Watch ocean birds, shorebirds, and land birds, and take in spectacular views, on the western edge of San Francisco.
By Harry Fuller | | Published: 12/21/2006
If you want an easily walked area with ocean birds, shorebirds, land birds, and world-class views, this is it.
Lands End and Sutro Heights are adjacent to historic Cliff House restaurant. Offshore rocks, a spring and small marsh, man-made freshwater pools, evergreen woods planted over a century ago, brushy areas, wide open lawns, and the ruins of large indoor swimming pools — the remains of a building that burned 40 years ago — attract waterfowl and nesting landbirds.
It’s all part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Seal Rocks offshore were the first wildlife preserve in America. Although the sea lions have moved to cozier quarters at Pier 39, you still have a good chance of seeing one in the ocean or spotting the harbor porpoises.
Few places offer Pygmy Nuthatch, Black Oystercatcher, Anna’s Hummingbird, Black Phoebe, Brandt’s Cormorant, and California Towhee during a short walk in any season. Cliff House and Lands End offer elevated sea watching. Sutro Heights and a spring-fed marsh above the baths are good for land birds.
Fall and winter are especially rewarding for birders. Fall brings western birds headed south and vagrants. Winter brings arctic birds, from loons to Surfbirds. A typical summer day offers Hooded Oriole, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Heermann’s Gull, and Elegant Tern. Sound interesting? — Harry Fuller
Harry Fuller is a founding member of the San Francisco Field Ornithologists and a bird guide. He also wrote about Arrowhead Marsh in Oakland, California, Hotspot Near You No. 20, and Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, Willows, California, No. 54.
At a Glance
Click on coordinates to view location:
1090 Pt. Lobos Blvd.
San Francisco, California 94121
Open ocean, freshwater pond and marsh, spring, offshore rocks, sandy beach, maintained lawn, mixed and coniferous forest, coastal scrub.
Moderately steep incline from rocky seashore to Sutro Heights. Paths and sidewalks gently sloped. Much of area is wheelchair-accessible. Less than a mile of walking would take you around the perimeter.
Resident Black Phoebe, Anna’s Hummingbird, Bushtit, Pygmy Nuthatch, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Brown Creeper, California Towhee, White-crowned and Song Sparrow, and Common Raven. Nesting Pigeon Guillemot, Brandt’s Cormorant, Western Gull, and Black Oystercatcher. In fall and winter, Surf Scoter, Red-throated and other loons, Western Grebe, seven species of gull, and alcids. Wintering Black Turnstone, Surfbird, and occasionally Wandering Tattler. Merlin, Townsend’s Warbler, Ruby and Golden-crowned Kinglets, and Golden-crowned and Fox Sparrows also spend the winter. Violet-green and other swallows in the spring, western migrants and vagrants in the fall.
When to go
Fall and winter are best, but any season is worthwhile. Sooty Shearwaters seem to like the area late in the day and buzz over the ocean, often in flocks of half a million, in July and August.
Cliff House has bar, restaurant, gift shop, restrooms. Nearby Louis’ diner open 6:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m., no reservations. Golden Gate Audubon offers regular birdwalks.
Part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Admission free. Always open. Free parking. Ride the bus after 6 a.m.: San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni), (415) 673-6864. Taxi from Union Square, about a six-mile walk, $25.
Ocean water remains 55°F year-round. The foggiest months are June-August. September and October are warmest. It rains often November-March. Expect wind. Bring a coat, water, sunscreen, and a scope.