Sightseeing is popular in San Francisco, and there is no shortage of lovely scenery to be found around the Golden Gate City.
Most people don’t think of the Bay Area as a particularly wild place. Apart from the city itself, there are universities and bridges and Silicon Valley. Cable cars and sourdough come to mind long before any native wildlife do. What, apart from the California Sea Lions at Pier 39, can a visiting naturalist find to observe?
San Francisco Bay is prime real estate that features an intersection of many different habitat types. The Pacific Ocean, the coastal chaparral, the rolling foothills, and the oak forests all come together in this region, which is located along the Pacific Flyway. Wherever there’s overlap in nature, there are more opportunities to encounter critters from a variety of backgrounds. We spent an evening strolling the waterfront between the Presidio and the piers, and we found plenty of waterbirds gorging themselves on the bay’s bounty. Brown Pelicans flew in formation over Surf Scoters and Clark’s Grebes that foraged among the docks. Not far from 39’s popular sea lion haulout, Harbor Seals joined cormorants and gulls in pursuit of fish near a sheltered beach. I found additional evidence of local marine life on my dinner plate. SF definitely knows how to do food.
The next morning, I borrowed Dylan’s bike and set out for the Palo Alto Baylands. This expansive refuge is one of the few tracts of saltmarsh left in the area, and as a result it acts as a beacon for migrating birds that depend on the resources provided by marshland. I found huge flocks of shorebirds spread out across the mudflats. American Avocets were the most common by far, with Marbled Godwits, Long-billed Curlews, Whimbrels, and Willets also partaking in the feast. Large numbers of dowitchers and peeps were observed picking the edges of the marsh, and American White Pelicans loafed about on the banks of the sloughs.
I arrived at the preserve’s nature center to find the boardwalk closed indefinitely for repairs. Fortunately, there was still plenty of local activity to be found. Cliff Swallows were nesting in mud huts under the eaves of the building, and the chicks were watching eagerly for their parents to return with food. My target bird for the outing was the recently-split Ridgway’s Rail, and as luck would have it I heard two birds calling to each other from the marsh right near the center. I paused on my way back to home base to examine how the scene had changed with the incoming tide. The ravenous shorebirds had paused their foraging to rest in tightly-knit groups along the water’s edge. On the other hand, the pelicans were out in force, working in tandem to corral fish that had followed the rising water into the wetlands.
I went to work with Dylan on the next day for some much needed bro-time, but this morning I was back at it again on my own. Slathered in sunscreen (a step which I had forgotten last time…ouch!), I made an effort to wrap up my exploration before the midday heat reached full power. A brief visit to the tiny Bol Park turned up a few local species, including a fleeting flyover by a Band-tailed Pigeon. I only glimpsed this bird for a moment, but I when I was biking home I got better looks at a flock of these nomads winging their way over a residential neighborhood.
Most of the day’s adventure was spent at the Stanford Dish Trail, a winding path through grassy foothills. In addition to the enormous radiotelescope that lends the area its name, I discovered an array of raptors hunting the open spaces and soaring on thermals overhead. Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks battled for aerial supremacy while the ever-abundant Turkey Vultures lazily drifted higher and higher. Cooper’s Hawks and White-tailed Kites were seen actively scanning from the wing for birds and rodents, respectively. I noticed a mighty bird of prey streaking low over the treetops near the crest of a hill, clearly larger and faster than the vultures. The Golden Eagle perched on a shaded limb relatively close to me, no doubt searching the area for a ground squirrel or jackrabbit lunch.
It’s been an amazing week in California, and I’ve only just reached the halfway point of my vacation. I can promise that week two will feature just as much fun with Dylan, Aly, and Frank the Cat, who is currently curled up in my lap as I type. Wine tasting, local cuisine, and more outdoor exploration are sure to follow. As always, stay tuned for more updates from the wilder side of life.
Year List Update, August 3 – 377 Species (+ Marbled Godwit, Pygmy Nuthatch, Clark’s Grebe, California Gull, Ridgway’s Rail, Band-tailed Pigeon, Golden Eagle)