A Beginner's Guide to Birding in the Bay Area

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Burrowing owls. (travelwayolife (Creative Commons 2.0))

This was written before the Bay Area's COVID-19 shelter-in-place order, but if you maintain social distance, limit your travel and choose spots which aren't experiencing closures during the order, there's no reason you can't still enjoy some birding right now!

Earlier this year, I lost my phone on BART. Ever since, I’ve been on an unplanned digital detox. I’ve learned that there are things other than Spotify's Your Top Songs 2019 that are interesting to listen to while walking around. Among them: the different bird calls that vary from place to place. It all kind of happened by accident, but yep, I'm a birder now.

“What amazed and humbled me about bird-watching was the way it changed the granularity of my perception, which had been pretty 'low-res,'” writes "How To Do Nothing" author Jenny Odell.

I can’t say that I’m experiencing “high-def” perception quite yet, but I’m hoping to get there someday. Here’s a (very, very early) beginner’s guide on how to bird watch around the Bay Area. Let’s learn together!


All you need to get started is a notebook, pair of binoculars, a field guide and a birding app. eBird is an app developed by Cornell University that crowdsources information on where to find birds, but there are many other apps to choose from. The Audubon Society’s website also has a list of guides on how to build your own birding kit on a variety of budgets.

How to watch

Most of the advice I read was to be expected: the Bird Watcher’s Digest recommends being quiet, avoiding sudden movements, looking at exposed perches and being patient.

There were a few unexpected tips: you should avoid wearing brightly colored clothing, because it enhances the appearance of movement and frighten birds away. And if you’re really not having any luck, try pishing – making noises that small, curious birds will come out to investigate. To do it, you can blow air through your teeth or kiss the back of your hand.


How to identify birds

According to the Audubon Society, elements to keep in mind when IDing birds are group, shape, size, behavior, season, field mark and voice. With that, here are some local Bay Area birds to look out for this season!

East Bay

Lake Merritt

Easily accessible by public transportation, the lagoon is a great location to spot some biodiverse wildlife.

"Nuttall's Woodpecker" by goingslo is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Nuttall’s Woodpecker
Named after Thomas Nuttall, biologist and author of A Manual of the Ornithology of the United States and Canada, Nuttall’s Woodpecker calls Lake Merritt home year round. Recognize a male by its black and white striped coloring and red tuft. You’ll probably hear it working on an oak tree before you see it.

Horned Grebe. (NPS Photo / Ken Conger)

Horned Grebe
Since it’s winter, there’s still a chance to catch a glimpse of the Horned Grebe. You’ll be able to spot a breeding adult by its distinctive golden tufts and black back. They’re territorial, and have elaborate courtship displays.

Tilden Regional Park

Tilden Regional Park is a great spot for biodiverse birdwatching. Vollmer Peak also offers some incredible views.

Steller’s Jay. ("IMG_9159" by phil9945 is licensed under CC PDM 1.0)

Steller’s Jays
Steller’s Jays live in Tilden Park permanently. They’re large songbirds with chunky blue bodies, black heads and a prominent crest that stands straight up from their heads. Steller’s Jays are nest predators, taking eggs and chicks from other species. They also steal food from other jays. They’re loud, and like to mingle with other flocks or play in groups.

Golden Crowned Sparrow. (National Park Service)

Golden-Crowned Sparrow
Besides the distinctive yellow mark on its head, the golden-crowned sparrow is known for a melancholy song. Yukon miners referred to it as the “I’m so tired” or “no gold here” song and nicknamed the bird “Weary Willie” accordingly.

San Francisco

Fort Mason

Fort Mason’s public community garden isn’t just a reprieve from city life - it’s also a verified birding hotspot.

Brown Pelican. ("Pelican" by watts_photos is licensed under CC PDM 1.0)

Brown Pelican
You can’t miss the huge, goose-sized brown pelicans that nest in colonies and feed in the water. During breeding season, they also have red skin on their throats. The skin sac under their throats are capable of holding up to three gallons of water!

Red-breasted Merganser. (U.S. National Park Service)

Red-breasted Merganser
During the winter, you can catch the red-breasted merganser in the gardens as well. You’ll be able to recognize the breeding male’s shaggy head as it swims around the water. Their feet are very far back on their bodies, so it’s difficult for them to walk on land.

South Bay

Shoreline Lake

Originally a landfill, Shoreline Lake now boasts a golf course, a Victorian mansion and a wildlife refuge where you can find migratory birds.

Burrowing owls. (travelwayolife (Creative Commons 2.0))

Burrowing Owls
Cowboys used to call them “howdy birds” because of the way they bob their heads up and down, and people once believed that burrowing owls, prairie-dogs, and rattle snakes would live in the same hole at once. During the winter, you can see burrowing owls at Shoreline Lake. They’re roughly the size of a crow and sport a mottled coat with dark and brown bars on their bellies.

Ridgway’s rails. ("Ridgway's rail release, Batiquitos Lagoon, CA" by USFWS Pacific Southwest Region is licensed under CC PDM 1.0)

Ridgway’s Rails
Listed as federally endangered due to wetland loss, Ridgway’s Rails spend all year at Shoreline. They’re larger birds with a curved bill, and chicks younger than two years old get carried on their adults’ backs. They also have special salt glands that enable them to drink seawater!