Great Blue Heron San Rafael

Due to our advanced age we can remember a time when bird life was still pretty robust around Marin. It seemed however on the backside of the DDT travesty of the 70's that local bird life was not exactly prospering. 

Then, slowly, things started to change for the better. Pollution controls and habitat restorations started to take hold and we started to take notice. Not only did we see a seeming increase in local wildlife our winter migrations started bringing a bevy of new birds. These temporary visitors have been really cool to see. With their bold colors and whistling wings it was a bit of a Dick Tracy (very advanced age) episode each time a new one showed up. From Buffleheads (pictured below) to Mergansers and Scaup’s to Teal it was a gaggle of birds we where not used to seeing and they have some serious bling going on. (photo by Jim Bourke courtesy NPS.GOV)

Buffleheads San rafael

The locals have also been on a pretty big rebound. A pair of Osprey moved in just about the time we opened the shop in 2011 and then a few years later a second pair was regularly seen fishing the waters just off San Rafael. In fact the sight of fishing Osprey in the evenings and mornings became down right ordinary. A pro tip for catching a National Geographic like inflight Osprey talon grab is low tide. As we ply the waters of the bay regularly we have noticed that they prefer to hunt at low tides that fall on mornings or evenings. San Rafael Bay’s shallower waters actually pins the Osprey’s prey to the surface making for a Bird Buffet.  This actually makes sense as it herds the fish in to smaller areas and prevents the bird’s shadows from betraying their presence.

The Osprey’s favorite target appears to be leopard sharks which they pick off with single talon grabs quickly spinning the 1-2 foot long shark head first for aerodynamic flying. Sometimes the shark is so heavy they fly in circles trying to lift it up to their lofty nest atop the San Rafael Canal Powerlines. We have seen them pick up Sharks so big they had to give up as it was too heavy to get up to the nest. Nothing like watching a 2ft shark falling from the sky a real life sharknado.

Then the big news came late last year when we started to regularly see a Bald Eagle out at the Marin islands. At first we thought we were seeing things. Is that a seagull on steroids? But even Balco could not make bird this big. It’s really an impressive sight to see a golden retriever sized bird flying around.

And on a mamalian note our river otter pair is back for another season of pups. This will be the 7rh year of river otters on the canal. Check out this video from 1/2/2021 taken by Ryan of a frolicking otter on our dock. Wait for it at the end as a pissed off Heron dives on him to get him off the dock. 

While we cannot guarantee sightings of all these critters the hunt is part of the thrill. If we had to pick one place where you might see them all its Pickleweed park with Chicken Beach a close second. Here are a few tips on some prime locations for these birds of prey.

Osprey. – Two pairs of Osprey nest in San Rafael Bay. One pair is nesting out at the Piling 1 entrance to San Rafael Bay. The other pair is nesting atop the middle powerline tower at San Rafael’s Pickleweed park. You can also see a pair over in the East Bay every time you cross the Richmond San Rafael bridge on their telephone-pole-like nesting site out on the water.  

Bald Eagle – Read our detailed Bald Eagle Report Here.

Kestrels & Terns – Just off the Target Parking lot. They seem to hunt the Oyster beds on the mid tide. What you didn’t know Marin has oyster beds? Read about them here.

As for our locals this year saw our first Blue Heron pair. In our 9 years we had never seen one here on the canal. Then last October they became regulars joining our Night Herons & White Egrets using our dock as a hunting platform stealthily picking off their prey with a snap of their long necks.

Our favorite new friend however has to be the Kingfishers. While most birds dive in to the water or talon grab their prey the kingfisher can actually pick a fish out by beak while on the wing. An impressive sight to see, for sure.

kingfisher in san rafael

Perhaps the biggest success story is the Red Tailed Hawk. With DDT having decimated their population there is no doubt they are back as we see them almost as often as the Western Gull.

Other locals we spot pretty regularly

  • heron1Brown Pelicans
  • Loon (winter only)
  • Terns
  • Grebe
  • Cormorants
  • Mallards
  • Canadian Geese
  • Coots
  • Surf Scoter
  • Black wood duck (winter only)
  • Merganser (winter only)
  • Scaups (winter only)
  • Buffleheads (Late fall through spring)
  • Teal (winter only)
  • Black necked Stilt
  • Oyster Catchers
  • Peregrine Falcons - Besides the bald eagle this is the rarest sighting for us and usually the birds are on the move. Pro tip for seeing the Falcons is Fort Point in San Francisco. There is a few pair calling that area home and they can often be seen diving off the lower struts of the Golden Gate Bridge.

If you haven’t seen San Rafael’s nightly Starling show then check this out. The birds are putting on an impressive show every night just as the sun starts to set. The show goes on literally every night. Nightly Starling Show In San Rafael

We can’t help but think this awful virus we are all fighting has had a bit of a silver lining. It’s letting our planet heal. Less planes and pollution has been a boon for local wildlife and you can see it firsthand. So with outdoors being the safest place to be these days put a birdwatching trip on your agenda and enjoy the resilience of nature.

Need help identifying your back yard locals. Well check out this nice guide Marin Magazine put together.

Need more positivity? Well our River Otters are back too! 

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