Migration Season Provides Rich Bird Watching At Suisun Marsh

Photos by Karlyn Lewis
Black Necked Stilts at the Suisun Marsh near Benicia, CA

Suisun Marsh Teems with Migratory Birds

Location, location, location. In Benicia and Solano County, the real estate mantra applies to houses, but also to the hills, fields, and where land meets water—these areas teem with birds and other wildlife. The marshes, sloughs, waterways and rolling landscape draw many types of winged creatures, from great blue herons and pelicans at the waterfront to bald eagles at Lake Herman. Bird populations are especially plentiful in fall and winter months as scores of ducks, geese, cedar waxwings and other birds stop over to feed and rest while migrating south on the Pacific Flyway, a kind of super highway for birds. For bird watchers like Monique Liguori of the Suisun Wildlife Center, Solano is prime bird real estate. “It’s a very diverse area with lots of different habitats. We’re like a microcosm of California here. We have everything except the desert,” she said. Trails, parks and preserves abound for bird watching, a fast-growing hobby for all members of the family, she added.

Pacific Flyway Festival

Great Blue Heron

The Pacific Flyway is a major north-south migratory route that extends from Alaska to Patagonia, that follows food sources and leads to breeding grounds and overwintering sites. In the midst of long journeys, birds often stop along the way to feed and rest before taking to the skies again. The Bay Area is the largest stopover along the route, said Vallejo’s Myrna Hayes, founder and organizer of the Pacific Flyway Festival, which annually celebrates the rich winter bird life of the bay. The festival, centered on Mare Island, takes place Feb. 10-12, 2017, and includes opportunities to watch and learn about birds in San Pablo Bay, the Mare Island Channel, American Canyon marshes, Skaggs Island, the Napa River and other areas. With an art show, talks and a wildlife demonstration, the festival, in a way, serves as a temporary environmental education center, Hayes said.

Birds take wing in Benicia and Vallejo partly due to the close proximity to protected marshes and wetlands. Birds can be spotted in the brackish marshes of Southampton Bay, the wetlands of White’s Slough in Vallejo and along waterfronts. Vallejo birder Robin Leong, of the Napa Solano Audubon Society, said even spots close to people draw birds and many bird lovers take to waterways and hills with binoculars in hand to spot them. He cited the recent nesting of a black oystercatcher on a small island at the end of First Street. The nesting turned out to be unsuccessful but was exciting nonetheless for those who keep a close eye on bird activity. “It’s very, very unusual that the bird nested there,” Leong said.

San Pablo Bay

West of Vallejo, people often see statuesque snowy white egrets or flocks of pelicans as they drive along Highway 37, which cuts through protected areas in the Napa-Sonoma Marshes Wildlife Area, the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge and its coveted marshes. Once fringed with marshes, San Francisco Bay shores are now mostly paved and developed, said Don Brubaker, wildlife refuge manager. West of Vallejo, the refuge becomes home to ducks, sand pipers, black necked stilts and avocets during fall and winter months. “If you could take a time machine back 150 years you would see ducks, geese and other shorebirds crisscrossing in multiple layers daily. The bird life at that time must have been just an extraordinary thing to see,” Brubaker said.

8,600 Acre Bird Haven

Great Egret

Birds also flock to Suisun Marsh north east of Benicia—the largest contiguous estuarine marsh in the United States. Within the 8,600-acre haven are more than 200 bird species, including ducks, geese and scaups, red-winged black birds, western meadow larks and marsh wrens. On Grizzly Island, some birds take up permanent residence, such as egrets and herons, while others pass through after feeding and resting. Liguori is always looking for good birding spots. Besides the marshes and wetlands, wooded areas in the hills have many hawks, kestrels, golden eagles and peregrine falcons, while grasslands have quail and songbirds, among many other species.

Benicia’s waterfront, parks and backyard gardens are often visited by migrating birds, such as colorful Cedar Waxwings, that descend on berry bushes, pepper trees and other dense foliage. Leong said cedar waxwings also favor Benicia City Cemetery and the Benicia Arsenal Post Cemetery. Benicia State Recreation Area is still a good spot for birds, but feral and abandoned cats, plus house cats from nearby Glen Cove homes are killing them. A rare subspecies of the song sparrow that lives only in bay marshes relies on that park and other nearby marsh areas, he said.

Canadian Geese Alight on Benicia

Canadian geese are perhaps the biggest fans of Benicia’s waterfront parks, though they are not always welcome. Rick Knight, Benicia Parks & Building Maintenance Superintendent, said the city doesn’t try to manage the geese, but staff have tried to discourage them with fake coyotes and also using “goose busters,” which make noises that irritate the birds. The techniques have been mildly successful, though the expensive coyote figures were stolen. Posted signs strongly discourage people from feeding the geese. Knight said such feeding can result in them staying all year, disturbing their migration pattern, and may even harm them. Whether it’s geese, a soaring hawk or flocks of white pelicans, seeing them and learning about their environment is a good first step help protect them, Liguori said, advising people to make bird watching a fun fall and winter adventure.

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