Winter Birding Spots on San Francisco Bay

San Francisco is on the Pacific Flyway, a regular thoroughfare for migrating birds. And since there are an abundant amount of rich wetlands along the Bay Trail, you can see some pretty rare birds during the winter months. Below are some great places to spot them.

Please note: Harassing birds in any way violates the Migratory Bird Act and comes with fines. Be sure to give animals plenty of space and to use a long lens if you're photographing.

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Arrowhead Marsh

Arrowhead Marsh at MLK Shoreline
Ingrid Taylar

Oakland's Arrowhead Marsh is rich with bird species in the winter, as migrating ducks and shorebirds find hospitable habitat in the marshes and shoreline of the park.

Arrowhead Marsh is part of the 741-acre Martin Luther King Jr Shoreline, just east of Oakland Airport. The park and wetlands have a natural beauty that is a striking contrast to the light industry and aviation surrounding the area.

A short walk from a parking spaces can render a vast landscape of bird-watching potential. If you have just a bit of time, head to the pier area of Arrowhead Marsh for a variety of birds sightings -- species depending on high or low tides and time of day.

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Coyote Hills Regional Park (Fremont)

Coyote Hills Regional Park
Ingrid Taylar

Diverse habitats and varied terrain constitute the East Bay's Coyote Hills Regional Park. In the lowlands of the park, visitors can enjoy a boardwalk and trails through marshlands that, in the winter, are home to a large variety of migrating ducks and shorebirds.

In the upper reaches of the park, you can traverse trails across the hills for panoramic views of San Francisco Bay, as well as frequent sightings of the area's raptor population (hawks and even occasional eagles).

The visitor center has a natural history display of local wildlife, in addition to information about the area's historical residents, the Ohlone peoples.

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Crissy Field Marsh (San Francisco)

Crissy Field Marsh in the Presidio of San Francisco
Ingrid Taylar

The Presidio's Crissy Field and its marsh are stunning examples of habitat restoration. It's original terrain -- a vibrant salt marsh -- was destroyed through other applications. The land was used for the Panama Pacific Exposition in 1915 and later as a military aviation field.

In 1997, restoration began with environmental remediation, followed by a military-post-to-park transition that involved the planting of 100,000 native plants and a community of volunteers.

The primary access to the marsh and to the bird watching possibilities is via a boardwalk you can access from the East Beach parking area or from Crissy Field Center.

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Buena Vista Park (San Francisco)

Noah Meyerhans/Flickr  

Located near San Francisco’s geological center in its Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, Buena Vista Park is a breath of fresh forested life in the middle of a city. It’s also a birdwatching hotspot. Look for Western Scrub Jays (often mistaken for Blue Jays), Chestnut-backed Chickadees, and swoop-savvy Allen's and Anna's hummingbirds — which often appear on the southern side of the park where a newer boardwalk runs through an area of restored flora. Migratory spring birds include Cedar Waxwings, Western Wood Pewees, Wilson’s Warblers, and Black-headed Grosbeaks. Raptors like kestrels and hawks commonly appear as well. 

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Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge (Fremont)

Tidelands Trail at Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge
Ingrid Taylar

Don Edwards refuge is a network of parks along the Pacific Flyway, a primary migratory route for birds.

The refuge is 30,000 acres of marsh, salt ponds, mud flats and shoreline, hosting a wide variety of shorebirds and waterfowl.

The Don Edwards website has a full-color brochure (pdf) for download. It describes the refuge and wildlife, as well as information on fishing and other recreation in the refuge.

There's a public visitor center in Fremont and an Environmental Educational Center in Alviso.

Animal lovers should be aware that hunting is permitted in some parts of the refuge. Areas near the visitor centers, however, are removed from hunting zones.

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Elsie Roemer Bird Sanctuary (Alameda)

elsie roemer bird sanctuary
Ingrid Taylar

Elsie Roemer, at Crown Beach in Alameda, is a protected swath of marsh and wetlands, home to the endangered Clapper Rail --and destination for many migrating birds in fall and winter months.

From the sanctuary, you can walk miles along Crown Memorial Beach, where other birds, including sandpipers, plovers and terns forage along the shoreline.

The Crab Cove Visitor Center has an aquarium featuring San Francisco Bay species, as well as other natural history displays.

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Hayward Shoreline (Hayward)

Hayward Shoreline is a popular place for bird watching. In the 1600 acres of marshlands and along five acres of walking and biking trails, you can navigate a variety of protected marsh habitats.

The Interpretive Center is a perfect place to start if you're new to the Hayward Shoreline. The facility has rotating exhibits about local wildlife, as well as naturalists and a book shop with more information on the park and the Bay Area's natural history.

Hayward Shoreline also provides stunning views to the west -- toward the peninsula and San Francisco which are especially clear on days just after the rain, when the city's notorious Karl the Fog is nowhere in sight.

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Lake Merritt (Oakland)

Lake Merritt - Oakland California
Ingrid Taylar

Oakland's Lake Merritt is an urban park with many birds tamed by virtue of their association with humans. But the lake still provides refuge for a variety of wild and migrating species of ducks. Founded in 1870, Lake Merritt is the oldest wildlife refuge in the country.

Between Lake Merritt and Lake Merritt Channel Park (west of the lake), you're bound to encounter Buffleheads and Goldeneyes as well as many cormorants who rest on the floats strung across the east end of the lake.

For learning about our resident and migrating birds, for educating children about local wildlife, and for up-close picture taking, Lake Merritt offers some incredible opportunities.

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Las Gallinas Wildlife Ponds (San Rafael)

Las Gallinas Wildlife Ponds
Ingrid Taylar

The salt marsh and ponds here in the San Francisco Bay Area's Marin County are part of a restoration plan by Las Gallinas Sanitary District. The solar-powered wastewater treatment plant has included wetlands reclamation as part of its land management.

There's a dirt trail that circumnavigates the ponds and also connects with the Bay Trail. (See the Las Gallinas profile for links to Bay Trail maps.)

A variety of bird species dabble along the shorelines and in the ponds, including numbers of migrating shorebirds and ducks. You may see egrets, herons, phalaropes, American Avocets, Black-Necked Stilts, and Killdeer, as well as raptors and song birds.

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Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve (Palo Alto)

Lucy Evans Nature Center in Palo Alto Baylands
Ingrid Taylar

The Palo Alto Baylands in the South Bay preserve is almost 2000 acres of marshland, with 15 miles of trails and a variety of habitat areas, from freshwater to saltwater and estuarine.

The marshes and ponds provide sightings of a variety of ducks and shorebirds, as well as American White Pelicans -- not as widely seen as the more common Brown Pelicans of the Bay Area.

The Lucy Evans Baylands Nature Interpretive Center (in the park) offers free exhibits, drop-in nature walks, and other educational opportunities.

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Point Isabel Regional Shoreline (Richmond)

Point Isabel Regional Shoreline
Ingrid Taylar

Point Isabel Regional Shoreline is part of Eastshore State Park -- which is actually a series of parks along the East Bay shoreline. The park connects Richmond Bay Marina with the Albany Mudflats with Cesar Chavez Park in Berkeley with Emeryville Crescent at the San Francisco--Oakland Bay Bridge.

Not only does Eastshore State Park offer a variety of marshes and estuarine habitat areas, the parks are linked by a walking and biking trail that's part of the expanding Bay Trail.

North of the Point Isabel dog park, Meeker Slough (along the shoreline trail) offers numerous bird-watching points, especially for shorebirds and ducks that congregate here, depending on the levels of the tide.

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Richardson Bay Audubon (Tiburon)

Richardson Bay in Tiburon, California
Ingrid Taylar

Tiburon's Richardson Bay Audubon Nature Trail is a short (less than one mile) trek along the bay as well as through forest and grassland habitat.

You can follow the trail in a loop on the Audubon grounds, or simply head straight out to Lani's Beach to view the birds on the bay and along the shoreline.

Bay birds include sandpipers, terns, pelicans, ducks and many water species. In the forest and riparian sections of the trail, you'll find a variety of warblers, hummingbirds, towhees, mockingbirds and others.