Finding Nature by the Bay

By Joe Eaton
Tuesday August 21, 2007

We’re never too far from nature here in the East Bay. Sometimes nature builds a nest in the vine outside your window, gets in through the cat door, eats your prize roses, or settles into the crawlspace under your house. Venture a little farther away from home and you can expect less problematic encounters—lots of options for viewing spring wildflowers, watching migrant and resident birds, appreciating butterflies, or meeting newts, horned lizards, and gopher snakes. 

Two web sites are useful: for birders, the California Birding Lists Digest (www.sialia.com) compiles sightings from regional online mailing lists, including East Bay Birders. Wildflower aficionados should check Carol Leigh’s Wildflower Hotsheet (www.calphoto.com/wflower) for statewide coverage. 

For more about the East Bay Regional Parks listed below, including trail maps, visit www.ebparks.org/parks or read Marta Yamamoto’s recommendations here in the Planet. 

Grizzly Island Wildlife Area: OK, this is more North than East Bay, but it’s the closest site for big-game watching. The resident tule elk are best observed in late winter, or during the late-September gap between elk and waterfowl hunting seasons. Also good for wintering ducks, geese, swans, year-round raptors and river otters. More information: www.dfg.ca.gov/lands/wa/region3/grizzlyisland. 

Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge: The only federal wildlife refuge created for endangered plants (the Antioch Dunes evening primrose and Contra Costa wallflower) and insects (Lange’s metalmark butterfly). Join free docent-led tours of this remnant dune habitat on the second Saturday of every month; it’s otherwise closed to the public. The flowers bloom in April and May; the metalmarks fly in late summer. Information: www.fws.gov/ refuges/profiles/index.cfm?id=11646. 

Mount Diablo State Park: Many trails, many options, but Mitchell Canyon Trail on the north side remains a personal favorite. Try it in spring for wildflowers (including the Mount Diablo globe lily, which grows only here) and returning migrant songbirds, or in early fall for wandering lovesick tarantulas. We’ve run into everything from bramble hairstreaks to kingsnakes to coyotes in Mitchell Canyon. In late spring, the Mary Bowerman Trail around the summit has flowering bitterroot, swarms of butterflies, and some very personable whiptail and alligator lizards. Information: www.mdia.org. 

San Francisco Bay Trail: Part of the new Eastshore State Park, stretching from Richmond to Emeryville, this trail offers access to open water and tidal marsh habitats. This summer a party of black skimmers graced Meeker Slough in Richmond. California clapper rails are possible. Information: www.ebparks.org/parks/eastshore. 

Berkeley waterfront: Check the restored seasonal wetlands north of University Avenue for wintering ducks and geese, and the shoreline riprap at Cesar Chavez Park for burrowing owls. Peregrine falcons and other raptors hunt here. Nearby, Berkeley Aquatic Park hosts hooded mergansers, redheads, and the occasional tufted duck, a regular stray from Asia. 

Tilden Regional Park: The Packrat Trail from the Nature Center to Jewel Lake is great for spring and fall migrant birds. At the lake you can meet California’s only native water turtle, the western pond turtle. Visit the Wildcat Gorge Trail in spring for coralroot orchids and singing Swainson’s thrushes. 

Briones Regional Park: Grand Central Station for amorous newts in winter. The Sindicich and Maricich Lagoons are recommended. Good birds too, especially along the trail to the archery range. This is the only place I’ve ever seen the endangered Alameda whipsnake. 

Sibley Regional Park: Home to a nesting pair of golden eagles, and an excellent place to meet chaparral birds like the California thrasher and lazuli bunting. Fascinating geology as well—this was an active volcanic site some 10 million years ago. 

Redwood Regional Park: One of the few East Bay locations for the impressive and elusive pileated woodpecker. Sightings are usually posted at sialia.com. 

Arrowhead Marsh, Martin Luther King Shoreline Regional Park: Excellent for rail-watching during winter high tides, Arrowhead has the East Bay’s highest concentration of endangered California clapper rails. Waterfowl, shorebirds, and raptors frequent the established marsh and the nearby restoration project, and there’s a chance burrowing owls may still be present. Caution: last parking lot may be partially flooded at high tide. 

Don Edwards San Francisco Bay Wildlife Refuge: Water birds—gulls, terns, egrets, skimmers, phalaropes—thrive in the refuge’s converted salt ponds. If you spot a flamingo, don’t be alarmed; escapes show up here from time to time. Information: www.fws.gov/desfbay. 

Sunol Regional Wilderness: Out of the way, but worth it. The hike to Little Yosemite has white fairy-lanterns and mariposa lilies in spring, California fuchsia in fall. Oak-savanna and chaparral birds abound. On warm days, keep an eye out for rattlesnakes. 

Mines Road: Not a park or refuge, but a good driving tour; most of the land along this road south of Livermore is privately owned. In a good year, Mines Road (and Del Puerto Canyon Road, which continues into Stanislaus County to I-5) can have outstanding wildflower displays. Both roads are good for locally hard-to-find birds: phainopepla, Lawrence’s goldfinch, Lewis’s woodpecker, Costa’s hummingbird, roadrunner.