables and moon phases are more clearly laid out. Each month has an illustrated page with drawings by John Muir Laws. The detailed monthly lists of all wildlife are tucked in a booklet in back of the volume. The photos by Wyn Hoag do not show to advantage, sadly, but they do remind you of the wonderful places to be found on the Northern California coast. (If you want photos rather than tide tables, check out their wonderful wall calendars.)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Hidden Redwood Shores

From Redwood Shores - Nob Hill Foods

We learned a lot on a recent Audubon Society tour. It was scheduled to show off the nature walk at the new Redwood Shores Public Library. No one had cued the birds, so the group of about 30 set out for Radio Road, where reliable birding is to be found any hour of the day or year.
Putting better names to birds was intriguing. Veteran birdwatchers have their "tells" as Las Vegas croupiers read their gamblers -- they can read a raptor at 200 feet or ID a duck halfway across the pond.
From Audubon Tour of Redwood Shores

We also got tips on some additional spots for birdwatching. Davit Lane is a narrow strip of parkland bordering one of Redwood Shores' many lagoons. The afternoon we were there, one white swan was floating elegantly among the boat moorings.
Another wildlife hotspot is the pond behind Nob Hill Foods. You can see it from the Bay Trail, which has an access point at the end of Twin Dolphin Drive -- follow the signs to the Child Care Center. Lovely benches and landscaping overlook the slough. A short walk along the Bay Trail brings you to the pond. It's also viewable from behind Nob Hill Foods. The road is technically private but not posted as such, and there's parking once you pass the loading trucks.

Behind The Sound Wall

From Sound Wall Birds

Some corner of our peripheral vision is now dedicated to scanning for potential avian life. Even amid the hustle of Bayshore 101. With the great expanses of salt flats returning to their natural state, there's even more opportunity for spotting birds en route.
Egrets -- large, white, given to standing motionless while stalking fish -- turn up often, and in the most surprising places. Apparently even cement-lined culverts and roadside drainage offer sustenance. One Foster City egret spent much of last winter in a bank of iceplant, so far as we could tell. Another is often in the culvert at the Third Street on-ramp.
From Sound Wall Birds

On the border of Foster City and Redwood Shores, there's one patch of marsh dotted with grandfathered billboards. James spotted one egret darting in between two billboards that stand back to back, and wondered if it had found a great spot to nest. It looked like there was more bird action in some water but our view was blocked by the sound wall.
Last week I figured out how to get to the other side of the sound wall. The viewing spot is in Foster City, at Port Royal and Rock Harbor Lane. There's parking and Bay Train Access. A few steps let you look over the marsh and resident egrets. Around the corner, a drainage culvert empties into an untidy shallow basin that nevertheless attracts various birds. I suspect it's protected and out of the wind. The cormorants must think the yellow water control device was put out just for their sunning pleasure, like the electric transmission towers. Not a drop dead must-see birding destination, but a spot to find wildlife if you are in the neighborhood.
Want to find this location? Click on Sound Wall Birds above -- it has a Google map showing where the photos were taken.

Woodbridge Road Revisited

From Woodbridge Road, Lodi

Can't stay away from those Sandhill Cranes.
We were in Sacramento, headed home. The roads were open; the weather clear. Which route to take?
Of course we head back to Lodi, to see what has changed in the two weeks since we were there for the Sandhill Crane Festival. (The cranes are in residence throughout the winter.)

As we suspected, more fields had been flooded. Swans were starting to settle in. The cranes were still grazing in the fields, keeping a respectful distance from the lookie-loo birders on the road. It's drive-by birding only here. Some gates had been added at spots where we'd seen people walking into the fields, sending the cranes into the air. (Cranes don't panic, but they seem to maintain their distance.)

Midday is quiet time. The official Isenberg Preserve was nearly devoid of waterfowl, with only a few cranes. We did spot hundreds of cranes in one field of alfalfa. They are clearly organized, with one crane as lookout while the others graze; they take turns at this.

But prime time here is morning and evening, when the great flocks of cranes and swans and geese and ducks fly out and in. Pace yourself accordingly.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Central Valley: Staten Island

From Staten Island Birds

This Staten Island is not to be confused with the borough of the City of New York. Among California birders, it's short for birding nirvana. For drive-by birders, it's an E Ticket Ride.

The Staten Island in the Sacramento Delta is a huge agricultural tract where the Nature Conservancy has brokered yet another win-win situation with farmers, ecologists, and hunters.(Pheasant season opened Nov. 1 and the pheasant were keeping a low profile.)

It's perfect for birding by automobile. There's only one road open to the public -- numerous small signs warn spectators to stay out of the fields. The road is a good 6-10 feet above the surrounding fields; whether it was built as a levee, or whether topsoil blew away over the decades, I can't say. Either way, it makes an excellent viewing platform. And on a Monday morning, there were more working tractors and pickups than birdwatchers.

From Staten Island Birds

In early November, some rice fields had been harvested and flooded. Other fields were green with alfalfa. Word was out among the critters. Sandhill cranes, ducks, egrets, swans, a great blue heron, even some of the shorebirds we see locally: killdeer, dunlin, avocet. Raptors perched on the telephone poles lining the road.

The weather was gorgeous: clear windless California fall, with Mount Diablo looming in the background. Little avian psychodramas played out. Two Sandhill cranes had a territorial hissy fight with a lesser egret, who finally retreated to the opposite side of a gully. A swarm of little birds pursued a regal, snowy-breasted hawk, who returned to the power pole; then the pursuit resumed.

Sounds obscure, but it's worth the trip. Especially on a clear, serene day when the winding Delta roads beckon and the lazy river shimmers in the sun. From I-5 just north of Lodi, take the exit to Thornton and Walnut Grove. Head west on the Walnut Grove Road, and turn south onto Staten Island Road. The road becomes gravel but is well-maintained, OK for city vehicles that don't mind some dust. No food, benches, or restrooms. Just hundreds of wild birds making themselves at home, with a bit of encouragement, in farmland.

For a unique dining experience, venture on to the tiny weathered town of Locke, built by Chinese immigrants 100 years ago. "Al the Wop's" -- a venerable local establishment with dollar bills stuck to the bar ceiling -- offers hearty food and, surprisingly, fine wines from local winemakers.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Central Valley: Woodbridge Road

From Sandhill Cranes I

We are in drive-by birding heaven.
Just off busy I-5 and its truck stops, past the pile of cow manure under tarps and tires, is birding central: the Isenberg Nature Preserve featuring Sandhill Cranes.
But don't rush to the nature preserve. The fields along the road and the ditch beside it are full of birds too. Sandhill cranes dance in the pastures. Egrets perch along the ditch. An entire field of rice stubble is covered with white-fronted geese, blending in with the ground.
From Sandhill Cranes I

The preserve is set up with a viewing platform so you look over the marshland. (Bring your own chair, no bathrooms, good parking lot.) People behind fences, birds free. Yea!

Friday, October 31, 2008

Looking Forward to Lodi's Sandhill Cranes

From Lodi07 10/31/08 4:45 PM

"Stuck in Lodi Again" was a song of my youth. Last year we found Lodi has become a place you can seek out voluntarily, when we went to see the Sandhill Cranes.

If you have never seen these marvelous birds, do treat yourself to the sight. They are huge, almost 5 feet tall, and graceful. In the winter months, thousands of them fly in each evening to roost in open flooded fields surrounding Lodi. It's like accounts of early California by John Muir and others. They clack, chatter, and dance with each other during the day (when they are not feeding.)

Many sandhill crane viewing sites are perfect for drive-by birding. Last year's trip was the inspiration for this blog. We'll have more details and better photos to share, now that I have a zoom lens. We'll also have a detailed posting on Consumes River Preserve, another very accessible spot. Bird-filled ponds you can park by and gentle boardwalk trails.

The Sandhill Crane Festival takes place, Friday Nov. 7 through Sunday Nov. 9. The Festival is free; there are over 50 excursions, with some places still available. We were able to score motel rooms as well.

Beyond birding, there are winery tours and good restaurants -- I'll vouch for School Street Bistro, Wine and Roses Inn, and Michael-David Winery cafe. There are also some amazing murals done in honor of the city's centennial on the sides of downtown buildings.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Birding the San Francisco Bay Trail

We have yet to visit the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory down in Alviso. Their web site,, lists interesting classes and outings throughout the year, rated as to how family-friendly or arduous they are. It also has an excellent list of birding resources for the Bay Area.

They offer a free booklet, Birding the San Francisco Bay Trail, which I recommend to anyone reading this blog. It lists 16 sites around the Bay Trail, with short descriptions and clear directions for access. We have visited about half these sites on our own, and can vouch that accessible birding is provided. Handicapped access, restrooms, picnic tables, and benches is clearly indicated for each listing.

My favorite local spot, the shell bar near Tarpon Street in Foster City, made the top 16, along with Palo Alto Baylands, Coyote Point, Las Gallinas Sanitary District, and Sholllenberger Park. Looks like I have some posts to catch up on!

Another great resource, not free but available for $15 from bookstores at nature centers is a series of detailed maps of the Bay Trail. It's great for spotting potential birding "hot spots" along bays, inlets, preserves, and sewage treatment ponds. You can see the maps online and a list of where to buy them at

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Coastside: Pillar Point, Princeton

Pillar Point, just north of Half Moon Bay, is not the best spot for drive-by birding. There's no parking on the narrow road in, when you might spy an egret or great blue heron in the marsh. Once you reach the parking lot, walking is involved, albeit on a smooth, level trail with plenty of benches. But it's an easy, engaging stroll of less than a mile from the parking lot, past the marsh, along the scenic harbor and cliffs, to the open beach.

At any point there are spectacular vistas to contemplate from the benches. Although development keeps creeping along, the coastside retains its secluded fishing-village charm. On Saturday afternoon, the winds were unusually still. There was time to search for birds in the marsh -- we could hear but not spot them. Several large grebes were cavorting in the harbor, diving like aquacade swimmers. Once we reached the beach, there were pelicans galore.

Brown pelicans have a special place in our heart. We had given them up for lost years ago, when their eggs were collapsing due to DDT in the food chain. Now, every time I see them, I feel like Moses and the rainbow. They are a gift of hope, that we can choose to change our behavior, andsave other creatures from extinction.

Dozens of brown pelicans were flying overhead, rarely diving to feed. They would fly up to the top of the cliff--"Party at the giant golf ball" exclaimed James, alluding to the strange research dome on the research facility. Then they'd catch a thermal and glide out over the open sea.

The low tide revealed rock outcroppings offshore, with cormorants and pelicans perched on the crest, and two dozen somnolent sea lions basking on a ledge. Nothing spectacular. Just a quiet, restorative afternoon in a beautiful place.

Afterwards we cruised the fishing pier, and found another clutch of pelicans happily bobbing in the shallows near the kayak rental stand, as placid and unafraid as a bevy of mallards.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Salt Marshes Reclaimed: The Don Edwards SF Bay National Wildlife Refuge

The Don Edwards National Reserve encompasses 30,000 acres in three different sections of the southern end of San Francisco Bay. We went to the main nature center, at the Fremont end of the Dumbarton Bridge.

Driving up, we were greeted by the sight of six egrets poised in a pond -- a good omen for drive-by birders. We found the afternoon wind very strong, and opted to drive several miles alongside the bridge approaches, to a fishing pier on the piers of the old bridge.

If you've driven across the Dumbarton Bridge, you've probably noticed the salt evaporator ponds in their various stages, turning red with brine shrimp, or drying out with great chunks of salt blowing like in the wind. Now the ponds are being slowly reclaimed, left to leach out in the rains. And the birds are happy. We saw the usual gulls, a chorus line of red-legged stilts, all facing the same direction and turning with Rockette precision, then a flurry of tiny black and white birds scudding around the surface of the ponds.

The tiny birds sailed around like kids in bumper cars, dipping down for food from time to time. "Phalaropes!" I cried. They were described as swimming in circles, to stir up the brine shrimp, and the nature center said they were coming into season. We did not know how tiny they were, much smaller than the gulls.

So at last we saw pharalopes swimming in circles. James invented a new word game, "Shorebird or Musical Instrument." (Phalarope? Calliope? Whimbrel?) And I got some fine shots of the artistically weathered structures around the salt ponds.

While we were in Fremont, James wanted to check out what he calls the "Fake Lake", in a subdivision near Ardenwood. I had low expectations of seeing anything beyond the hordes of Canada geese that never leave Fremont for Montreal. But something large and white caught his eye. He stopped the car, and darned if there weren't two white pelicans joining the omnipresent geese.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Marin: Las Gallinas Valley Sanitary District Ponds

Sunset magazine keeps following us. That's been our little joke for several years, since an issue featured several places we'd been, including a shot of the very table San Francisco restaurant where we'd eaten the week before. It's nice to have your perceptions validated.

I've also enjoyed a book by John Muir Laws on Sierra Birds. It's just the size to tuck into your backpack or guide bag, and organized by color of bird, perfect for us novices. So when the newest Sunset featured a column by the estimable Mr. Laws, and his top recommendation for local birdwatching was Las Gallinas Valley Sanitary District facility in Marin, I was doubly pleased.

We first heard of LGVSD from James' parents, the veteran birdwatchers. It's a place where a short walk bringing great dividends. The ponds and wetlands occupy over 300 acres, but hiking trails along the levees are compact, with benches spread conveniently along the way. Great swaths of marshland border a placid San Francisco Bay. It's a stopping point for shorebirds, egrets, and trees full surly night herons, who appear in the late afternoon to need their first cup of joe.

The ponds are a side benefit of the Marin water treatment plant. The treated water becomes a life source for whatever the birds feed on. A potential ecological minus becomes a plus, as a place for birds is created amid all the encroachments of "civilization."

James is greatly amused by the sludge tanks, where large arms move slowly about the circular tank. The birds--mostly gulls--use the revolving arm as a sort of merry-go-round. They perch on the arm, ride around, and slowly flutter up and back down as it approaches an overhanging beam. They seem to think it's a special ride just for their enjoyment.

Las Gallinas led to our exploration of sewage treatment ponds as sites for drive-by birding. Not all facilities are so easily accessible, or turned into such a beautiful haven for wildlife. Unfortunately, many others cover their sludge vats, depriving the gulls and their watchers of harmless entertainment.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Away Game: Reno-Tahoe

We've been birding on vacation, on a Reno-Tahoe expedition where we traced the great blue waters from Pyramid Lake, 35 miles north of Sparks, back up the Truckee River, to beautiful Lake Tahoe.

We found lots of help online from the Lahontan Audubon Society based in Reno. They also publish this information in book form, which is more convenient than riffling through printouts. Two caveats: many of the roads involved were dirt--not good for our low-slung Prius, and the birds were running about two weeks earlier than advertised in the book published 10 years ago. By the end of July, most of the white pelicans had cleared out of Pyramid Lake, as far as we could tell. Apparently our paths crossed as they were heading to the Bay Area.

There may have been more birds around the corner, we simply didn't see them. We can vouch for a one exemplary drive-by birding site in downtown Reno: Virginia Lake, a few blocks west of the Peppermill Casino. It's a large urban lake, with a paved path and trees planted around its one mile perimeter. At that size, it contains a large island filled with nesting egrets and cormorants and gulls. There were also many ducks and those Canada geese that show no sign of migrating north. The black cormorants and the white egrets alternated along the edge of the island like so many cake decorations.

We also spotted a mystery bird that looked like nothing in our Sibley. It was determined to stay in the middle of the lake but I was able to zoom in on it, and include a nearby goose for size. It reminded me of a swan that had falled afoul (afowl?) of a wet Mondrian canvas -- white with color blockings. Something Chinese fleeing the Olympic flurry?

We also visited Swan Lake near Reno, and Spooner Lake near Tahoe and Highway 50. They are excellent sites but require moderate walks to get within viewing distance of all but the most random birds.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Peaceable Kingdom: Redwood Shores

Shorebirds love sewer ponds.
This is our most amusing bit of birding wisdom to date. Our interest in sewer ponds began with a visit earlier this spring to Los Gallinos in Marin, a noted spot for birding. Looking at maps of the Bay Trail, we found several promising spots closer to us. The closest treatment plant was at the tip of Redwood Shores.

I think of Redwood Shores as the "Peaceable Kingdom" after the noted painting. Great swarms of dowitchers, whimbrels, willets, and other shorebirds circle in and out. Ducks and geese feed and paddle about with their young. Stilts and avocets poke about. Lately we've seen terns and their adolescent ternlets, perfect miniatures. Dozens of egrets scattered like marshmallows on the far banks, among the sleepy, sullen night herons who look like they could use a cuppa joe.

For the best birding in Redwood Shores, head out to the end of Redwood Shores Parkway, and turn right on Radio Road. (There's a former radio station at the far end.) No benches. No bathrooms (perhaps at the nearby dog park, must check on next visit). But you can enjoy the spectacle without leaving your car.

If you wish to stretch your legs, it's a short walk uphill to the Bay Trail, closed at the point to protect clapper rail and salt marsh habitat. There's still an expansive view of the bay and various bird life along the estuary, such as cormorants perched on the electric transmission towers.

Redwood Shores is not our secret spot. On a recent afternoon, I found several Sequoia Audubon members armed with serious scopes, taking in the flurry of avian activity. The shorebirds are coming back from wherever they've been. Like 1950s socialites, many of our birds head up to the Sierra, Canada, even Alaska for the nesting season.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Place With No Name: Foster City Shell Beach

Our favorite birding spot has no official name. It's on the Foster City Bay Area Trail, just below the Highway 92 San Mateo Bridge. "Shell Beach" is a good guess, as it's composed of mounds of crushed oyster shells that seem to wash up endlessly from the bay floor. To get there, look for the two posts rising above the substantial levee. Find a legal parking place -- be careful when school is in session. Walk up the incline, and you'll find benches and picnic tables placed at convenient distances. And, throughout the winter months, amazing flights of birds.

There's plenty of room to walk, ride, skate, or walk your dog, if you prefer. The birds are cool with it all. It's fun to watch them change plumage over the seasons. In winter they are pretty uniformly gray -- then they break out into colors, like the plovers here, who showed up all decked out in April.

By June, the mud flats are largely deserted. I'm happy to find one lone cattle egret reflected in the outgoing tide. Where have the birds gone? Like summering socialites, they've gone to Tahoe, Mono Lake, Canada, even Alaska. They'll be back in the fall, en route to Mexico for the winter.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Dine-By Birding

Thursday night was unusually balmy, so we headed to Foster City where several restaurants front on one of the lagoons. We dined outdoors at Portofino Grill and refrained from feeding some begging ducks. Something else -- a cross between a seagull and a swallow -- occasionally flitted in the air.

Afterward we walked down to the cul-de-sac behind Chevy's, where we could see a bevy of ducks around the landing. In the air, we spotted the something else we'd glimpsed earlier. Graceful, white, forked tail, black skullcap -- it hovered like an oversized hummingbird, wings beating, until it spotted something in the murky water. Then it dove sharply, emerging with a tiny fish a moment later.

After consulting the bird guides, we think it was a Forster's tern, which is fitting for Foster (no r) City. One breathtaking bird to watch. I keep thinking of Gerard Manley Hopkins "Windhover" :
My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird -- the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Why Drive-By Birding?

We've always enjoyed the birds. Sometimes they come to us, like the succession of mourning doves that nested in a planter on our front porch. Other times we go looking for them.

We got truly hooked last fall when we drove James' parents to Lodi to see the Sandhill Cranes. What an amazing sight! Field after field of huge birds -- cranes and swans and geese -- spread out for acres. A reminder of the early accounts of flocks so huge they darkened the skies.

So we started looking for places in our neighborhood to enjoy whatever birds were going to show up, with an eye to spots that could be reached with limited mobility, and extra points for a comfy bench. Places where you can sit and let the birds come to you.

That was the origin of drive-by birding. I'm using this blog to share some of our favorite spots, mostly on but not limited to the San Francisco Bay Area. There are lovely spots where some can sit comfortably and enjoy the view while companions stretch out their legs on a short walk, and I'd like to share them with you.