Head to the ponds for some of the best bird watching – Marin Independent Journal

When people ask me where to go to start watching birds, my first suggestion — after one’s own backyard and neighborhood — is a local water treatment facility. In other words, “the sewage ponds,” though that makes them sounds rather unappealing and is probably not the term their caretakers would encourage you to use.
Marin’s premier publicly accessible water treatment ponds are those maintained by the Las Gallinas Valley Sanitary District in San Rafael. These ponds are, in fact, Marin’s single most popular birding site, with more than 250 species reported across nearly 7,000 eBird checklists. The North Bay’s runner-up in the world of wildlife-rich water treatment ponds are the Ellis Creek ponds in Petaluma, adjacent to the also birdy Shollenberger Park.
These kinds of settling or polishing ponds are part of the water treatment process, in which plants and bacteria can further remove nutrients and metals from wastewater after its initial treatment in order to prepare it for reuse as recycled water. As reliable year-round water sources, water treatment ponds are famously popular with birds, while both Las Gallinas and Ellis Creek are managed to support wildlife habitat and set within a larger matrix of natural habitat, meaning that you can see a wide variety of freshwater, salt marsh, grassland and some tree-dwelling birds.
Start with the ponds themselves. The most obvious occupants of the water are the ducks and other swimming birds such as grebes and coots. While spring has its highlights, such as fuzzy baby mallards, swans and pied-billed grebes, winter is clearly the busiest time in the world of ducks, with numerous migratory species added to the mix at this time of year. Looking at ducks is a great way to get started with birds, as there are a number of distinctive, colorful, slow-moving and easy-to-see species: bufflehead, pintail, shovelers, green-winged and cinnamon teals, ruddy ducks and gadwalls all form part of the regular crew.
The different ducks are quirky and unique creatures, and I relish embracing the awareness of those quirks as embedded in their traditional names — from the wide-billed weirdness of the soup-lips (northern shoveler) and the large fanned crest of the butter box (bufflehead, itself a contraction of “buffalo-head”) to the petite adorability of the pointy-tailed stub-and-twist (ruddy duck).
Another group of large and prominent water birds are the herons and egrets. This family is well represented year round by a number of distinctive species. We’ have the big white one (great egret) and the little white one with golden slippers (snowy egret). There’s the big, almost crane-sized great blue heron. Black-crowned night herons hunch moodily in their daytime roosting spots or awaken to stare with their huge red eyes. If you’re lucky, you might spot the attractively colored green heron or an elusive American bittern, one of the most gloriously folk-named of all American birds, with traditional monikers including dunkadoo (for their calls), thunder-pump (also for their calls), stake-driver (calls again) and plumgudgeon (I really don’t know).
Raptors are a third highlight of the ponds and surrounding grasslands. Many hawks become more abundant overall in winter, but you can see red-tailed, red-shouldered and Cooper’s hawks all year round, as well as northern harriers and white-tailed kites. These latter two are particularly unique and interesting to watch as they hunt around the wetlands, harriers with a distinctive white rump patch visible in their typical low-coursing flight and kites instantly recognizable by their brilliantly white plumage and unmistakable hovering hunting style.
Fall and winter are the best times to see the fiercest flyers, the falcons — from the small American kestrel and merlin to the peregrine falcon, the fastest bird on earth.
Ducks, herons and hawks are all large and tend to grab our attention. But that isn’t to say that there isn’t a wide diversity of small songbirds to enjoy as well. These ponds offer plentiful representatives of common neighborhood birds, while wetland specialties like the attractive red-winged blackbirds, the irrepressibly bubbly marsh wrens, or the striking common yellowthroat dart among the thicker vegetation on the edge of the water.
A day at the ponds can easily reveal something on the order of 50 bird species to an experienced observer. The way you become an experienced observer is to visit again and again, to look again and again, and to see something different every time.
Jack Gedney’s On the Wing runs every other Monday. He is a co-owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Novato and author of the forthcoming book “The Private Lives of Public Birds.” You can reach him at jack@natureinnovato.com.
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