BIRD WATCH: Surprising sights in the middle of the ‘big city’

CITIES, ESPECIALLY LARGE cities, aren’t my preferred habitat.

Ever since I was hatched, the great outdoors is where I have wanted to be.

Sometimes, you don’t have a choice.

For whatever reason, my offspring do enjoy city life. Thankfully, our daughter chose to live “in the country” and is happy with the occasional trip to the “big city.”

Our son, however, is one of those people who fell in love with San Francisco, one of the busiest and most crowded cities in the country. I have learned how to cope with the occasional visit to this popular West Coast destination: I go bird-watching.

When you visit a new place and you are a bird-watcher, you try to connect with a local birder who knows the area.

The son of an old friend who is a very serious birder just happens to live in San Francisco. I’ve corresponded with Derek on the subject of birds, but this was the first time I had the opportunity to go birding with him.

He showed my sister and me some new areas and birds neither of us had seen in a long time.

Being familiar with Golden Gate Park, I always want to spend time birding this treasure. Its Botanical Gardens capture most of my time, and the Allen’s hummingbird is always a target bird.

On this trip, Derek took us to a new spot in the park, and we enjoyed good viewing of this hummer that resembles our rufous hummingbird.

The same area presented a close-up view of a red-shouldered hawk perched in a nearby tree.

The Presidio is another popular place to see when visiting San Francisco, but I had never heard of Fort Mason.

This is also an old military installation and not very large. It has a reputation for attracting interesting birds, especially migrants.

A large community garden serves as a magnet for them and the resident birds.

You never know what you will see right in the middle of the city. The garden plots are generous and well cared for. Flowers and vegetables all mixed together create a colorful, patchwork quilt look.

There are birds hopping in and out of the different plots. Song sparrows, white-crowned sparrows and a persistent black phoebe moved throughout the area but didn’t leave the gardens.

Our reward for visiting the fort was spotting a migrating lazuli bunting, Derek’s first for this spring.

Fort Mason sits on a bluff overlooking San Francisco Bay. Caspian and elegant terns fly overhead with the gulls. Western gulls are a waterfront fixture.

Unlike those seen along our coast, there is no problem identifying them. Our Westerns are pale enough to be confused with the herring gulls.

Those found along California’s coast are dark gray with black wingtips, and they are everywhere.

Our final spot was reached by driving southward along the stretch of sandy beaches below the Presidio heights and within view of the bridge.

This stretch of highway runs beside the sand dunes on one side and Lake Merced on the other.

Birds on the lake were what we might see in Eastern Washington.

The Clark’s grebe looks like our Western grebe, but the subtle differences were easy to see in the sunshine and with the birds were within close viewing distance.

The ruddy ducks were also in beautiful breeding color. The males had their bright-blue bills and were wearing rufous plumage.

Eared grebes had shed their winter black and white and were sporting their golden ear tufts.

I may not love large cities, but I have come to appreciate city parks — especially those in San Francisco.

Fort Mason and Merced Lake are now on the list of places to bird along with Golden Gate Park.

I also hope to find another opportunity to go birding with an excellent guide who is also a “kid from back home.”


Joan Carson’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at P.O. Box 532, Poulsbo, WA 98370, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Email:

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