Now that the fall migration is underway, birders are beating a path to Hawk Hill in the Marin Headlands area of Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It’s one of the world’s best places for watching hawks, eagles, falcons, vultures, and other raptors.
Each fall (October is the peak month), tens of thousands of raptors from higher latitudes, including more than 10,000 hawks, migrate southward along the Pacific Coast through the San Francisco Bay area. These birds of prey want to spend the winter where the weather is mild and food is abundant. Most head for the Central Valley, the low coastal mountains, and points beyond. While motoring south on Interstate 5 last October I counted dozens of these overwintering birds perched on utility poles, fences, and orchard trees; it was quite a treat.
For many Bay Area birders and tourists, the fall raptor migration is best enjoyed from the vantage point of Hawk Hill in the Marin Headlands north and west of the Golden Gate Bridge. This prominent hill (formally dubbed Hill 129) is not just a local birders’ hangout. It is one of Audubon’s international birding “hot spots.”
There’s a simple geographic explanation for the fall parade of raptors at Hawk Hill. As they soar southward along the coast, taking advantage of thermals and updrafts on windward facing ridges and hills, hawks and other raptors are funneled into the Marin Headlands between San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Spotters at Hawk Hill (Hill 129), the best viewing place, have tallied as many as 2,800 hawks in a single day!
Red tailed and sharp-shinned hawks are by far the most numerous, but at least 13 different species of raptors regularly move through the headlands. In addition to hawks there are bald eagles, golden eagles, ospreys, turkey vultures, merlins, kestrels, peregrine falcons, prairie falcons (rare), northern harriers, and white-tailed kites.
For more detailed information, visit the website of the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, which was founded in the early 1980s to study the autumn hawk migration at Golden Gate. This fall there are three staff members and more than 280 community volunteers involved in GGRO activities.
If you’re interested in GGRO’s daily counts, you’ll find them posted at this site. Yesterday (September 14), for example, 336 raptors were counted, including 111 sharp-shinned hawks, 69 red-tailed hawks, and 82 turkey vultures (“buzzards”). A golden eagle was tallied the day before.
On weekends in past years the rangers have made presentations at noon, followed by the release of a banded bird at about 1:00 p.m. If on-site activities are important to you, check before you go.
If you can fit a trip to Hawk Hill into your schedule, by all means do so. But don’t bother to go if it’s foggy, and don't go too early. Around 11 a.m. is good, because there are some thermals about then for the hawks to ride into the East Bay.
Remember that some days are diamonds and others are stones. My own visit to Hawk Hill last October happened to be a low-activity day. But wow; there are worse things to do than hike and loaf in the Marin Headlands on a sunny day. And if there is a better place from which to view The Bridge and The City, I don’t know about it.