Birdwatching in West Marin, California
Birdwatching in West Marin: One Woman’s Journey to the Edge of the Lagoon
By Claire Hutkins Seda
I once thought that birding is what you did when you retired, like golf or bingo. But here I was along the Bolinas Lagoon in West Marin, California, several decades away from seniorhood, with binoculars in hand.
And I loved it. Who could not? Sandpipers, avocets, cormorants, mergansers – in all, over 30 species of birds – all huddling together on the shoreline of the lagoon.
Birdwatching, as I quickly discovered, is a tranquil activity that places you smack in the middle of nature just to watch. And, as I soon discovered, it’s also a very social activity, as you join forces with other birders to play on each others’ skills in birding and learn more about the natural environment that surrounds you.
My first trip to the Bolinas Lagoon was just a daytrip I took to find some peace and quiet away from home. Bolinas Lagoon is in West Marin, an area along the coast just a few miles north of San Francisco, on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Its miles and miles of protected parks and waterways makes it an ideal spot for a short getaway from the hustle of the city.
Once I reached the lagoon, I pulled over where a few other cars had already parked, and walked along the meandering edge of the lagoon until I was next to a few local birders with their spotting scopes and binoculars all pointed at a duck.
Turns out, this pullout off of Highway One is a prime viewing spot. As it also turns out, this wasn’t just any duck, this was a Red Breasted Merganser.
"What’s the big deal," I asked? The woman to my right didn’t say a word, and just handed me her binoculars.
This was the most punk-rock, absurdly hip duck I’d ever seen, with a gorgeous deep green mohawk atop a slender neck. He could dive out of sight for over a minute at a time, and while we waited for him to pop back up, we chatted.
West Marin is the most liberal corner of one of the most liberal counties in all of California, a land of mostly hippies and farmers, so they say – so I wasn’t surprised to find welcoming and laid-back locals to help me with my first birding experience.
Unfortunately, just as I starting to really get into birdwatching, the looming clouds overhead started to dump rain on us poor birders. The locals were prepared with umbrellas, raingear, and waterproof binoculars – but I was not. But, I vowed to come back on a sunnier day, binoculars in hand.
Hundreds of Miles of Trails, Hundreds of Species of Birds
Since that initial trip, I have returned again and again to Bolinas Lagoon and other waterways throughout West Marin to catch a glimpse of nature at its finest.
West Marin has a series of protected waterways, including Bolinas Lagoon, Tomales Bay, networks of ponds and lakes in the Point Reyes National Seashore, and, of course, the vast Pacific Ocean. Together, these waters host over 490 species of birds – which makes beginning birdwatching easy and satisfying.
Inspired by my initial forays into the world of birds, I headed out to Audubon Canyon Ranch, just opposite the lagoon, to witness the nesting of Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets.
At a viewing platform above the redwood trees in which the birds nest, I could see the tiny fuzzy grey heron chicks, helpless and fragile under their massive parents, whose wingspan can be up to six feet long.
With trained ranch guides to answer your questions and binoculars and spotting scopes at your service, it’s the ideal spot to birdwatch and get some great hiking in. From the viewing platform, I gazed at the whole silent lagoon and its outlet to the Pacific Ocean just beyond the forests below.
Colorful kayaks, available for rent in nearby Stinson Beach, dotted the otherwise placid grey surface of the lagoon.
And this is when I realized it: I’m a birder.
Point Reyes National Seashore
My next trip was just a few miles further north, in the Point Reyes National Seashore. The Seashore boasts having around 490 species of birds identified in its 70,000 miles of protected lands.
In just one short day hike, you can easily hike past pristine waterfalls, empty lakes, long stretches of beach, dense forests, and open coastal scrub -- giving ample time to hone your bird skills on the various species that enjoy the diversity of landscapes.
It also is the home to the Point Reyes Bird Observatory’s main field station, where some of the world’s finest ornithologists work, and which is open for visitors.
Another fabulous birding spot in the Seashore, Abbott’s Lagoon, has been seen with thousands and thousands of brown pelicans diving from up to 40 feet in the air for fish just below the surface of the water.
All this birdwatching can sure drain a gal, so I headed into unique Point Reyes Station after my day hiking through the Seashore. The friendly locals are always up for a conversation about my latest bird adventures.
For just a warm-up before heading home, I stop at Bovine Bakery to sample organic pastries and fair trade coffee. But, when I have a bit more time, I head to the Station Café, which features all that fine local seafood that draw the birds here in the first place.
Or, to keep with the bird theme, the Pelican Inn in nearby Muir Beach offers not only cute British-style rooms for the night, but fine pub fare (bangers and mash, anyone?) and a tasty Blue Heron Pale Ale on tap.
I’ve hiked around West Marin hundreds of times now, yet I still haven’t hit all the trials that I’d like to. Any day that I can, though, I strap on my hiking boots, grab my binoculars, and head out. Who knows? Maybe I’ll see that Red Breasted Merganser again.
For More Information on Birding in West Marin:
Point Reyes Bird Observatory
Bovine Bakery, 11315 Highway One, Point Reyes Station, CA 94956, 415-663-9420
The Station House Café, 1180 Highway One, Point Reyes Station, CA 94956, 415-663-1515
The Pelican Inn is very close to San Francisco, but is nestled in small, secluded Muir Beach – definitely far out of the city. 415-383-6000
Nick’s Cove, on Tomales Bay. Great grub, too. 866-63-NICKS
Olema Inn, in Olema, right near the entrance to the Point Reyes National Seashore. 415-663-1559
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Claire Hutkins Seda is a freelance writer and nature enthusiast living in West Marin, California.
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