If you like raptors, now is the best time of the year to observe them at close quarters at several points in the Bay Area. For more information read Tom Stienstra’s recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Today we decided to go to Hawk Hill on the Marin Headlands. Tom and I have been quite close to it in the past but today was the first time we climbed to the top of the hill.
The drive to it is magnificent on any day but today was extra special As I’ve said before, the weather in the city is unpredictable is always a hit and miss affair. Any day of the year the headlands can be shrouded in fog. It could be cold, wet and miserable. Or, like today, it could be warm and sunny.
It was perfect weather for us and we could enjoy the views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the headlands as we drove up the hill towards Point Benita Lighthouse, passing numerous cyclists laboring up as well. We parked the car just before the one way section to the lighthouse. From here we could see the entire bridge in all its glory, though the sun was in our eyes. On the breeze we could hear the faint hum of the traffic as it crossed the bridge just over a mile away as the crow flies.
From here you can walk through a tunnel to a spectacular view of the lighthouse and take a path off to the right up the hill or you can follow a sign which says Hawk Hill to the left of the tunnel. The climb up the hill from here is steep but mercifully short. At the top is an old gun emplacement with abandoned structures and buildings and huge, round slabs of concrete.
There is also a magnificent view of the bay, with the San Francisco skyline framed between the two towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. Enjoying the view was a man who remarked to me on the beauty of the day. He told me he came here regularly just to drink in the spirituality of the place.
We walked a bit further along the top of the hill. On one of the concrete slabs were a series of white strips. When we got closer we could see that they had the names of all the hawks and raptors which have been spotted here and the length of the white strips indicated their wing span. There are 28 birds listed ranging from the American Kestrel and the Sharp Skinned Haw, both with a 22″ wing span all the way to the Californian Condor with a wing span of 118″. There was a special, thicker, strip which read ‘Mississippi Kite seen here Oct 25 08. Third in 33 years.’
At the end of the little walk way there was a man with a high powered scope. Obviously he was a keen bird watcher. He was intent on studying the surrounding area so I didn’t disturb him. I just stood and admired the nearly 360 degree view. I took especial note of Angel Island. Early last month it suffered a wildfire which burnt more than half the 740 acres on the island but where I stood I could not see any fire damage.
For half an hour we stood and watched – me with my binoculars and Tom with his camera. We had a great view of Rodeo Beach and I watched hikers and cyclists in the distance. There weren’t too many hawks around yet.
More people began to arrive and they all seemed to know each other and there was much chatter. It became apparent that they are part of a voluntary raptor watch, with one lady obviously in charge. She assigned them a location to stand and the official count started at 9.30.
They all concentrated on the task at hand and the conservation was all more or less gibberish. Terms like ‘coop’, ‘tv’ ‘juv’ were thrown about with wind and campus directions. I noticed a purple balloon tied to a bush, obviously to help determine the wind direction. I did hear the leader say that she was pleased there was no fog but she had hoped for more wind. Each bird spotted was called out and I guess the leader was taking notes. There were a lot of ‘tvs’ – turkey vultures, a couple of Merlins and some Red Winged Kites. A Kestrel was spotted in a dead tree but try as I might I could not spot it. Mind you, I couldn’t see where the dead tree was!
At one point someone called out ’130 bandtails to the north east’. Feeling brave I asked what bandtails were and he told me they were pigeons. Someone spotted something ‘above the balloon stack in Emeryville’. Now Emeryville is clear over the other side of the bay and with my binoculars I could not even identify the town, never mind the balloon stack or a bird. There was some debate between two guys with high powered scopes whether it was a Red Wing or an Eagle. The consensus being it was a Red Wing.
To identify positions they used terms like towers, step house and volcano but I had no idea at first where they meant. I did find the towers and guessed at the step house but volcano eluded me.
I had been so immersed in the conversation and action going on around me that I did not notice Tom had wandered off. I could see him down the hill a bit so went to join him. He’d found a bench and had parked his camera bag there while he took photos, so I sat on the bench and started to write. I glanced up the hill and the counters were still concentrating on spotting hawks. Looking up Tom and I saw a hawk circling, working up a momentum to attempt the water crossing. I checked in my bird book when I got home and think it was a Peregrine Falcon.
Hey ho, time to make a move. There are more and more people here now and from my rather damp seat I can see there are very few parking spaces down below. Perhaps we should leave a give another car the opportunity to enjoy this perfect setting.
November 19 2008 12:42 pm | Special Places