Birding Contra Costa County by Steve Glover:
Contra Costa County, stretching from the eastern shores of San Francisco
east to the Great Central Valley, is a superb birding county, either
for locals or long-distance travelers. Nearly 350 species have been
recorded at one time or another and at least 150 species nest.
A wide variety of habitats and a temperate climate combine to provide
excellent birding at any season. Many species highly prized by visitors
can be found here with relative ease. Though the county is being
developed at a faster than desirable rate, extensive areas of habitat
have been protected by the East Bay Regional Parks District and,
at Mt. Diablo, by the state of California. Since the county is small,
sites throughout the county may be visited in a day or two. I have
underlined the most productive birding sites in the text.
A note on traffic: Unlike the more remote counties you absolutely
must take traffic into consideration when planning a birding trip.
Avoid westbound I-80 between Crockett and the Bay Bridge, particulary
in the morning. Avoid westbound Hwy. 4 between east county and Concord
during the morning commute hours. Avoid southbound 680 between Pacheco
and the 24 interchange during the morning commute. Avoid going west
through the Caldecott Tunnel during the morning commute. Under no
circumstances should you go east on I-80 or north on I-680 on a
Friday afternoon. You can but you will regret it.
The Richmond (West County) area is not the place to go if you are one who desires
scenery with your birds. Except for a nice view of the Golden Gate
Bridge most of the Richmond area is cluttered with refineries, salvage
yards and barbed wire fences. Fortunately if you know where they
are there are some productive spots. The main target species here
are waterbirds such as loons, grebes, diving ducks, shorebirds,
gulls, terns, and seabirds.
The Albany Crescent is probably the best mudflat
habitat in the county. Please note that most of the crescent is
actually in Alameda County, the boundary being El Cerrito Creek.
The creek is easy to pick out using the tires and shopping carts
as a landmark.
To reach this area exit I-580 at Central Ave. At the top of the ramp
go left over the freeway and park at the bottom. There is a path
that follows the freeway ramp around the east end of the crescent.
Morning light is best to look for hordes of shorebirds that usually
include Semipalmated Plover, Whimbrel, Ruddy (rare but regularly
found in the slightly rocky area amongst the shopping carts) and
Black Turnstones, Red Knot (including winter), Sanderling, and both
dowitchers. Look also for loafing gulls and terns as well as possible
Black Skimmer. The problem with county birding at this site is that
the birds tend to be in Alameda County so bring your patience.
Nearby Pt. Isabel should also be checked for deep-water species.
All 3 loons are regular (Pacific is uncommon) as are Clark’s
and Western Grebes. This is also a good spot to scope the open bay
for seabirds. Common Murre and Pigeon Guillemot are regular here
in late summer and fall and there are a few records of Marbled Murrelet.
First county records of Rhinoceros and Cassin’s Auklets have come
recently. There are no county records of Sooty Shearwater or Ashy
Storm-Petrel but this would be the place to look. Osprey or Peregrine
Falcon are often on the pair of radio towers.
To try for possible Clapper Rail either walk the shoreline north to
the saltmarsh (a pretty good walk if you are carrying a scope) or
return to the freeway and head toward the San Rafael Bridge. Take
S. 51st St. (the next exit) and turn left at the top of the ramp.
Northern Rough-winged Swallows and White-throated Swifts nest in
this overpass. At the bottom turn left on S. 51st St. Walk the path
toward the bay but note that this is not a good area to leave valuables
in your car.
Clapper Rails have been noted periodically in recent years, especially to
your right near the dilapidated pier, and there are often roosting
shorebirds here at high tide. Though there are no county records
of Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow this seems as likely an area
as any. Just beyond the old pier a narrow riparian corridor known
as Meeker Slough slinks off into the residential area. So far the
best bird here was a Clay-colored Sparrow but there is a potential
here for rarities in fall and even winter.
The hotspot in west county is Brooks Island but unfortunately this
is not an easy place to bird unless you have a kayak. The island
is well offshore and the sun and heatwaves are usually unbearable
by 10 am. In addition, a good scope is an absolute must.
If you still wish to visit this area after all of that exit I-580
at Marina Bay Parkway. Go left over the freeway. Follow Marina Bay
Parkway all the way to the end at park in the small park. Check
the harbor (particular during or just after bad weather) for loons,
Grebes (including an occasional Red-necked), Ducks including possible
Oldsquaw and Black Scoter, and Spotted Sandpiper on the rocks. The
small hill near the parking lot is very convenient for scoping the
island and the mouth of the harbor. The beach to the north has a
huge Caspian Tern colony.
In summer there are also Heerman’s Gulls and Elegant Terns.
Black Skimmer has been somewhat regular in recent years. Check the
beach to the left of the old pier for loafing ducks, even in summer.
The pair of Harlequin Ducks that have been resident in recent years
can usually be found here, as can White-winged Scoters and often
an Oldsquaw or two.
Other birds to summer in this area include King Eider and Yellow-billed
Loon! Other birds that can sometimes be seen from shore include
Brant, Osprey, Peregrine Falcon and Black Oystercatcher. While you
are there check the breakwater at the mouth of the harbor for Oystercatcher
and Black Turnstone. With luck you could find Wandering Tattler
or even Surfbird, primarily in fall. Pelagic Cormorant is often
on the channel marker just inside the harbor.
Another good spot in Richmond is Miller/Knox Regional Shoreline. To get
there backtrack on Marina Bay Parkway, cross over the freeway and
turn left on Cutting Blvd. In a couple of miles turn left on Gerrard
and go through the tunnel. Park in the lot for Miller/Knox and walk
toward the bay to check the pond.
At high tide there are usually a few shorebirds around. Check the large
American Wigeon flock for Eurasian and check the resident Canada
Geese in late fall when there is often a stray “white”
goose about. In most falls one or more of the smaller races of Canada
Geese will be approachable for close study. Allen’s Hummingbird
is in the Eucalyptus in spring and fall.
Across the street is a large area of willows and weeds that should be checked
in fall for possible vagrants. Sporadic coverage in recent years
has produced several records of Swamp and Clay-colored Sparrows
and even a Black-throated Blue Warbler. More thorough coverage would
produce much more. Breeding birds here include Chestnut-backed Chickadee,
Spotted Towhee and Wrentit.
In recent years it has been discovered that the hill behind the
willow clump can be a good promontory for fall hawkwatching and
rarities have already included Black Swift and Northern Goshawk!
To get there take the path from near the willow clump that goes up
into the saddle between the two hills. Once you get into the saddle
take the trail uphill to the left. Though it is a short walk the
grade is extremely steep so take your time and look up often. At
the top of the hill there is a convenient bench.
Birds may come from the direction of Marin, especially if the winds are
strong from the west, or from along the ridge to the north. And
of course on some days few will come at all. One blessing here is
that there are very few resident raptors so if you find one there
is a good chance it is a migrant.
Most birds appear to continue down the bayshore and cut directly across
to the Berkeley Hills. This is a very pleasant place to bring a
lunch and spend a quiet day. Back down at the park continue to the
end of the road (if access is still allowed) and check the harbor
and the shoreline. Pelagic Cormorant is usually in the harbor or
on the cement breakwater at the end. The resident pair of Harlequin
Ducks were often seen here in the winter of 1990-91. The breakwater
in the distance is often loaded with Brown Pelicans and sometimes
distant Surfbirds. In fall scope behind the breakwater for Jaegers.
Return to I-580 and continue toward the bridge. Take the final exit,
called Pt. Molate, or have $2 ready because you are headed for Marin
with the rest of the county’s birders. Drive on to a spot
where you can overlook a small bay and pull over.
At high tide check the pilings and the rusted ship hull for shorebirds
that can include Wandering Tattler. Continue to the end of the road
and scope the 2 large rocks, one of which is covered by the East
Brothers Lighthouse, for nesting Pelagic Cormorants and Black Oystercatchers.
This is a good area for Heerman’s Gull and Common Raven.
Backtrack to eastbound I-580 but beware that you will be entering the freeway
in the fast lane and you need to get over and exit immediately.
The exit is Richmond Parkway. Follow Richmond Parkway (brand new
and probably not on many maps) for several miles until you reach
the Richmond Sewer Ponds on your left.
If the water levels are good in fall check for rare shorebirds such
as Semipalmated, Baird’s and Pectoral Sandpipers, all of which
are regular. This is also a good spot for Thayer’s and Mew
Gulls and Glaucous Gulls probably loaf here from time to time.
The last good spot in west county is Pt. Pinole Regional
Shoreline. To get there either exit Richmond Parkway at
Giant Rd. and follow Giant to the Park or from San Pablo Ave. turn
onto Atlas Rd. and continue to the park. Take the road north from
the lot and cross the bridge into the eucalyptus grove.
There are Allen’s Hummingbirds in the trees although not a lot else.
Continue through the grove and onto the trail overlooking the bay.
At low tide the shorebirds include Black Turnstone and sometimes
Black Oystercatcher. Eurasian Wigeon is also sometimes here. Follow
the trail north until you enter back into the eucalyptus forest.
The area seems to have good vagrant potential, especially in winter.
An American Redstart wintered here in 1997-1998.
The north end of the park has some good shorebird habitat. Clapper Rail
is reportedly here and it is the most regular spot in the county
for Snowy Plover (winter). Osprey nests here every year. Although
certainly not pristine, this area has excellent potential for rarities.
In fact, recent discoveries include Long-tailed Jaeger and Magnificent
A new spot worth checking for vagrant passerines can be reached by
crossing the bridge from the parking lot and sticking to the trail
to the right which will roughly keep you parallel to the railroad
tracks. In a quarter mile or so you will come to a right turn. In
this area there is a fine dense area of old orchards and shady vegetation,
a virtual oasis in a sea of eucalyptus. A Chestnut-sided Warbler
was the first good find here.
Other West County Spots: A few other spots can be checked briefly
but are generally not as good as those mentioned above. Pt. San
Pablo Yacht Harbor is reached by taking the road over the hill from
the East Brothers Lighthouse. This is a particularly good spot for
Heerman’s Gull and a Clay-colored Sparrow was found here once.
The mouth of Garrity Creek is just north of Pt. Pinole Regional
Shoreline. From San Pablo Ave. turn left on Tara Hills Drive and
park at the baseball fields. Walk the path over the railroad tracks
and check the mudflats. This can be a good spot for Elegant Terns
and Red Knot. Scope the pilings to the left near Pt. Pinole for
Osprey which is usually present. The town of Rodeo a little farther
north has the last (meaning furthest east) good mudflat in west
county. After that you have to go all the way through the straits
to Martinez for mudflat and there aren’t nearly as many birds
there. To reach the mudflat take I-80 north toward the Carquinez
Bridge. Exit at Willow Ave. and go west. It soon becomes San Pablo
Ave. Go through town to the foot of California Street. The area
is a little seedy but the birding can be good. I often end up here
on big days since the tide comes in later here than around Richmond.
Shorebirds can include Semipalmated Plover and Red Knot. There is
Canvasback in winter and some years there is a flock of Barrow’s
Goldeneyes. There can also be good numbers of gulls here.
This area is the area east of the bay plain and west of I-680. Much
of this area is watershed lands including three major reservoirs.
Being close to the bay the climate is markedly cooler than the Diablo
Range and is subject to daily fogs in the summer. Many of the canyons
are heavily wooded, locally with second-growth Redwoods. Extensive
plantings of Monterey Pine can also be found on some of the ridgetops.
Popular species to look for here include Band-tailed Pigeon, Allen’s
Hummingbird, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Red-breasted and Pygmy Nuthatches,
Winter Wren, Swainson’s Thrush, and MacGillivray’s Warblers,
as well as montane invasion species and vagrant passerines.
Tilden Regional Park, with it’s diverse plantings
of exotics, offers interesting birding at any season. I have never
birded most of the park so I will only describe the two areas I
feel are the best. Anyone feeling adventurous, particularly during
fall migration, could check any of dozens of interesting looking
spots. There is no lighthouse here so the rarities could be anywhere
but this is part of the fun in the East Bay.
The least confusing way to get to Tilden Park is to exit Hwy. 24
at the Orinda/San Pablo Dam Rd. exit which is just east of the Caldecott
Tunnel. Take San Pablo Dam Rd. north toward Richmond for several
miles (this area is a big speedtrap) and turn left on Wildcat Canyon
Rd. Continue uphill until you reach the Inspiration Point parking
lot on your right.
Walk and bird your way back down Wildcat Canyon Rd. for a tremendous
variety of passerines that are attracted to the extensive Monterey
Pine plantings on the uphill side and open grassland on the downhill
Be careful of the traffic on this road as the shoulders are narrow
in spots. The traffic can be heavy, and loud, during commute hours
but weekend mornings can be quiet. In the Monterey Pine grove are
Band-tailed Pigeon, Great Horned and Northern Saw-whet Owls, Anna’s
and Allen’s Hummingbirds, Hairy Woodpecker, Olive-sided Flycatcher,
Violet-green Swallow, Red-breasted and Pygmy nuthatches, Brown Creeper,
House and Winter Wrens, Golden-crowned Kinglet (winter), Swainson’s
(summer) and Varied (winter) Thrushes, all three vireos, breeding
Orange-crowned, MacGillivray’s and Wilson’s Warblers,
Western Tanager, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Purple Finch. Red Crossbill
is regular here, especially in late fall, and Evening Grosbeak has
It would also seem like a good place for Williamson’s Sapsucker
and Cassin’s Finch. The brambles and open grassland on the
downhill side is good for California Quail, Western Bluebird, and
numerous sparrows that include breeding Grasshopper and White-crowned
Sparrows. Concentrated hawk-watching efforts from the Inspiration
Point parking area in the fall of 2001 produced a Broad-winged Hawk
and fly-by Lewis’s Woodpeckers (normally very hard to find
in the county) were noted on nearly every trip.
The vast majority of vagrant records from the park come from the Jewel
Lake area. To reach this area from Inspiration Point continue on
Wildcat Canyon Rd. and follow the signs to the Nature Area at the
north end of Canon Drive.
Walk the trail north past the Environmental Education building. Turn
left onto the boardwalk and bird slowly and carefully for great
looks at breeding Swainson’s Thrush and Wilson’s Warbler.
Other birds in this dense willow habitat include Allen’s Hummingbird,
Downy and Nuttall’s (uncommon) Woodpeckers, Western Wood-Pewee,
Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Winter Wren (mostly winter), all 3 vireos,
Song Sparrow, and Purple Finch. In late spring and especially in
fall be on the lookout for vagrant passerines that were found here
with regularity when more thoroughly covered and are still found
despite erratic coverage.
The best areas are around the boardwalk and around tiny Jewel
Lake which is at the north end of the boardwalk. Red-eyed
Vireo appears to be regular and warbler records include Tennessee,
Northern Parula, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler,
Black-and-white Warbler, American Redstart, Worm-eating Warbler
(summer!) and Northern Waterthrush. Hooded Warbler has been found
here five times, summering at least three times! Beyond Jewel Lake
are some more open country birds such as Lazuli Bunting.
The Briones Regional Park/Briones Res area doesn’t produce
the rarities that Tilden does but it is a good area for a few of
the more local species. To reach this area from San Pablo Dam Rd.
turn right on Bear Creek Rd, directly opposite from the turnoff
for Wildcat Canyon Dr.
Continue several miles to the gravel lot on the left for Briones Res. You
will need a trail permit to enter East Bay Municipal Utility District
property. They are available for about $5 at San Pablo Res. and
Lafayette Res. I prefer the east side of the reservoir as it seems
reliable for Hooded Merganser and Wood Duck in winter. Note that
recent rains make some of the steep parts of the trail virtually
unpassable. Many of the common oak woodland birds can be found here
and Osprey has nested. Bald Eagle is also found on occasion in winter.
Just a few hundred yards down Bear Creek Rd. past the Briones Res. trailhead
is the Bear Creek entrance to Briones Regional Park. A $3 entrance
fee is charged sporadically. The area around the parking lot is
a lock for Lazuli Bunting and Chipping Sparrow in spring and summer.
A Northern Shrike was here in early 1998 and both Purple Martin
and Lawrence’s Goldfinch have been seen. At the end of the
pavement bear downhill into dense bay woodland on the Homestead
Valley Trail for Lazuli Bunting amongst landbirds. Common “western”
species can be easily had in this area, notably Chestnut-backed
Chickadee, Oak Titmouse and California Towhee. When you come back
out into the open check the picnic area for Acorn Woodpeckers.
Redwood Regional Park is another interesting locality and a nice
alternative on some of the hotter summer days. The main entrance
is in Alameda County and is reached from Redwood Road, reached from
Hwy. 13. From the north end of the lot take the Stream Trail north
through the picnic areas and into the Redwood Forest. The county
line is hard to pin down but it is very close to the fern hut.
There are not a lot of birds in the dense forest but breeders include
Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper and
Winter Wren. The area around Redwood Peak also has a small number
of breeding Hermit Thrushes. This area can be reached from the Stream
Trail or, for a shorter walk, from the Skyline Gate on Skyline Blvd.
The French Trail and Tres Cendes Trail are best to try for the thrushes.
This area is also good for Hairy Woodpecker, Pygmy Nuthatch and Purple
Finch. Red Crossbills are also found regularly around Skyline Gate
in the planted Monterey Pines. Pileated Woodpecker, very rare in
the county, has been noted in the area a couple of times, especially
along the West Ridge Trail near the Moon Gate entrance.
Just east of Redwood Regional Park is another densely wooded canyon filled
with redwoods and madrones. The road through the canyon is a shady,
twisting road by the name of Pinehurst. It is easily reached from
Redwood Road or from Moraga.
Traffic can be a nuisance during commute hours but can be almost non-existent
early on weekday mornings. Winter Wren is a common breeder in the
area, as are Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Brown Creeper, Warbling Vireo,
Wilson’s Warbler and Purple Finch. Pileated Woodpecker is
present but very elusive in the canyon. Owling is also good with
Northern Saw-whet Owl being common.
Las Trampas Regional Park, west of Alamo and north of San Ramon,
is a meeting place of coast and interior. Summers can be quite hot
but afternoon fog is a frequent occurrence. Grasshopper Sparrow
is the prime target here but there are many other interesting birds
here. From I-680 in San Ramon exit at Crow Canyon Rd. and head west.
Turn right on Bollinger Canyon Rd. and drive all the way to the
end. Around the parking lot and along the Valley Trail to the north
are Acorn and Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Western Wood-Pewee, Ash-throated
Flycatcher, Steller’s Jay, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Brown
Creeper, House Wren, Varied Thrush (often common in winter), vireos,
warblers (only Orange-crowned breeds), and Bullock’s Oriole.
The Rocky Ridge Trail runs virtually straight uphill to about
2,000 feet above the parking lot. If you have the energy to get
above the oaks you can start looking for Grasshopper Sparrow as
well as Lazuli Bunting, Chipping Sparrow and possible Lawrence’s
Goldfinch. For a real workout there is Canyon Wren at the wind caves
at the top of the ridge.
The hills to the east, especially around Las Trampas Peak, have
Black-chinned Sparrows at least some years and a Roadrunner was
reported here recently. Anywhere you hike in this delightful park
is time well spent.
Other Areas in the Berkeley Hills:
Upper San Leandro Reservoir is between Pinehurst Rd. and Moraga
on Moraga Way. A trail permit is required but you can see most of
the birds from the lot. The closest arm of the reservoir has Ring-necked
Duck and may have Wood Duck and Hooded Merganser. Osprey is also
in the area. Songbirds may include Chipping Sparrow and Lawrence’s
Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve is located on Grizzly Peak Blvd.
just north of Redwood Regional Park. To get there exit Hwy 24 at
Fish Ranch Rd. just east of the Caldecott Tunnel. Go up Fish Ranch
to Grizzly Peak Blvd. The intersection is confusing but go left
(and follow the signs). The conifers around the lot have Red-breasted
and Pygmy Nuthatches and crossbills are sometimes here in winter.
A walk out into the scrub and grassland is excellent for Lazuli
Bunting and Rufous-crowned Sparrow. A pair of Golden Eagles has
nested on the large radio towers for years.
Bishop Ranch Open Space near San Ramon is a compact and nearly
unused park that features oak woodlands and grasslands with the
primary attraction being Grasshopper Sparrows. To get there exit
I-680 in San Ramon at Bollinger Canyon Rd. Go briefly west on Bollinger
Canyon and make an immediate left on San Ramon Valley Blvd. In a
mile or so turn right on Morgan Dr. The park will be on the left.
The area around the lot has typical oak woodland birds including Acorn
Woodpeckers. The trail goes straight uphill, and I emphasize straight,
for about 1/4 mile or so and enters into savannah and then grassland.
When you enter the savannah there are Western Bluebirds and Lark
Sparrows. Beyond that start listening for the unique insect-like
songs of Grasshopper Sparrows which are present in Spring and Summer.
The Diablo Range
The Diablo Range is the arid, rocky counterpart to the Berkeley
Hills to the west. Shady woodland breeders are restricted to a few
shady canyons while the open country species reach full potential.
The centerpiece is Mt. Diablo State Park, a 3,849
foot chaparral-covered peak, good not only for birds but plants
and butterflies as well.
The prime areas are as follows but there are many other good sites and
few of them are birded with any frequency. Prime targets here include
all of the oak woodlands species as well as Golden Eagle, Prairie
Falcon, Common Poorwill, White-throated Swift, migrant hummingbirds,
Acorn and Nuttall’s Woodpeckers, all three vireos, Rock and
Canyon Wrens, all of the chamise chaparral species such as California
Thrasher and Sage and Black-chinned Sparrows, migrant warblers,
Western Tanager, Lark Sparrow and Lawrence’s Goldfinch.
Mitchell Canyon, on the north flanks of the mountain,
may offer the best birding on the mountain. To reach this area exit
I-680 in Walnut Creek at Ygnacio Valley Rd. Follow Ygnacio about
8 miles to Clayton Rd. Turn right. Turn right again on Mitchell
Canyon Rd. and continue to the end, looking for wintering Phainopepla
and summering Hooded Orioles as you go.
You can no longer park for free on the entrance rd. so bring $2. In
the lot are Acorn Woodpecker, Red-breasted Sapsucker (winter), Western
Wood-Pewee, Ash-throated Flycatcher, White-breasted Nuthatch, House
Wren, Western Bluebird, migrant warblers, Lark Sparrow, Bullock’s
Oriole and an occasional Lawrence’s Goldfinch.
Follow the trail along Mitchell Creek for many of the same birds as well
as many migrants on a good day. From early April to about mid-May
Hammond’s Flycatchers can be common. Both Dusky and Gray are
found annually but in tiny numbers.
The main attraction, however, is the migrant warblers. Peak migration
is mid-April to mid-May and can be great for Nashville, Black-throated
Gray, Townsend’s, Hermit and MacGillivray’s Warblers.
All 3 vireos are present and Western Tanager is a rare breeder.
For great chaparral birding turn right about a half mile or so up
the canyon and go uphill into White Canyon.
The trail is a bit steep but well worth the effort. Hammond’s
Flycatchers and migrant warblers (including MacGillivray’s)
are in the canyon but the good birds are in the chamise. Spring
migration brings good numbers of Calliope and Rufous Hummingbirds.
Sage Sparrows are resident and Black-chinned Sparrow is sometimes
found in summer. Common Poorwills are easy here at dusk when they
come down to the warm road. A Plumbeous Vireo was in the canyon
in the April of 1998. Other expected species include California
Quail, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and California Thrasher.
Donner Canyon, just down the road, has similar birds but has no
parking fee and far less people. The downside is that to reach the
chaparral birds you need to walk much farther. Most feel that Mitchell
Canyon has slightly better birding but both are good. Return to
Clayton Rd. and turn right. Turn right again on Regency Dr. and
continue to the end. Hooded Oriole is in the palms in the neighborhood.
Walk down the hill and turn left on the fire road.
The grassland in the area can be good for Lawrence’s Goldfinch
and Western Kingbird. Follow the creek for many of the same birds
as in Mitchell Canyon. At the top of the ridge turn right onto Meridian
Ridge and then drop down into Back Canyon. The canyon is narrow
and steep. The trail, when poorly maintained, is covered with Poison
Oak. At any rate, follow the creek back to the north for migrants
and chaparral species. Calliope Hummingbird is here in spring. The trail will return you to your
North Gate and South Gate Roads to the summit have
been a popular field trip destination for decades, generally in
spring. The area is well covered in Jean Richmond’s Birding
in Northern California so I won’t go into great detail. The
best way to bird the mountain is to pull out where there are good
stands of chamise and stop at the picnic areas and campgrounds.
Southgate Rd. has traditionally been good for Black-chinned Sparrow but their
locations change from year to year in response to the growth of
the chamise. They spurn recently burned areas and again abandon
areas that become too dense. They are also somewhat irruptive so
some years they are nearly absent in even suitable habitat. In recent
years the area just below the Southgate kiosk has been pretty reliable.
Even if you don’t find Black-chinneds you should find Rufous-crowned
and Sage Sparrows, as well as gnatcatchers, thrashers and Lazuli
Buntings. Migrant Calliope and Rufous Hummingbirds are around in
From just below the kiosk on quiet days you can hear Canyon Wren singing
down below in Sycamore Canyon. Further on, the Rock City area is
a good migrant area for warblers and tanagers. The area around the
Curry Canyon parking lot is good for Lark and Chipping Sparrows.
For a nice walk you might try walking down into Curry and Sycamore Canyons
which are as moist and shady as anything on the mountain. One year
a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers summered here! The next good area
is around the Junction Ranger Station and campground. On a good
day in spring migrants can abound.
Lawrence’s Goldfinch sometimes nests right in the campground. At the junction
go right and head toward the summit. The best areas in between the
junction and the summit are around the Blue Oak/Oak Knoll Picnic
Areas and Juniper Campground. Huge warbler waves were formerly found
in these areas in spring and although numbers in recent years don’t
compare with those of former years there are still good numbers
found. This area has also been good for Black-chinned Sparrow in
recent years. The summit is generally not terribly birdy but Black-chinned
Sparrow is here some years and Canyon Wren has been heard from the
Return to the junction and head back down North Gate Rd. Here the chaparral
so prevalent on South Gate Rd. gives way to open oak woodland and
grassland. The birds along here are those found on much of the mountain.
Mountain Bluebird has been found on rare occasions in winter.
To reach South Gate Rd. exit I-680 in Danville at Diablo Rd. and
follow the signs. To reach North Gate Rd. exit I-680 at Ygnacio
Valley Blvd and follow the signs.
Riggs Canyon is a newly opened area on the south side of the
mountain. The attraction is the most easily reached Canyon Wrens
in the county. From I-680 in Danville exit at Sycamore Valley and
head east. Continue several miles as the name of the road changes
from Camino Tassajara to just Tassajara. At a sharp right turn in
the road bear left onto Finley Rd. Drive all the way to the end
of the road and backtrack to the closest place where parking is
allowed. Walk the road north looking for typical savanna birds.
At the gate stop and listen for Canyon Wrens. They are tough to actually
see but these are the most accessible in the county. Please respect
the rights of the landowners who have graciously allowed access
through their property. Once passing through the gate you will enter
shady bay woodland with breeding Pewee, Chestnut-backed Chickadee,
Brown Creeper, House Wren, all 3 vireos and Black-headed Grosbeak.
The habitat quickly opens back up again and both Lazuli Bunting and
Chipping Sparrow become common. To the left on the dense hillside
are multitudes of nesting Purple Finches. The canyon to the left
has no formal trails but if you don’t mind a little bushwhacking
it can be wonderful. Known as Jackass Canyon, it features steep
sides about 1500 feet high and is alternately covered by dense Madrone
and cliffs. Northern Pygmy-Owl has been found here. White-throated
Swift nests in the cliffs and Prairie Falcon is in the area. The
ambitious hiker can walk all the way to Curry Point from here.
A good road for car birding is Morgan Territory Road
on the east side of Mt. Diablo. Much of the road is so narrow that
2 cars can’t pass without one pulling over. There is little
traffic to worry about but you still need to drive with great caution.
Most of the road is heavily wooded and several species reach their
eastern limit in this area.
Present are Acorn and Hairy Woodpeckers, Western Wood-Pewee, Ash-throated
Flycatcher, Steller’s Jay, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Brown
Creeper, House Wren, all three vireos, migrant warblers, Western
Tanager, Bullock’s Oriole and Purple Finch. Hammond’s
Flycatcher is around in spring and Lawrence’s Goldfinch is
Nearby Morgan Territory Regional Preserve has miles of hiking trails with
essentially the same birds as well as some of the more open country
To reach Morgan Territory Rd. exit I-680 in Walnut Creek at Ygnacio
Valley Rd. Continue about 8 miles to Clayton Rd. and turn right.
Clayton Rd. will become Marsh Creek Rd. Turn right onto Morgan Territory
Rd. The only way out is to backtrack to Marsh Creek or continue
to Livermore. If you return to Marsh Creek Rd. you can get to east
county in only about 20 minutes.
Marsh Creek Rd. and Marsh Creek Reservoir offer
pretty good birding year round. Unfortunately the commute traffic
is increasing by the day as they continue to build in east county
and it is harder to bird the road than it used to be. To reach Marsh
Creek Rd. follow the directions given above for Morgan Territory Rd.
There is no single great spot on Marsh Creek Rd. so just pull out wherever
it looks interesting. Rufous-crowned Sparrow is in several spots
but can be hard to hear over the traffic. Golden Eagle is often
overhead and Prairie Falcon is regular. Greater Roadrunner, an extremely
rare bird in the county, has been reported in the area a few times.
Other interesting birds include Western Kingbird, Northern Rough-winged
Swallow, Rock Wren, Phainopepla, Lazuli Bunting, Tricolored Blackbird
and Lawrence’s Goldfinch.
The rather recently opened Round Valley Regional Park
will come up on your right. Birds here are rather typical of oak
woodland and savannah. From the parking lot take the trail over
the hill and into the valley. A couple of Lewis’s Woodpeckers
winterined here recently and Phainopepla is sometimes about. Other
birds include Prairie Falcon and Rufous-crowned Sparrow.
Just before you reach the Central Valley you will pass Marsh
Creek Reservoir on your left. Scope from the road above
for wintering waterfowl that may include Tundra Swan and Wood Duck.
Canvasback is usually here in good numbers and Ring-necked Duck
has been noted here in the thousands.
There is a small Great Blue Heron Rookery in the back but once the trees
leaf out the nests become almost invisible. Virginia Rail, Sora
and Moorhen are all in the reeds. Other birds here include nesting
Pied-billed Grebes, Green Heron (mostly summer), Hooded Merganser
(rare), Osprey (rare), Red-shouldered Hawk, Caspian and Forster’s
Terns (summer), Belted Kingfisher, Downy and Nuttall’s Woodpeckers,
Ash-throated Flycatcher, swallows, Marsh Wren, Common Yellowthroat,
and Tricolored Blackbird.
Other Spots in the Diablo Range: Black Diamond Mines Regional Park near
Antioch has interesting birding. To reach the park exit Hwy. 4 in
Antioch at Somersville Rd. and go south into the park. The park
can be quite hot in summer. The areas near the road and around the
mines can be quite congested, especially in summer, but once you
walk very far you will again be almost alone. The entrance road
has Phainopepla in winter and Mountain Bluebird has been seen several
times. Click here for Black Diamond Mine photos.
The Chaparral Loop Trail, north of the parking lot, has White-throated
Swift, Violet-green Swallow, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, California Thrasher,
and Sage Sparrow. Black-chinned Sparrow was here in the past but
I suspect that the chamise has become too dense due to fire suppression.
Townsend’s Solitaire is often here in good years. The Nortonville
side of the park, reached by a pretty steep walk past the cemetary,
has Rufous-crowned Sparrow, nesting Say’s Phoebe, and Rock
Wren. Canyon Wren is resident at Coal Canyon though very dificcult
to find when not singing. The new Los Vaqueros Reservoir
north of Livermore has already turned up interesting birds despite
To reach the south end take Vasco Rd. north from I-580 in Livermore
several miles to the entrance on the left. A fee is charged here,
sometimes a self-pay (so bring small bills). The road to the small
marina has typical oak savannah species such as Loggerhead Shrike,
Western Kingbird, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Acorn Woodpecker, etc.
Lawrence’s Goldfinches and Phainopepla have been spotted.
At the end scope the water and snags for Osprey, possible Bald Eagle,
loons, grebes and diving ducks. The dam can be reached from the
north end of the reservoir. From Camino Diablo near Bryon turn south.
The fee situation is the same here.
The entrance may have White-tailed Kite, Golden Eagle and Rock Wren
and there are some interesting man-made ponds just before the dam.
The Markham Nature Center in Concord, though not really
in the Diablo Range, is an interesting little park with a narrow
riparian strip and an abundance of ornamental plantings. On my few
visits there I have found many of the typical oak and suburban birds
including nesting Red-shouldered Hawks. A female Western Tanager
was present in the winters of 2000-2001 and 2001-2002 so the possibility
of a rare wintering passerine is very real.
To get there exit I-680 in Pleasant Hill at Treat Blvd. and head east
toward Mt. Diablo. At Cowell Rd. turn left and the park will be
on the right.
Heather Farm Park in Walnut Creek has been developed to death
(and the process continues) but the duck ponds there are worth checking,
especially in winter, for an odd duck. Unusual geese occasionally
fall in with the Canadas in fall and winter.
To get there take Ygnacio Valley Rd. off of I-680 and continue several
miles to San Carlos Dr. Turn left and the ponds will be on your
left. Another pond further down the road has had Hooded Merganser
and even a Red-necked Grebe.
NORTH COUNTY WATERBIRD SITES
Most of the northern shoreline is private property but there are
a few productive sites with public access. The highlight here is
the possibility of hearing Black Rails.
McNabney Marsh and the Mt. View Sanitary
District are adjacent to I-680 just before the Benicia
Bridge. Note that most know the marsh by the name Shell but it has
been renamed after Al McNabney who worked passionately for over
20 years to protect places such as this marsh before passing away
on May 1, 1998. You would do well to occasionally stop and think
of Al and others like him whenever you are birding in a protected
To reach the sanitary district and the south end of McNabney Marsh
exit I-680 in Martinez at Arthur Rd. Take the ramp over the freeway
and turn right onto Arthur. Go under the freeway and follow the
road as it bears left. Go to the end and turn left through the gate.
Note that the gate is only open until 4 pm and only on weekdays.
The south end of the marsh is good for dabbling ducks including Blue-winged
Teal and Eurasian Wigeon (winter only). Shorebirds have included
Solitary, Baird’s, and Pectoral Sandpipers and Ruff. Continue
on and take the narrow tunnel under the freeway. Sign in at the
office and bird the ponds.
The condition of these ponds changes frequently. Sometimes there is
lots of vegetation, sometimes not. When there is this is an outstanding
area for American Bittern and Green Heron, Blue-winged Teal, Virginia
Rail, Sora, and Common Moorhen.
To reach the north end of the marsh backtrack to I-680 and go north.
Exit at Marina Vista and go east. Turn right again on Waterbird
Way and pull off up the hill for a good view of the marsh. The sun
is brutal here by noon so get here in the morning.
The birds are much the same as at the south end except the water is
a little deeper. Red-necked and Wilson’s Phalaropes, both
hard to find in the county, are fairly regular here. In recent years
a couple of pairs of Great-tailed Grackles have taken up summer
Martinez Regional Shoreline isn’t the best
birding in the world but some good rarities have been found over
the years. To get there from I-680 take Marina Vista west to downtown
Martinez and follow the signs into the park. At the end is a large
duck pond and a marsh.
Look for wintering geese amongst the domestics and check the Canvasbacks
for odd ducks. Red-necked Grebe and Tufted Duck have been recorded
here. The nearby marsh has had Black and Clapper Rails and Swamp
Sparrow although you will probably have to settle for Virginia Rail
and Sora. Interesting landbirds found in the area also include Bobolink
and Great-tailed Grackle.
Waterfront Road was once one of the better birding roads in the county.
Unfortunately, the navy has recently closed the road to through
traffic. The good news is that you can still reach some of the area.
From I-680 exit at Marina Vista and go east past McNabney Marsh.
Just after crossing over Pacheco Slough you will reach a guard shack.
Tell the guard you want to birdwatch and they will give you a permit.
Drive on until you reach the marsh. You can walk the road or walk
the slough to the north that borders the refinery.
Winter is clearly best with birds including American Bittern, Blue-winged
Teal, all 4 falcons, Common Moorhen, a few shorebirds, and Short-eared
Owl. Black Rails can occasionally be heard and there is a sizable
population present. The resident Song Sparrow, the dark, large-billed
race maxillaris, is abundant. Mute Swan has recently begun breeding
here so use caution in identifying all swans.
Near the town of Bay Point there is a public shoreline access point at
the McAvoy Yacht Harbor on Port Chicago Highway. To get there exit
Hwy. 4 at Willow Pass Rd. but note that coming from the west this
will be the second Willow Pass Rd. exit. This is on the east side
of the steep hill. Take Willow Pass to Port Chicago Hwy and turn
left. Where Pt. Chicago takes a sharp left you will see the entrance
to the Yacht Harbor. Parking for the access is on your right as
soon as you enter. As you will notice, it would probably be a good
idea not to leave valuables in your car though I have yet to have
The trail briefly heads west parallel to the railroad tracks before
veering north towards the bay. Diversity will not be high but Marsh
Wren, Common Yellowthroats and maxillaris Song Sparrows are abundant
here and Black Rail is present. Use tapes sparingly if at all. Before
long you will have a nice view of Suisun Bay but boots may be required
to get that far.
The Dow Wetlands north of Antioch is a little-known area but
it is peaceful, uncrowded and may prove productive. To get there
exit Hwy. 4 at Somersville Rd. and go north. Turn left on W. 10th
St. The lot will be by the large sign on the right. Walk the dirtroad
north, birding the grasslands, ditches and ponds for open country
birds such as White-tailed Kite, Northern Harrier, Loggerhead Shrike,
swallows, etc. The trails will take you to an observation tower
from which you can view some ducks, herons and Common Moorhens.
The main trail continues to the river which may have grebes and
terns. Black Rail may be present here.
THE DELTA & CENTRAL VALLEY
Eastern Contra Costa County offers some outstanding birding opportunities
if you can find the remaining patches of habitat. Tragically, development
in recent years has increased exponentially with nothing that you
could call planning. Fortunately some of the areas lie low enough
that development has been discouraged, at least for now.
The weather can be quite hot in summer. Worse are the winds that come
roaring through the Carquinez Straits. Weeks can go by without a
windless day, especially in spring. If you can stand the heat and
wind there are several spots that have produced rarities in recent
Specialties here include White-faced Ibis (scarce), Cattle Egret, Swainson’s
Hawk, Sandhill Crane, Lesser Nighthawk, Burrowing Owl, Black-chinned
Hummingbird, Yellow-billed Magpie, Yellow-breasted Chat, Blue Grosbeak
and Hooded Oriole.
The Iron House Sanitary District is a newly discovered
hotspot with a lot of potential. To reach the area take Hwy 4 east
to Oakley. Note that you must exit the freeway to stay on Hwy 4
which becomes a two-lane road. In a few miles turn left on Vintage
Parkway and go over the freeway. Turn right onto Walnut Meadows
and left onto Jordan. The trailhead is right in front of you.
The beginning of the trail has willows with a few birds including Common
Yellowthroat and Black Rail, though they are tough to hear over
the noise of the sewage ponds. These birds will call spontaneously
in spring so please avoid using tapes.
The ponds on the right attract many grebes and ducks. Mew and Bonaparte’s
Gulls and Caspian Tern are common at the appropriate time of year.
Black Tern has already been found several times during migration
and a Least Tern was here once. In spring and summer swallows swarm
over the ponds and sometimes include Bank Swallow. Gadwall and Pintail
breed here. Continue on behind the ponds watching for American Bittern,
Green Heron, Swainson’s Hawk (summer), Virginia and Sora Rails,
Common Moorhen, shorebirds in flooded fields or in the ponds when
drawn down (Red-necked Phalarope can be common on the ponds and
a Pacific Golden-Plover has already been found), Downy Woodpecker,
Western Kingbird, American Pipit, Loggerhead Shrike, Blue Grosbeak
(uncommon), sparrows, Yellow-headed Blackbird (regular), and Bullock’s
So far few migrant landbirds have been found but a Great-tailed Grackle
was here in the spring of 1998. You can walk all the way east to
Marsh Creek for more chances at Black Rail as well as Beaver and
River Otter. An outhouse out at a small clump of tamarisks are the
Behind the tamarisks there is an area that may be flooded and birds here
have included White-faced Ibis, Blue-winged Teal, and Red-necked
and Wilson’s Phalaropes. A small group of Brant even put in
an appearance here one spring.
Return to Hwy. 4 and continue east through Oakley. Turn left on
Cypress Rd. and left again on Jersey Island Rd.
The trees and weeds all along this road have Blue Grosbeak. The
slough has American Bittern, Green Heron and Common Moorhen. Red-shouldered
and Swainson’s Hawks nest in the row of trees near the house
on the left. When the fields at the north end are flooded there
can be good numbers of dabbling ducks and Shorebirds. Swans and
geese may be here but most will be seen flying over.
Ferruginous and Rough-legged Hawks and Prairie Falcon are about in winter and
Short-eared Owl can be found at dusk (mostly winter).
Sadly, the hottest birding spot in the county is now closed to birders.
Piper Slough was once the best place in the county
for specialties like Black-chinned Hummingbird, Yellow-breasted
Chat, Blue Grosbeak and Hooded Oriole but it has become a hunting
club with no public access. It is still possible to get all of these
birds from Bethel Island Rd. but the chats, the only accessible
ones in the county, will be distant at best.
To get there return to Cypress Rd. and continue east. When the sharp
left bend in the road and continue onto Bethel Island. Follow Bethel
Island Rd. straight to the north end of the island. Other common
birds in the area include White-tailed Kite, Northern Harrier, Loggerhead
Shrike, Western Kingbird and Western Meadowlark.
Return to Cypress Rd. and turn left on Knightsen Rd. Turn left again
on Delta Rd. Pass the school on your right and go into an open area
of fields. At the east end of these fields are a couple of houses
and a row of eucalyptus that runs perpendicular to the road. Yellow-billed
Magpie, a very local species in the county, nests in these trees.
Cattle Egrets are sometimes here and Burrowing Owls can be anywhere along
here. Continue on Delta Rd., stopping to check flooded fields for
ducks and shorebirds. Rough-legged and Ferruginous Hawks are here
in winter. Check blackbird flocks for Tricolored (often common)
and Yellow-headed (uncommon) blackbirds.
After the sharp left turn, check the small clump of trees surrounding
a little shack. Great Horned Owl nests here. Cross the bridge onto
Holland Tract. The cottonwoods to the northwest had a Swainson’s
Hawk nest in 1998. Check along the road for Cattle Egret (regular
in winter), Green Heron, White-faced Ibis (rare), wintering raptors,
Caspian Tern, Short-eared Owl, Western Kingbird, swallows, American
Pipit, Blue Grosbeak (fairly common in weedy areas), blackbirds
(yellow-headed has been found in good numbers), and Bullock’s Oriole.
If the fields are flooded there can be large numbers of swans, geese,
ducks (including Eurasian Wigeon and Redhead), and shorebirds. This
is also the best spot in the county for Sandhill Cranes. Numbers
fluctuate wildly but there are almost always some around in winter.
The wintering flock of Swainson’s Hawks has been found here
several times in the early morning so keep an eye out. Wintering
birds will almost exclusively be dark-phased birds.
Return on Delta Rd. to Byron Highway and turn left. Go left on Orwood
Rd. and go all the way to the end. The birds at this oasis area
are very similar to Holland Tract with a few exceptions. The cottonwood
clump at the end of the road can be good for migrants, Black-chinned
Hummingbird and Blue Grosbeak. In winter Fox and Lincoln’s
Sparrow can be common.
Walk up onto the levee and look north toward Palm Tract. If the fields
are flooded there can be huge numbers of swans and geese. Sandhill
Crane is also here sometimes. Like Holland Tract, the wintering
Swainson’s Hawks are here on occasion. Return to Byron Highway
and go left. Go left onto Hwy 4 and right onto Hwy J-4. At the hamlet
of Byron turn left onto Camino Diablo. After passing through a residential
area check the open fields on the right for Burrowing Owl, Loggerhead
Shrike and Western Kingbird.
At the end of the road are some sewage ponds that may have a few birds
like Cinnamon Teal, Common Moorhen, American Avocet, Black-necked
Stilt, Marsh Wren and Common Yellowthroat. At dusk this is an excellent
location for Lesser Nighthawks and Short-eared Owl is a good possibility.
Backtrack to J-4 and turn left. Turn left again onto Clifton Court
Rd. to bird Clifton Court Forebay, the second best area for rarities
in east county.
The entrance road has Burrowing and Short-eared Owls and, in summer,
Lesser Nighthawk. The Forebay itself can have tremendous numbers
of waterfowl in winter. Birds on the forebay include Common Loon
(uncommon), all 5 grebes (plus the very rare Red-necked), many ducks
(mostly Lesser Scaup and Common Goldeneye but Greater Scaup is present
in small numbers and a few Barrow’s are present each year),
Red-breasted Merganser (a few present each winter), Osprey (uncommon),
Bald Eagle (rare but regular in winter), a few shorebirds, large
numbers of gulls roosting in winter (Thayer’s in small numbers,
Glaucous Gull rare), and Terns (Caspian and Forsters but Black is
regular in migration).
Recent rarities have included Pacific Loon, Red-necked Grebe, Northern
Fulmar, Brown Pelican, Eurasian Wigeon, Tufted Duck, Oldsquaw, Surf
Scoter, Snowy Plover, Heerman’s and Sabine’s Gull, Common
and Least Terns, and Ancient Murrelet. Those who like to walk can
follow the levee around the north side of the forebay to the large
eucalyptus grove to look for Black-chinned Hummingbird, Blue Grosbeak
Rarities here have included Steller’s Jay and Townsend’s Solitaire.
The walk is about an hour each way. Note that the island rimmed
with eucalyptus, cleverly named Eucalyptus Island, is in Contra
Costa County but the islands on each side are in San Joaquin Co.
Beware that you cannot loop around because the levee stops about
a hundred yards before meeting up again. More than one birder has
made this mistake and ended up making a 12 mile hike.
Return to J-4 and go left, being careful of very fast traffic. Make
a quick right on Holey Rd. The backroads around the Byron Airport
can be great for raptors and Burrowing and Short-eared Owls. The
grassland has few landbirds although Mountain Bluebird is found
on occasion and Sage Thrasher has been found more than once.
- by Steve Glover