Some 35 miles north of San Francisco, land and sea meet in a mosaic of biologically rich habitats — ocean, shore, estuary, grassland and upland forest — at Point Reyes National Seashore. This diversity of habitats and the peninsula’s location on the Pacific Flyway make it a birding hotspot; with half of all the bird species in North America recorded here, Point Reyes ranks as the number one national park for bird species diversity. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area and three state parks adjoin the national seashore, extending the swath of protected land that all those birds visit and call home.
Before exploring the national seashore, we settled into our overnight accommodations. The national seashore offers only hike-in or paddle-in back-country campsites, so for car campers like us, nearby Samuel P. Taylor State Park was a better option. Taylor Park’s campground sits in a shady redwood forest straddling Lagunitas Creek on the other side of the Bolinas Ridge from Point Reyes, and the state park is a popular destination in itself.
Early the next morning, binoculars at the ready, we drove to Point Reyes National Seashore’s Bear Valley Visitor Center to get oriented. As soon as we pulled into the parking lot, we spied a flock of California quail — a cousin of the Gambel’s quail we see at home in Arizona — with their topknots bobbing as they pecked and strutted. We talked to the ranger inside about birding and hiking options despite rain in the forecast and crossed our fingers that more birds would be out and about during our stay.
We started with a drive north to Tomales Bay State Park on the western shore of the 15-mile-long bay that separates the Point Reyes peninsula from the mainland. We hiked through the woods to a hidden, pebbly beach and encountered dozens of songbirds along the way. We then headed west to Abbotts Lagoon, where a 1.5-mile trail leads out through coastal scrub and dunes to the ocean. In the coastal scrub, one of the most conspicuous birds was the white-crowned sparrow, whose California accent differed slightly from that of the white-crowns that grace our yard in Phoenix each winter.
Out on the lagoon itself, it was an avian feast. Pelicans, coots, gulls, ducks and large waders abounded. Raptors soared overhead, and a pair of peregrine falcons cast a watchful eye at us from atop the dunes. We spent several hours birding at Abbotts Lagoon before moving on.
We finished the day at the Tomales Point Tule Elk Reserve at the tip of the peninsula. The reserve protects North America’s smallest subspecies of elk, which occur only in California. Hunting brought them to the brink of extinction in the 1850s, but small populations survived and a herd was reintroduced here in 1978. Today, about 450 of them forage in the grasslands behind the reserve fence, and another 100 or so roam free farther south in the national seashore near Limantour Beach and Drakes Beach. Just inside the fence we saw two antlered bachelors, and further in we saw nearly three dozen cows and fawns. Seeing these velvety beauties made the drive up the peninsula well worth our time.
We also wanted to check out the section of Pacific coast near the Historic Pierce Point Ranch, which operated as a dairy farm from 1857 to 1973. In fact, several dairy farms still operate within the national park as part of an agreement with local ranchers when the park was declared in 1962. We took the short trail down to McClures Beach to watch the waves roll in and search for seals and sea lions before heading back to our campground for the night.
The next morning we went to the south-facing Limantour Spit and Estero de Limantour to look for more feathered friends. Small shorebirds scampered about at the water’s edge, and an assortment of gulls dotted the beach. We were delighted to come across two dozen or so western snowy plovers hunkered down in little dips in the sand. The Pacific coast population is considered threatened, and at the height of the summer breeding season the park closes beaches to protect nesting activity. Even though nesting had concluded by the time of our visit in mid-October, we walked carefully to avoid disturbing them.
Next we drove to the Giacomini Wetlands, the site of a restoration project to reconnect Lagunitas Creek and Tomales Bay and provide yet another haven for waterfowl. Just past the charming small town of Point Reyes Station, the Tomales Bay Trail crossed a large cattle pasture before the wetlands came into view. A gray mist soon rolled in, and with rain in the forecast, we didn’t linger long once we got to the edge of Tomales Bay. We did, however, have to linger a bit on our way back when a small herd of cows came plodding toward us. The young ones stared at us in a most unwelcoming fashion, and even though we detoured to give them the right-of-way on the trail, they didn’t seem to want to budge. Eventually the largest one mooooved on.
With better weather, we could have spent several more days enjoying the avifauna at Point Reyes National Seashore, but alas, heavy rain arrived and we had yet another park on our list — Yosemite National Park. Nonetheless, any time spent at this little patch of California coast is a delight for birds and birders alike.