Tom Stienstra, our treasured outdoor writer for The San Francisco Chronicle, inspired us this week to go out to the local Marin wetlands to experience the great waterfowl migration that is happening this year. Stienstra attributed the larger numbers of waterfowl around California to extreme cold weather up north and in the Midwest. Stienstra's article highlighted the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, but also mentioned Bay Area wetlands as great places to see the migrating waterfowl.
The Las Gallinas wildlife ponds near the Regency Cinema off Smith Ranch Road in San Rafael are well known among birdwatchers for being good local viewing spots of the annual migration. The ponds are great places for spotting a variety of water birds and the walk makes an easy hike for the family and dog (please keep Fido leashed).
Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, these are not natural wildlife ponds, but tose of the Las Gallinas Sanitary District where treated wastewater is stored in four different ponds. Don't let that scare you off. The area is fun to visit, teaming with birds, and is easy to explore. It doesn't smell at all. The trails sit on top of levees that weave between the ponds. After the last pond the levees continue out into the native marshlands.
The main pond is the first one near the parking area just across the bridge. In the middle of the pond are several small islands. The islands harbored the densest grouping of birds that we observed. There were various ducks, geese, pelicans, and other waterfowl. In addition to the shore birds, flocks of Redwing Black Birds flitted about the reeds along the shore. Sparrows, Black Phoebes and other small birds hung out near the water's edge and in the shrubs along the levee.
The predatory birds are abundant here as well. In particular, several members of the heron family are well represented. Many large white greater and smaller Snowy Egrets stalk the marshes. A couple dozen rare Black Crowned Night Herons were roosting in the tree branches on an island in one of the ponds. It was amazing to see these herons in a large group, when most of the time they hunt solo around the edges of the marshlands. Several hawks were roaming the sky or perched on wires staring down at us.
The area is popular for bird-watching, running and dog walking. Bring your binoculars and sun hat, because there is very little shade. The dogs must stay on leash because the shore birds and other wild life are greatly disturbed by dogs chasing them about.
See the book "Hiking Marin: 141 Great Hikes in Marin County" for more details. Click here to go the Marin Trails website, where you can find more information about the book.