A guide to watching the rare, familiar and wonderful birds in Sonoma County
One of the many benefits to decades of efforts to maintain Sonoma County’s rural landscapes has been the preservation and restoration of a wide variety of bird habitat, making the area a prime destination for birders of all stripes.
There are shorebirds, pelagic (ocean-going) birds, songbirds, raptors, egrets and everything in between. In addition to many prime spots to watch them, several organizations offer opportunities to ‘rub elbows’ with our avian co-inhabitants.
A primary clearinghouse for everything ornithological in the North Bay is the Madrone Audubon Society, established in 1967 “to speak up for the wildlife that was losing its local habitat.” Madrone was the first Audubon chapter in California north of Marin County and Sacramento.
“People have been birding in this county for many years,” Gordon Beebe, past president of Madrone said. “We recorded our 450th species (as of 2015). In the whole U.S. there are about 900 species, so we see about half of them.”
One reason for the diversity of species is that Sonoma County has a wide variety of habitats: There are lakes, riparian grasslands, and elevation differences from the coast to Mount Saint Helena. Another is that Sonoma County sits right in the middle of the Pacific Flyway, a migration route for somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 billion birds that stretches from Alaska to Patagonia at the tip of South America.
As to the plethora of species here in our backyard, “Some are rare, blown off course, but there are about 350 you can count on and 170 that breed in the county,” Beebe said.
The more common resident birds include the woodpeckers, vultures, hummingbirds, crows and even the bushtit. Some common visitors that also breed in Sonoma County are flycatchers, swallows and orioles.
Beebe, who moved here from southern California in 1994, has been leading bird walks for Madrone for several years. The organization leads trips throughout the county and is a good resource for beginning birders who want to ease into the world of bird watching. And the cusp of autumn is a good time to watch birds.
“Any time is a good time to watch birds in Sonoma County, but the highest number of species is in early autumn and early spring,” Beebe said. “The birds start migrating in the fall… They start trickling in July, August, September and October, and we see more varieties of waterfowl. A lot of them winter here.”
The birds that come here in the winter are different than those that come in the summer, so the birding experience varies from season to season. The intrepid birder can see many types of birds, including year-round residents, species that come here to nest and even the occasional “migrating rarity.”
Conservation efforts have expanded habitat for many species, particularly raptors and wetland birds. The verticality of much of the protected lands offer great viewing opportunities and prime habitat for birds of prey.
“Falcons were very rare 10 years ago and now they can be seen on walks from Petaluma to the coast,” Beebe said. “There are bald eagles, peregrine falcons and a wide variety of red-tailed hawks. In the fall, hawk migration peaks around the last of September.”
Prime raptor spots include the peregrine aerie at Lake Sonoma and the Jenner Headlands Preserve, which was acquired by the Sonoma Land Trust in December 2009 to be protected forever. There are also great places on the coast for birding, primarily in Bodega Bay and at Bodega Bay Harbor. Madrone has regularly scheduled trips to Bodega Bay as well as other excellent birding areas. On a good day, one can see pelicans, terns, kingfishers and plovers. A complete list can be found at madroneaudubon.org.
“We do bird walks and field trips and anyone is welcome,” Beebe said. “We love showing what’s around here in Sonoma County.”
On a hot day in late June, I stood atop the highest point at Modini Mayacamas Preserves (MMP), 3,000 feet above Alexander Valley in the shadow of Mount Saint Helena, talking to Preserve Manager and Resident Biologist Sherry Adams about birds.
“There are a few reasons Audubon Canyon Ranch’s Modini Mayacamas Preserves has long been a popular spot with birders: One of the things that make this a special place is the great access provided by having a large preserve bisected by a public road,” she said. “Pine Flat Road runs through the preserve for about five miles, and will take you from an elevation of about 200 feet at the valley floor to over 3,000 feet at the very top. On the way you pass through a wide variety of habitats, including open grasslands, oak, madrone and conifer groves, shrubland and serpentine outcrops.”
The land now known as Audubon Canyon Ranch’s Modini Mayacamas Preserves is a merger of two properties: the Modini Ingalls Ecological Preserve and the Mayacamas Mountains Sanctuary, she explained. “The former was transferred to ACR in a bequest by ranchers Jim and Shirley Modini… The Modinis were ahead of their time: they were ranchers who cared about wildlife.”
The Modini-Ingalls family owned the property—primarily used for cattle grazing—since 1867 and the preserves are central to 12,000 acres of contiguous habitat in the Mayacamas Mountains protected under conservation easements with the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District. The District is the county’s lead agency in the acquisition of rural properties for protection.
Because of its elevation and inland location, many birds associated with California’s interior regions can be seen at MMP. Species such as Laurence’s goldfinch, greater roadrunner and the rare phainopepla, mountain quail, the common poorwill, rufous-crowned and Bell’s sparrows, blue-gray gnatcatcher, wrentits, purple martins, yellow warblers, California thrashers, golden eagles and more can be spotted during the span of a morning’s hike.
“I can always tell when someone spots something unusual,” Adams said. “Lines of cars pull out in the pullouts and people line up with those long camera lenses and binoculars.”
In 2004, the entire preserve burned in The Geysers’ fire, transforming the landscape into a patchwork of burned and unburned habitat conditions that make for a unique birding experience.
“One result is that cavity dwellers, such as purple martins, are regulars here,” Adams said. “And woodpeckers love dead trees.” She added that fire season is year-round now and part of the landscape. “It’s part of the nature and ecology and part of the human story. With some conifers, the cones only open in fire.”
The fire created habitat for other birds, such as swallows, bluebirds, kestrel falcons, ash-throated flycatchers and other hole-nesting species. The lower reaches of the MMP include streams and thick corridors of riparian vegetation, supporting rich communities of nesting songbirds and other migrant species.
There are a variety of nature walks and guided activities—including a monthly bird and botany walk on the first Friday of the month—as well as opportunities for exploring independently. For independent access, however, interested individuals must attend an access orientation. There are no facilities and no pets allowed, and the property is steep, primitive and wild. But there are also activities available to people with limited mobility or those dependent on a wheelchair.
For information go to egret.org, call the preserve at 707-431-8184, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Laguna de Santa Rosa
Another prime spot to the west of the Santa Rosa Plain is the Laguna de Santa Rosa, located east of Sebastopol.
The Laguna is Sonoma County’s richest area of wildlife habitat and the most biologically diverse region of Sonoma County. It is the largest tributary of the Russian River, featuring a 22-mile channel that extends from Cotati to its confluence with the Russian River at Forestville. The Laguna covers more than 30,000 acres, is an important stopover along the Pacific Flyway and home to more than 200 species of birds ranging from bald eagles to hummingbirds.
The Laguna Foundation was formed in 1989 to preserve and restore this valuable asset.
“We were dumping sewage and there were dumps and 100 years of farmers pushing manure into the wetlands,” Public Education Manager Anita Smith said. “The wetlands were thought of as swamps. But in the past three decades, there has been a big shift. Wetlands are seen as a great resource for biodiversity, flood control and groundwater recharge.”
There are three primary areas for bird watching: the Environmental Center on Sanford and Occidental roads, the Laguna de Santa Rosa Trail, with entrances on Highway 12 and Occidental Road, and the Southern Laguna Discovery Trail, located just west of the intersection of Rohnert Park Expressway and Stony Point Road.
Walking onto the Environmental Center property on the first day of summer, I was struck by a wall of music from what seemed like hundreds of songbirds. In the space of an hour, we saw barn owls, various songbirds, egrets, herons and even pelicans in the distance.
“There are redtails, and a pair of killdeer successfully raised young in the middle of all these people,” Smith said. “We’re creating habitat and even have owls nesting in the palm trees.”
Sonoma County bird rescue installed a barn-owl box and is trying to educate people to not use rodenticides because they affect the entire food chain and have had a negative effect on owl populations.
While most of the activities at the Environmental Center and adjacent property are only open to the public on guided tours, the Laguna Trail is a great place to see a wide variety of birds from Kelly Pond on the upper regions to the channel that borders Sebastopol.
On the Discovery Trail, there are plenty of raptors, including red tails and red shoulder hawks, harriers and kites.
In the summer, there is the Hungry Owl Project and full-moon evening walks on Irwin Creek that are broader. In the fall, there are raptor and migration walks; and in January, there is a presentation about waterfowl. Details and schedules are available at lagunadesantarosa.org or contact Smith at 707-527-9277 ext. 110.
“We’ve been working on habitat restoration along Irwin Creek for 15 to 20 years,” Smith said. “The habitat has improved, and it’s turned into a ‘superhighway’ for the egrets and herons from the Ninth Street Rookery (in Santa Rosa).”
The rookery is a group of trees in a west Santa Rosa neighborhood where several species of herons and egrets nest each spring to raise their young.
“There seems to be an increase in the amount of wildlife and birds, both in numbers and diversity. For all the negative impacts of urbanization, this is an amazingly beautiful place that’s full of life. The effects of restoration can be seen quickly in this amazing place. There are a lot of people in this watershed, but the ecosystem is fairly resilient.”
Sonoma County Parks
The Sonoma County Regional Park system includes more than 50 parks with over 150 trails from Petaluma to The Sea Ranch and Bodega Bay to Sonoma.
Bodega Bay even features the wheelchair-accessible Bird Walk Coastal Trail, which has 1.19 miles of trails through habitat that is home to thousands of birds throughout the year. Birding opportunities throughout the park system are available for people of all ages and abilities as well.
This summer, the county began a program called “Winging it Wednesdays,” featuring bird walks at various parks in the system taking place the last Wednesday of the month from 7:30-10:30 a.m. The next walk takes place at Cloverdale River Park. There is a complete schedule through November that can be found at parks.sonomacounty.ca.gov, and it is also available in Spanish.
“For me, it’s not only personally rewarding, but it’s a way to build community and connect people to a love of birds and parks,” Bethany Facendini, community engagement manager for Sonoma County Regional Parks, said. “These walks are at a leisurely pace for people with an existing love of birds or those who may not have been on a bird walk before.
“We want to build a following and a group of people who enjoy each others’ company,” Facendini added. “You can find birds anywhere, regardless of habitat, and we want to create a sense of birding all around you.”
Other activities throughout the year are led by a local, retired bird expert, and the county parks’ website has an entire section devoted to birding in Sonoma County. Go to parks.sonomacounty.ca.gov or call 707-565-2041 for information.
Parking at most parks is $7, or yearly passes are available for $69 or $49 for seniors.
Birding for seniors
The Sebastopol Area Senior Center began offering birds walks earlier this year geared toward the West County’s senior population, led by Keller McDonald. McDonald spent his career in education, serving as the West Sonoma County Union High School District superintendent for 12 years before his retirement at the end of the 2015 school year.
He discovered a passion for birds and bird watching at the age of 12 on a family camping trip at King’s Canyon National Park. McDonald saw a Western Tanager and he was hooked.
“I knew enough to think ‘what’s that doing here?’” he said. “It’s a beautiful bird.”
In his retirement, McDonald has rediscovered his love of birds and enjoys sharing that love with the community.
“The bird walks are a way to keep my bird interest going,” he said. “I’m getting reconnected with the birding community that has grown, changed and evolved since the ’70s.”
The walks so far have encompassed the open spaces around Sebastopol—Ragle Ranch Regional Park and several points around the Laguna de Santa Rosa—and has even ventured to a Place to Play Park and the Ninth Street Rookery in Santa Rosa.
The bi-monthly walks generally take place the first and third Fridays of the month, but the next scheduled walk will be on Sunday, Sept. 18, in the evening for a trip to Healdsburg to view the Vaux swifts that have come to the Rio Linda Academy since 1989. For a few short weeks in the fall, the swifts gather in the thousands—23,000 were estimated in 2014—and at dusk enter the school’s chimney in a swirling funnel.
The group will meet at the Senior Center at 4:30 p.m. to carpool to Healdsburg for dinner and then head to the Academy to arrive just before sunset. The center asks for a modest contribution, $3 or $4 depending on membership, the cost of food not included. For more information, go to sebastopolseniorcenter.org or call 707-829-2440.
Photographer Captures Beauty of Wildlife
Thomas Reynolds has been photographing and sharing the wonders of Sonoma County since 2005, after a decade of employment with the County of Sonoma.
“I was lucky to find something that I love doing now that I am retired, and this is a daily activity and passion,” Reynolds said.
He takes photographs for numerous nonprofits, including Madrone Audubon Society, Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation, LandPaths, Sonoma Land Trust, Redwood Region Ornithological Society, The Bird Rescue Center, The River Otter Ecology Project, West County HawkWatch and others. He has also worked with Audubon Canyon Ranch on a remote camera project and creates videos and PowerPoint presentations for local students and nonprofits.
Reynolds was awarded the Sonoma County Regional Park’s “Best of the Best” Volunteer award in 2011, Sonoma County Volunteer of the Year award in 2012, and the Madrone Audubon Society’s Bentley Smith Award in 2013 for his photography and contributions through education and conservation activity in the community.