Updated: Oct 1, 2020
My wife and I spent an adventurous 6 full days between Christmas and New Years exploring north of San Francisco. The trip featured a lot of hiking, with a good balance of family time, birding (12 lifers), mammal watching (5/6 lifers), and photography. Strap in for a long read!
Day 1: Arrival
We arrived at SFO on Christmas Day morning and began our drive north towards Calistoga, where we would soon join my wife’s family and establish our home base for the trip. En route, my wife surprisingly asked if I’d like to stop along the way, as her family was otherwise occupied for the morning. Of course, I knew just the place: the Corte Madera marshes. We first pulled over at the so-called Shorebird Marsh, a municipal water control pond nestled between a shopping center and highway to the west, and a recovering saltwater marsh to the east. Despite the surroundings, this location was a gold mine for birds. Stepping out of the car, we were instantly treated to close looks at large numbers of Black-necked Stilts and American Avocets, along with a handful of Long-billed Curlews and Marbled Godwits—my four favorite shorebird species (6 other shorebird species were also present). A group of at least 20 Canvasbacks rested nearby, along with 8 other duck species. A pair of White-tailed Kites (my first of twelve lifers for the trip) sat atop a bush at the edge of the pond, and a Peregrine Falcon flew by, searching for prey. A large assortment of gulls loafed on a sandbar, including multiple Western Gulls (another lifer, very common in California), California Gulls (seen only once before in Colorado), Glaucous-winged Gulls (seen only in Washington and Alaska), and other species of less personal novelty.
After briefly surveying the pond, my wife and I hiked the trail extending out into the marshes. The scenery was a marked improvement from the shorebird pond. Although we didn’t hear or see or hear any endangered Ridgeway’s Rails (the target bird of this excursion), the area featured more ducks, waders (~35 Snowy Egrets), and shorebirds, a couple Northern Harriers, a pair of Peregrine Falcons (perched atop a power line tower), a Marsh Wren, a flyover American Pipit, and a variety of western species that, while locally common, were nonetheless personally interesting (e.g., Anna’s Hummingbirds, Black Phoebe, Say’s Phoebe, White-crowned Sparrows in huge numbers, and two dozen Western Meadowlarks).
After our birdy detour, we finally arrived in Calistoga, joining family at my wife’s step-aunt and -uncle’s estate, where we were spoiled by their hospitality, fine food, and good company. More in line with the theme of this blog, their breathtaking property was home to quite an array of wildlife, offering close encounters with many interesting western birds. A casual Christmas Day stroll around the property yielded a small covey of California Quail—my second favorite bird in California, I later decided—along with other common western species and subspecies, including Acorn Woodpecker, Red-shafted Northern Flickers, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Oregon Dark-eyed Juncos, Golden-crowned Sparrows, and Audubon’s Yellow-rumped Warbler.
At dinner, I was asked to name my favorite bird; a question I could not readily answer. My wife suggested I narrow the answer to my favorite shorebirds, to which I identified the four noted above. I carried this simple exercise with me, stopping to consider my favorite bird of the trip, my favorite lifer songbird, etc.
Day 2: Birding and Hiking Calistoga and Santa Rosa
My wife and I stayed pretty close to Eastern time throughout our stay, waking up early and taking full advantage of the limited winter daylight hours. Thursday morning began with a brisk stroll around the property in Calistoga. Not surprisingly, more western birds were present (such as Band-tailed Pigeon, Steller’s Jay, California Scrub-Jay, Varied Thrush, California Towhee, and Spotted Towhee), including three lifers (Red-breasted Sapsucker, Wrentit, and Oak Titmouse). The fierce and feisty Wrentit, I later decided, was my favorite new passerine (songbird) of the trip. In addition to the interesting western birds, the pond on the estate featured a whopping 105 Mallards, 10 Hooded Mergansers, and a Double-crested Cormorant.
As my wife headed to a tennis lesson, I hit the road to nearby Santa Rosa for a dedicated birding trip. En route, I saw my fourth lifer of the day, Western Bluebird. There’s nothing like a drive-by lifer (I of course pulled over the car). My first stop in Santa Rosa was Howarth Park, where I was able to locate my target birds—a raucous group of Great-tailed Grackles (another lifer)—within minutes. The park held some other western specialists, including Bewick’s Wren (yet another lifer) and Brewer’s Blackbirds, along with other interesting birds, like Mute Swans and Black-crowned Night Herons.
From Howarth, I hiked over to the adjacent Spring Lake Park, where I encountered more Homo Sapiens than any other form of wildlife. This was an impressive feat, given that some avian species were prolific, including a huge covey of around 40 photogenic California Quail! Along with various western birds already mentioned, the lake held a Common Goldeneye, I flushed a Sooty Fox Sparrow, and I heard a Nuttal’s Woodpecker (luckily I saw this species later in the trip, easing the frustration of this heard-only lifer). I also saw my first two Western Gray Squirrels—a new mammal for me. Overall, despite the heavy human traffic, Spring Lake Park had some interesting wildlife, and I was only able to cover a small amount of the territory before scurrying back to Calistoga.
After rejoining my wife and her family for lunch, we spent the remaining daylight hours hiking the Oat Hill Mine trail on the north side of Calistoga. The 6 mile out-and back was moderate, featuring a steady 1300’ incline up a roadbed trail. Our peak, the aptly named Bald Hill, offered spectacular views of Calistoga and the surrounding valley and the craggy peaks of the Palisades. The fauna was interesting, including a decent assortment of birds (including American Kestrel and Varied Thrush), two Mule Deer bucks (I’m pretty sure these were Columbian Black-tailed Deer, a new subspecies for me), and a couple butterflies. However, I was most entranced by the trees and shrubs. Manzanita was the prizewinner in my book, with its smooth, red, waxy bark stretching tight against a sinuous, muscular trunk and branches (reminiscent of Ironwood).
Day 3: Mt. St. Helena
Day 3 began with a quick pre-breakfast jaunt around the estate, a wonderful way to wake up (again). I finally got good looks at the Nuttal’s Woodpecker, the sort-of-lifer that I had heard (but not seen) the day before, along with a group of 4 Varied Thrushes.
The day’s adventure centered around hiking Mt. St. Helena with my wife and brother-in-law. It’s the highest peak in the San Francisco Bay Area, topping out at 4342 ft (not nearly as high as Mt. St. Helens, the volcanic behemoth in Washington). The hike was moderate to strenuous, roughly 10-miles out-and-back, with a steady 2100 foot gain. The terrain was interesting and varied. The first mile or so featured switchbacks through a lush forest with a number of huge fir trees (I think) measuring at least 4 feet in diameter. Fleeting glances at a Townsend’s Warbler were the best animal encounter on this segment.
In short time, we emerged from the trees onto a dirt road that wound its way for a few miles, flanked by shrubby vegetation and many fire-scorched remnants of trees. This portion was exposed, which was both good and bad. On one hand, it was quite windy, which meant the birds were essentially nonexistent and the hike was a bit chilly. On the other, better hand, the exposed trail provided a panoramic view of the Napa Valley for most of the hike up the mountain. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed such a sweeping view on the ascent (or decent) of a climb before. As we progressed, we encountered some fascinating ice formations on the trail, with hundreds of small (2-5 mm) ice columns supporting a layer of trail dirt. I presume they were formed by a combination of snowfall and melt cycles, although I’m not sure precisely how. Regardless, they were an interesting micro-distraction from the macro-vista, and I regretted crunching through them as we hiked onward. On the shadier slopes closer to the peak, we ran into a surprising amount of snow and ice, which our tennis shoes handled somewhat better than one might expect.
Arriving at the peak, we were buffeted by biting winds and an ominous howl as the air whipped through multiple (cell phone?) towers that, alas, covered a substantial portion of the summit. This only marginally detracted from the experience, which—as with many other portions of the trip—far exceeded expectations. Perhaps I’m not the most well-traveled, but I’ve yet to experience a better view from a mountaintop, ever. Ignoring the cell towers and buildings, the truly panoramic view provided an interesting perspective on the entire Napa Valley, but this was only the start. Even though the peak is at least 60 miles from San Francisco, we were able to clearly see the city’s silhouette as well as the Golden Gate Bridge (my binoculars helped). To the west, I’m pretty sure I could see through a low point in the coastal mountain range to the Pacific Ocean, though sea and sky were hard to distinguish. To the east, perhaps my favorite feature of the vista was the range separating the Northern Coastal Range from the Central (Sacramento) Valley (I can’t figure out what this range is called). Never have I seen a more homogenous mountain range, appearing as a single unbroken and uniform 40 mile-long line of intricately folded mountains. I find patterns in nature particularly captivating, and this was a grand pattern indeed. Even farther to the southeast (150-250 miles away), the snow-capped Sierra Nevadas jutted from the horizon, declaring their dominion over all the eye could see. I’ve never viewed anything so far away.
Eventually, we tore our eyes away and began our descent back to civilization. Hiking as a threesome was nice, as my momentary distractions didn’t inconvenience anyone, as is often the case when my wife and I hike alone. The winds were slightly calmer on the descent, so a bit more wildlife was visible, including a handful of previously-mentioned western birds and a surprise Townsend’s Solitaire that offered great looks. (This was the only locally “rare” bird I spotted on the trip.) I also saw another Western Gray Squirrel—much more exciting for me than my companions, believe it or not.
With the long hike behind us, and after a quick pit stop at the hot tub, we headed into the town of St. Helena, where a family friend took us (and the rest of the family) out to a tremendous steak dinner at PRESS.
Day 4: Point Reyes National Seashore
After reviewing the upcoming weather forecast, we decided to accelerate our plans for a day trip to the coast. My research took us to Point Reyes National Seashore, where—as with many other aspects of this trip—we were not disappointed. If anything, I was disappointed only that we couldn’t spend more time exploring this vast area. (I often have that problem.)
Before arriving at the National Seashore proper, we made a couple quick stops, the first one being the Tomales Bay Trail. The trail took us through an (active) cow pasture, past a few thickets and ponds, and ultimately to an incredible overview of the marsh at the southern end of Tomales Bay—a rift along the San Andreas Fault that mostly separates the Point Reyes peninsula from the mainland. All three habitats held interesting birds, from American Kestrel and Savannah Sparrows in the first, to California Quail, Bicolored Red-winged Blackbirds (a new subspecies to me), and a Lincoln’s Sparrow in the second, to a decent assortment of waterfowl (including hundreds of American Wigeon and dozens of Marbled Godwits and Dunlins) in the third.
Our next stop was Point Reyes Station, a charming little town at the south end of the bay. My wife and I had a leisurely stroll around the town and some surrounding trails, which turned up some typical western birds, the most interesting being a large flock of Brewer’s Blackbirds and a Sooty Fox Sparrow.
Then, it was on to Point Reyes itself. We first headed to (and, as it turns out, would spend the entire day at) the southwestern end of the peninsula. En route, we pulled over to observe a small herd of Tule Elk—a subspecies of Elk native to California that were extirpated from the point in the mid-1800s until their reintroduction in 1978. This was my second new mammal for the trip, and the first of many exciting large mammals at Point Reyes.
We parked at Drake’s Beach, where I hoped we might encounter some Northern Elephant Seals. Encounter them we did! Our timing at Point Reyes was nearly perfect. We arrived just after the bull seals began hauling out on the beach, back from months spent feeding at sea and ready to establish breeding territories in anticipation for the females (which, with one exception noted below, were set to arrive in a couple of weeks). At Drake’s Beach, over a dozen bulls littered the sand and vegetation leading to the visitor center and parking lot, resulting in the public closure of many areas. (It was interesting to hear the docents recount how the seals had taken over the entire area the previous year, during the monthlong government shutdown.) One small trail provided beach access, and we carefully navigated mere feet away from these twelve-foot-long, 5,000 pound masses of blubber and muscle. We watched two emerge from the water, lumbering to the spot where they’d establish a small (but well-defended) territory in the weeks to come. We observed a few announcing themselves with thunderous, trumpeting calls. It was a surreal, unforgettable, and humbling experience.
The mammals at Drake's Beach were the main attraction, but I couldn’t go without mentioning at least some birds, right? A large flock of Sanderlings along with a few Semipalmated Plovers joined the seals on the beach, and a half dozen Long-Billed Curlews and a Marbled Godwit joined later in the afternoon.
There was only one downside to our timing at Point Reyes: we arrived on the very first day that the Lighthouse and Chimney Rock areas were closed to cars, so we had to take a shuttle to these all-too-popular destinations. Frustrating at first, it ultimately turned out alright. Our first stop was the Point Reyes Lighthouse, perched on a 300- to 500-foot-high seaside cliff jutting 10 miles out into the Pacific Ocean. Perhaps the repeated exposure during this trip helped, but my fear of heights took a backseat to my awe. The scenery at the lighthouse was breathtaking, and the roosting assembly of at least 1000 (!) Common Murres made the experience that much better. Black-tailed Mule Deer were fairly common on this end of the peninsula. We didn’t spot any whales, but that may have been due to a lack of effort.
After the lighthouse, we took the shuttle east to the Chimney Rock area. Upon arrival, I quickly earned the ire of my wife as I descended to hands and knees in the parking lot to photograph one of the dozens of White-crowned Sparrows. The shot was worth it, ha! From there, we hiked a long, grassy ridge out to the point and back, ushered by a floating procession of Turkey Vultures, Red-tailed Hawks, and a gray ghost (male Northern Harrier). Turning my binoculars over to my wife at the point, she quickly pointed to a buoy a mile or two offshore, upon which we could faintly make out two brown lumps, which couldn’t be anything other than California Sea Lions (another new mammal). A bit closer, Chimney Rock jutted high out of the water not far from shore, covered in cormorants. Although they were distant and backlit on the dark side of the rock, I was able to identify at least one Brandt’s Cormorant (a lifer), which probably made up most of the group. A couple Black Oystercatchers were also roosting there. Other seabirds were numerous, but without a scope, it was nearly impossible to identify anything in the surf other than Surf Scoters. I also had ephemeral glimpses at what must have been a sea turtle surfacing for a few moments (not long enough for me to get out my camera).
We next checked out the old lifesaving station on the northern shoreline, where, to our surprise, a massive bull, cow, and baby elephant seal rested but ten feet away, on the other side of a low fence. Remarkably, the baby was suckling from its mother—this seemed unseasonably early. The shoreline was also rich in birdlife, including a dozen Black Turnstones (lifers), some Western Grebes (I couldn’t quite turn any into Clark’s…), both Horned and Eared Grebes, Buffleheads, Common and Red-throated Loons, etc.
Our last stop at Chimney Rock was the well-named Elephant Seal Overlook, where we were able to view (at a distance) around 100 seals loafing on the beach. Not all were loafing, however—we watched two young bulls engage in a bloody conflict at the waterline, repeatedly battering each other with their toothy jowls. A couple Harbor Seals resting placidly in the cove made an interesting contrast to the Elephants, and our third marine mammal for the day. With that, we boarded the shuttle for the last time. The shuttle ride itself made for good wildlife viewing, including a Coyote, many more Mule Deer, a possible Merlin, and well over a dozen Red-tailed Hawks (they were on almost every power pole!).
After a long day well-spent, and a long-ish drive back to Calistoga, we hunkered down for a low-key final night with the family.
Day 5: Rain
Our second-to-last day was forecast to be wet. Before the rain really set in, we headed into downtown Calistoga for a short walk along a greenway. We were immediately greeted by two White-tailed Kites, which stayed close and showed off their entrancing aerobatics: brief hovering, followed by a slow-motion, wings-outstretched-motionless drift towards unseen prey below. These two kites were, I decided, my favorite individual birds of the trip, barely edging out the quail covey at Spring Lake from Day 2. A fair variety of other birds inhabited the riparian corridor, including a flock of Lesser Goldfinches, a couple Pine Siskins, a Marsh Wren, and a Lincoln’s Sparrow.
After our walk, we ate breakfast and explored downtown Calistoga before saying bon voyage and heading south for a nice drive through the scenic (but somewhat monotonous) Napa Valley. As we reached the end of the valley and headed southwest towards the Marin Highlands, the neverending vineyards gave way to a pleasant cascade of rolling cattle pastures. Drizzle turned to rain, so we retreated to a movie theater before taking a quick (and wet) walk around the charming town of Mill Valley.
We checked into our lodgings at the Pelican Inn late in the afternoon. This English Inn features a pub on the bottom floor and an assortment of cozy rooms upstairs. It was a unique experience, authentic in every regard, and the location couldn’t have been more convenient for the activities we had planned.
The rain eased up just after we checked in, allowing us to stretch our legs on the short walk down to Muir Beach. The mostly-empty beach was quite scenic: framed by a wetland, two rocky cliffs (only one with houses…), and the Pacific. En route, we came across a Red-bellied Newt (the only amphibian or reptile seen on the trip, and a new one for me).
Back at the Inn, following a filling English supper and drinks by a crackling hearth, we turned in for the night.
Day 6: Muir Beach, Muir Woods
We took full advantage of our final day in California, beginning with a quick stroll to Muir Beach. En route, a Pacific Wren saluted the morning with its boisterous song, a Red-bellied Newt again crossed the flooded trail, and several Brush Rabbits (mammal lifer #5 for the trip) offered fleeting looks. Preparing for the morning ahead, we filled our bellies with a Pelican Inn English breakfast that was nearly as hearty as the supper before.
We spent the morning on a 7 mile out-and-back hike along the coast, heading south from Muir Beach. We braved a steep, slippery descent to Pirate’s Cove, then continued south to Tennessee Beach before returning back. Apart from being overdressed and under-watered, the hike was fantastic. Views of the rugged Pacific coast rivaled those at Point Reyes, though perhaps not quite as dramatic. I was fascinated by how the mountain-bound freshwater streams and wetlands transitioned into sandy beach only dozens of yards from the Pacific Ocean. I guess that’s the West Coast norm, but it was novel to me. The wildlife along the hike didn’t disappoint, either. Wrentits were everywhere, along with other western birds (including the always-exciting California Quail). The avian highlights were a pair of Black Oystercatchers on an offshore rock in Pirates Cove, joined by a Surfbird—a very exciting, but very distant, lifer! We had close looks at a brush rabbit, not-so-close looks at a dozen Harbor Seals on a rocky island, and moderately-close looks at a few Mule Deer on the rolling hills.
After our hike, we grabbed a beer on the lawn of the Inn before heading to the famed Muir Woods National Monument at our appointed (i.e., reserved) time. Parking took a while, and we were surrounded by more humans than the rest of the trip combined, but it was still a worthwhile venture. The Coastal Redwood forest was impressive, lost in time. Massive trees and a blanket of ferns lined the slopes cradling the Redwood Creek on its journey towards the Pacific. The same creek empties out amidst rock and scrub at Muir Beach; what a difference a few miles can make! The flora of Muir Woods far eclipsed its fauna (well, that which we were able to observe amidst the afternoon crowds). Funny enough, the parking lot arguably featured the best wildlife, including a large flock of Band-tailed Pigeons and a Western Grey Squirrel.
With sunset only a couple hours off, we headed to Sausalito for an early dinner on the north side of the SF Bay. I must say that I picked an excellent spot, with panoramic views of the bay, the city skyline (and Golden Gate Bridge), and lots of wildlife. My wife was a good sport as I pulled out the binoculars at dinner (the lady next to us had her camera out, making me look a little less crazy). Dinner birding featured Brown Pelicans, at least one Horned, Eared, and Western Grebe each, and lots of gulls that I fought the temptation to identify. The figurative icing on the cake was a Harbor Seal occasionally surfacing 30 yards from our table.
And that’s a good note to end on. We flew back to NC on a red-eye flight, had our earliest New Years Eve to date, and then returned to reality. Well, my wife did. I took a few more days off work and squeezed in another coastal NC birding day trip. Surprised?
By the numbers:
Six full days, with a long flight, 450 miles of driving, and around 36 miles of hiking (maybe 16 or so miles of the uphill/downhill stuff that would meet my wife’s definition of “hiking”). Wildlife breakdown:
116 bird species, with 12 lifers (White-tailed Kite, Western Gull, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Wrentit, Oak Titmouse, Western Bluebird, Great-tailed Grackle, Bewick’s Wren, Nuttal’s Woodpecker, Brandt’s Cormorant, Black Turnstone, Surfbird). Not to diminish the experience, but compare this California trip to the whopping 48 lifers (149 total species) on my recent Colorado trip. Without the CO trip, this trip would’ve produced 6 more lifers, but that still pales in comparison; the interior west just has more novel birds than the far west coast, it seems.
8 Mammals, including: Western Gray Squirrel (lifer), Columbian Black-tailed Mule Deer (subspecies lifer), Tule Elk (lifer), Elephant Seal (lifer), California Sea Lion (lifer), Harbor Seal, Coyote, Brush Rabbit (lifer)
Only one reptile/amphibian: the Red-bellied Newt (lifer), plus some unidentified heard-only frogs
Two butterflies (a Red Admiral and another I haven’t yet identified)