It’s a middle of the summer Bay Area triple play weekend. Ideal conditions to spot an abundance of birds out and about, making frisky cameo appearances here and there - in densely forested Oakwood Valley in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area; along lovely Stream Trail in Redwood Regional Park; and in Cascade Canyon Open Space’s creek-fed willow-the-wispy sylvan enclave of Elliott Nature Preserve. Three very different, very alluring places to enjoy challenging hiking or chill strolling, limited biking, bountiful nature appreciation, and – the main reason you’re here – some sweet-ass birding.
But more often than not there are no birds to watch. It’s a big waiting game, requiring the zen-like patience and stillness of a stalking Heron (well, maybe). Idling away minutes on end for a chance appearance, hoping for a prolonged glimpse of some rarely spotted bird or another. Often, even a relative “commoner” (like a Golden-crowned Kinglet?) can be as elusive to spot as some Holy Grail bird (like an Ash-throated Flycatcher or American Pipit?). Honestly, you’ve probably seen any number of these guys during fledgling moments of observation, but just didn’t recognize or know it at the time. Or even now. Won’t you sometimes look at an Oak Titmouse or Bushtit, or a Lesser Goldfinch, or oddly splotched Bewick’s Wren, and think – that’s not an Oak Titmouse or Bushtit or Lesser Goldfinch or Bewick’s Wren . . . or is it? That’s birding for you. Always room for doubt and mystery.
Oakwood Valley’s proximity to the enormously popular Tennessee Valley trailheads near Marin’s Pacific Coast renders it – literally! – a mere backwoods, an overlooked third or fourth choice for an area hike. But you’ll take this slice of woodsy respite any day of the week! You’ve always noticed cars parked here, so someone knows something you don’t. Hard to believe, though, in dozens of trips to Tennessee Valley, it’s the first real stop over at Oakwood Valley, which turns out to be immediately enchanting (well, you’re a birder). The narrow trail winds through open brush then enters thick forest to gently ascend along an unnamed creek before steeply climbing to the aptly named Alta Trail, where big-time, world-class views await, in a stunning arc of thousands of square miles of natural wonders: Mount Tamalpais, Richardson Bay, Angel Island, San Francisco and beyond to the East Bay where iconic Mount Diablo, at 3848 feet above sea level, is a teensy triangle on the horizon.
A slow saunter through the woods makes for an enchanting day’s outing. Warm, patchy sun, clearing skies, pillowy clouds, scruffy meadows, and a bonanza of birds! First thing you know, a frisky, bold Black-headed Grosbeak hops up on an exposed branch to bare his orange-breasted escutcheon for several seconds. It’s only the third or fourth time you’ve sighted the interesting, colorful, quasi-exotic and rarely-spotted bird (in your estimation), precipitating excited albeit exaggerated outbursts of wonderment, but alas, too much fumbling in between bino views, so no photos to be had . . .
Oakwood Valley Trail is flat-out lovely; no hurry to put territory in front of or behind you. Surely, your partner – no birder fanatic – is itchin’ to keep the pace up, but today it’s business as usual in your birding world: slow, aimless ambling, with many detours and distractions. Drying up creek bed splotched with leafy color. Magic mushroom eye patterns on a butterfly’s purple brown wings. A small mud hole ringed with horsetail and reeds, a frog’s haven, mosquitos love it, too. Constantly stopping every five seconds to ascertain the indiscernible provenance of a certain cry, whistle, peep, tweet or shriek. No dice. No luck. That’s how many birds are diggin’ this place! Often, their musical notes are the only clue to their presence. Consider yourself fortunate, if able to coax a trilling Oven Bird out from the underbrush, or espy a kaa-kaa-kaaing Ferruginous Hawk fleeing treetop cover for the open skies.
In such a varied environment - meadow, grassland, sylvan, riparian – you’re able to rack up 20 confirmed sightings, including the now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t Grosbeak, playful Wilson's Warblers, down to business Spotted Towhees, frisky Dark-eyed and Adult Pink-sided Juncos, whirring Rufous, Allen’s and Anna's Hummingbirds, circling Red-tailed Hawks, curious as hell Scrub and Steller's Jays, whistlin’ while they play House Finches, peepin’ California Quail, peckin’ away Downy Woodpeckers, fidgety Ruby-crowned Kinglets, soaring Turkey Vultures, and acrobatic Chestnut-backed Chickadees . . . enough bird action to keep you busy for several – years!
Next up: Redwood Regional Park in the Oakland Hills, always a great place to while away the hours. Today marks a first, though, with some serious birding on the agenda. In the shaded interior of the forest, third generation Redwoods soar 150 feet tall. Stream Trail runs the length of deep-cut Redwood Creek, by now quite dried up, but still emanating a special quality of beauty and sweet respite from the heat. The cathedral-like forest and pretty stream that runs through it enchant, where Rainbow Trout were first identified, categorized and eventually introduced to other parts of the world. The impressive progeny of old-growth Redwoods, the biggest and tallest in the world at one time, lend a Jurassic Park feeling to things. Naturally, the birds love it here!
You leave the parade of strollers for a side-winding trail above the forest floor, cresting 50 feet above, stopping to take in – lovely birdsong? – no, just lovely wafting violin music! Three musicians are playing folksy bluegrass tunes under a grove of Redwoods! You drop pack and plop ‘er down right there on the dusty trail and enjoy twenty minutes of the impromptu concert from on high. . . a complement to the music of birds you hear all about.
While investigating an oxbow bend in the creek, where tiny fish are able to survive in shaded pools, a big flap on the opposite bank turns out to be a big-winged bird landing on a branch for some good viewing long enough to identify the Band-tailed Pigeon! It’s just your second sighting of a "Code 2” bird, which elicits howls of histrionic delight. (Code 2 means a bird’s range is “restricted but regular in the American Birding Association area.”). Might not seem like any big deal . . .but the Band-tailed Pigeon makes your day! Him and a half-dozen other feathered brethren seeking respite along Redwood Creek’s hospitable artery: Juncos, Hermit Thrush, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, American Crows, Steller’s Jays, Brown Creepers, and the always pretty Spotted Towhees. Obviously, a birder’s paradise – make that a bird’s paradise.
Day 3, you’re off to a favorite place: Marin County’s Open Space District, a wildlife sanctuary, a retreat for humans, a place you love no matter the time of year, when varying seasons bring dramatic changes to the landscape. Now, dry as dry can be, still you find, along Cascade Creek lovely surviving pools harboring fingerling trout, water striders, bugs, and you even spot your first Blue Skink in four years. Stunning little guy. Along sheltered San Anselmo Creek, you’re amazed to actually find flowing water in the shady setting, so peaceful and cool and beautiful contrasted against the stark, harsh, burnt golden glare of arid hillsides and gone to seed meadows. The main wide artery of San Anselmo Creek is stone dead dry. And still, the birds are enamored of this place! Everyone from Black-capped Chickadees and Spotted Towhees, to Pacific-slope Flycatchers, Hummingbirds and Turkey Vultures. Throw in a few oddly splotched Juncos, pairs of high-pitched trilling House Finches, and call it a day. A day of supremely superb birding, thank you, my bird friends!