Birding the Creek

It wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco that I took more than a passing interest in wild birds. Being new to the Pacific Flyway reacquainted me with our feathered friends in ways I never anticipated. Birds came to fill the place in my heart that horses had held when I lived in New York and Kentucky. They became my new spirit guide for a new phase of life journey as I made my nest in a new city as a newlywed.

Birding became my hobby. My husband bought me field guides and binoculars, and I listened to CD recordings of bird songs while I kept house. Birding got me out to different parts of San Francisco and other destinations in the Bay Area. My longstanding favorite way to spend Sunday was riding the 76 Marin Headlands bus out to the Marin Headlands, hiking the hilly trails through the Gerbode Valley and around Rodeo Lagoon, listening and looking for sights and sounds of resident or migratory avian species. I brought food and water, dressed in layers and hiking boots, caught the first bus of the day to get there, and often rode back on the last bus home.

When we moved to our home in the still-developing Mission Bay neighborhood, trips to the Headlands eventually stopped. Living close to Mission Creek, I had plenty of birding habitat nearby.

In my very first visit to the neighborhood, a glimpse of the houseboats in their slips on the south bank drew me to the promenade on the north bank of the creek. A great blue heron waded in the shallow water on the north bank. An Anna’s hummingbird perched in a tree on the promenade above the heron. The hummer zoomed up and hovered above me, then zoomed down and perched again. I was captivated! Smitten to my core! In love! Here were one of the largest and one of the tiniest birds you’re likely to meet in the same field of vision! Across the creek, flashes of rapid wing beats and white bellies caught my eye. A flock of little birds were skimming low over the mudflat between the rocks and grassy edge of the south bank that gets exposed when the tide is low. It was a flock of least sandpipers landing, scurrying in the mud once they touched down and searching for morsels of food.

Three Least Sandpipers work the mud among the rocks at low tide.

I was fortunate to move into the neighborhood, and over the years my favorite pastime has been birding the creek. In my first three months here, I’d counted 36 species of birds on Mission Creek. I’d have to sort through and compare random lists for a complete lifetime count.

Birds mark the seasons. They challenge our powers of observation.

Yes, sparrows all appear at first glance to be little brown or gray birds hopping on the ground or flitting in the shrubs and tall grasses along the creek banks. But look at their eye lines and head markings, and listen to their songs.

White-Crowned Sparrow

White-crowned sparrows are abundant year-round here, singing freely from dawn to dusk. But golden-crowned sparrows also visit the creek, though not in great numbers like the white-crowned.

Golden-Crowned Sparrow

Other sparrow species occasionally drop in for quick respites in the park along the south bank before flying off again. You might see fox sparrows doing their two-footed hop and scratch in the gorilla mulch under the landscaping., or white-throated sparrows.  A couple of months ago, I heard a song I remembered from my trips to the Headlands, so I stopped to search the shrubs for the bird. Sure enough, the streaked breast with a dot in the center confirmed that a song sparrow was staking out a place along the north promenade. The song sparrow chose to remain. I’ve seen him a few times since then, always in the same general area.

The creek’s year-round residents include a flock of black-crowned night herons which nest here. My neighbors and I have seen juveniles along the creek banks for years. We know which trees they like to nest in. One sunny Sunday last fall, those of us who notice these things were treated to the unusual sight of an entire colony sunning themselves on the pilings that once formed the Carmen’s pier, just inside the 4th Street Bridge. There were adults and juveniles, and a few night herons roosting in a tree nearby on the south bank. I counted 25 herons in all.

Juvenile Black-Crowned Night Heron in a tree.

A great blue heron visits throughout the year, but it’s a solitary bird. I’ve counted as many as nine snowy egrets at once in close range of one another. A great egret showed up last winter. These elegant white birds hadn’t been seen here for several seasons, and it was a real treat to see one again. The great egret has returned this winter, and keeps pretty much to itself.

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A Great Egret has returned to the creek this winter.

Grebes and cormorants are regulars on the creek. Double-crested cormorants are here all year, and amuse me the way they spread their wings wide open and tilt their long, crooked necks back to let the sun dry their feathers, after their deep dives for food on the creek bottom. On a cold winter day, a pelagic cormorant might visit the creek. Western grebes are here more than any other grebe species, but Clark’s, eared, horned, and pied-bill visit too, particularly in the winter and spring. Try distinguishing several species of grebes in winter plumage from one another while they’re diving underwater more than staying up, and you’ll soon forget anything that was bothering you.

Winter is duck season. Like the grebes and cormorants, most of the ducks that visit are divers. Cute little buffleheads are abundant winter residents in flocks of more than 30. These playful ducks like to suddenly take off in little groups flying low to the water for a few wing beats before touching down and skidding in gleeful delight along the surface, sending sprays of water up in their wake. Scaup – greater and lesser – also visit in small flocks during the colder weather. Occasionally, common goldeneye check in for a short stay, including a male and female that I’ve seen this winter. A couple of pair of mallards usually visit in the winter, the only dabbling ducks that visit. They usually just paddle about contentedly in pairs among the other ducks.

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Bufflehead ducks are playful and gregarious.

It’s usually serene out there, but sometimes the peace is broken by the sharp cries of gulls. The gulls are vigilantes when it comes to hawks. When a gull sees a hawk, it sends up a cry, and soon there are a dozen or more gulls circling and shrieking. Search the sky for a hawk when this happens. It’s usually a red-tailed, but lately, a red-shouldered hawk has taken up residence in the trees near the houseboats, and a few months ago, a Cooper’s hawk moved into the ‘hood.

The 2019 Great Backyard Bird Count

As many birders know, February is the month that citizen scientists can participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count throughout the United States. This takes place over the four-day Presidents’ Day Weekend, and is a collaborative effort between the National Audobon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to gather data on local bird populations. I’ve been on eight Great Backyard Bird Counts around Mission Creek now. These have always been organized by Beth, from the houseboat community.

A picture from the 2015 Great Backyard Bird Count around Mission Creek.

A group of regulars form the core of the group, and we’ve had lots of friends and companions over the years who have taken part on our group walk that starts at the library and heads down the promenade, around the bend by the Caltrain tracks, past the traffic circle, into the plot where the community garden used to be, and then through Huffaker Park past the houseboats and the eucalyptus trees. It is always followed by a cozy cup of coffee and fresh baked goodies in the pavilion while we recap what we saw.

Coffee and recap of the 2015 GBBC in the pavilion.

The 2019 edition of the Great Backyard Bird Count around Mission Creek might have set the record for number of species we were able to report. In total, spread among all of us who reported seeing birds, we counted 35 species between Friday, February 15, and Monday, February 18.

You can bet it helps that some of the birders on the bird count live in houseboats on the creek, and others, such as myself, make a point of getting out to keep an eye and ear on our avian community. I identified the song sparrow and the Cooper’s hawk that I’d observed in the months leading up to the bird count. My sighting of the great egret on Friday afternoon made it possible for us to report a great egret two years in a row, after it debuted on our GBBC list in 2018. And I learned, after consulting my field guides, that the sleek, elegant black cormorant with the white flank patches I saw on that cold Sunday afternoon walking home from the pavilion was a pelagic, the first I recall ever seeing.

But the crowning glory on our Great Backyard Bird Count in 2019 was the Say’s Phoebe that surprised us on the path leading off the traffic circle to the houseboats. It darted like a fly-catcher, and hovered. It bore a slight resemblance to the black phoebes we see around the creek all year, yet it clearly was not, with that brown coloration and rosy belly. In a sudden flash of intuition one of our group called out “Say’s Phoebe!” and lo and behold, she was right! A lifetime first for me, and a first sighting ever for Mission Creek that any of the regulars are aware. The Say’s Phoebe sighting was no fluke — I saw the bird again when I walked along that path a couple of mornings later.

Redevelopment Brings Departures and Arrivals

Habitats change. It’s exciting to see a species that’s new to the ‘hood, but the rapid development in a planned urban environment like Mission Bay can lead to displacement of some bird species. Mission Bay was about 300 acres of vacant lots full of tall fennel plants and wildflowers growing through cyclone fences until about a decade ago. It is now a very built, urban development supporting more than 6,000 residential housing units, as well as retail spaces, the UCSF Mission Bay campus, and several large biotech research companies.

Over the years there’s been a Great Backyard Bird Count around Mission Creek, there’s been a lot of development in the neighborhood. On the path through Huffaker Park in 2015, we passed by residential buildings still under construction. Thousands of new neighbors live in Mission Bay now.

When I first moved to Mission Bay, it was not altogether unusual to see killdeer on both banks of the creek. A couple of times I saw these double-necklaced shorebirds land in the vacant lot adjacent to the building in which I live. A really exciting place that local birders liked to go was known throughout the neighborhood as either the vernal pool or the construction ditch at 16th and Illinois. The site was once going to be the Salesforce campus in Mission Bay. Twisted steel rails in the ground harkened back to the area’s industrial past as a rail yard. Cyclone fences kept people at a respectful distance from the bird life, down where water filled the bottom of the ditch and long grasses and more fennel filled the lot down to Terry Francois Boulevard. Canada geese liked the construction ditch, but what was most cool about it were the killdeer. One year, I watched tender young killdeer chicks scampering on the mud bank through my binoculars.

A 129-unit apartment building now stands on what was a vacant lot next to where I live. And on the site of the old construction ditch at 16th and Illinois now stands two nearly completed office towers and the nearly finished Warriors Arena that will comprise the new Chase Center. I haven’t seen a killdeer in Mission Bay for several years.

Diversity of the human population is one of the things the urban planners aimed for in Mission Bay, with nearly 30 percent of the housing here designated for low- to middle-income households. Some of the new human residents recognize that Mission Creek, a literal urban oasis that fosters a diversity of bird life, is something special. I look forward to seeing more of my neighbors get into the habit of bringing a pair of binoculars with them when they go out. I’d love to see more of my neighbors out there, birding the creek.

Group shot of the 2014 Great Backyard Bird Count. Anyone new to the neighborhood is encouraged to grab their binoculars and get started birding!