Rush Creek Open Space Preserve on the northern border of Novato offers several hundred acres of public wetlands and woodlands, but is set alongside several thousand more acres of protected land together comprising the largest natural tidal brackish marsh in California, including the Petaluma River marshlands managed by California Fish and Wildlife and Marin Audubon’s property at Bahia. Despite the name of the preserve, the creek itself is far from the dominant feature here, which instead most readily summons up thoughts of mudflats and marshes in the minds of most birdwatchers. Even this really oversimplifies things, however, as Rush Creek offers a multitude of riches that can be approached via several different entrances marked above: 1) from the west end, adjacent to Highway 101 on the Binford frontage road, 2) from a central point off Bugeia Lane, or 3) from its eastern end in the Bahia neighborhood.
Binford Road & the Main Trailhead:
A Wide Watery Expanse, with Distance and Noise
The most popular trailhead is this first one, with its most plentiful parking and even easy transit access (wondering where a curious recreational SMART train rider could go? This preserve is a few minutes walk from the San Marin station). In fact, for those who want a quick birding fix, you hardly need to even walk: just glide down Binford Rd as it parallels Highway 101, pull over at a likely looking spot or two and take a look at what you can see. Traffic on Binford is generally light, but there is some freeway noise and some birds will be beyond comfortable binocular distance and will be best enjoyed with a spotting scope. But some will be closer!
As with any of our wetlands, activity will vary greatly at different times of the year. The spring and summer months (April–July) will be the slowest for waterbirds, with waterfowl mostly limited to Canada geese, mallards, and a few gadwalls and shorebirds dominated by stilts and avocets, with a smattering of killdeer and greater yellowlegs. Herons and egrets can also be found year-round. Still, even the waterbird diversity nadir of late May and early June can be a fun time to visit and look for goslings, ducklings, or the precariously long-legged fuzzballs that accompany the wading black-necked stilts and avocets.
Spring and summer also offer some interest in the non-waterbird department, perhaps most notably the abundance of swallows found here. Given its proximity to big underpasses (favored by cliff swallows), small bridges and culverts (favored by barn swallows and rough-winged swallows), and woodland (giving nesting sites to tree and violet-green swallows), Rush Creek provides good opportunities for finding all five of our more common swallow species. If you walk down the trail, which follows the border between woodland and wetland, you will find both different vantage points for looking out at the waterbirds and opportunities to look for songbirds in the trees, including year-round chickadees, titmice, towhees, and woodpeckers and summer visitors like orange-crowned warblers and warbling vireos. Be sure to check the small freshwater marsh at the trailhead (filled with cattails and bordered by willows; the Petaluma River water that floods the greater wetlands is from a salty slough); you might hear a sora or spot an immobile green heron or some other such skulking wonder.
As we move later in the year, things liven up. Starting in mid-July and then increasingly over the next few months, more shorebirds start to arrive from their arctic breeding grounds, reaching a migratory peak around September and October, but with many of these shorebirds remaining throughout the winter. The variety can be impressive: from the tiny least and western sandpipers (“peeps”), up to the slightly larger dunlins, the mid-sized yellowlegs, dowitchers, and willets, and then the big boys of marbled godwit, whimbrel, and long-billed curlew. August through mid-September may also find some of the most loveable and less predictable of visitors to the marsh in passing Wilson’s or red-necked phalaropes, endearing little pint-pots that stir up food from the marsh floor by paddling vigorously in tight little circles. September, October, and November then see ever increasing numbers of ducks, ultimately collecting thousands of pintail, canvasbacks, shovelers, American wigeons, green-winged teals, ruddy ducks, and buffleheads to spread their cheerful colors throughout the preserve, where many will remain through the following March. Winter months also tend to be busier with raptors, with additional red-tailed hawks, kestrels, and harriers joining the year-round crew (red-shouldered hawks and white-tailed kites both breed in the preserve), as well as merlins, peregrine falcons, or bald eagles occasionally stopping by.
To access the Binford Rd trailhead, exit Highway 101 at Atherton. Heading east, make an immediate left turn to access the Binford frontage road that parallels 101 to the north, with the trailhead signed as soon as the road straightens out in 50 yards.
Cemetery Marsh: Closer Birds and Quieter Birding
From Binford, the wetlands stretch away out of sight in continuous connection with Fish and Wildlife managed lands, and the birds will make full use of this expanse, often staying tantalizingly just beyond the identifiable range of your binoculars. Farther along in the middle of the preserve, however, is a nice little inlet between two ridges and completely circled by trails, allowing a relatively close approach to birds that can nonetheless feel comfortable amid the little islands of Cemetery Marsh (named for the neighboring Valley Memorial Park). Now, you can certainly walk the flat and easy 1.3 miles from the Binford trailhead to this central part of the preserve, but you can also access this area a little more quickly by parking off Bugeia Rd and walking down a short and direct .7 mile fire road. This smaller, enclosed area usually has some surface water throughout and little exposed mud, making it preferable to waders like yellowlegs, stilts, and avocets rather than the big flocks of mud-walkers like sandpipers or big whimbrels or curlews. Likewise, the biggest-flocking winter ducks like scaups and canvasbacks tend to prefer the more spacious parts of the preserve, while Cemetery Marsh is good for green-winged teal, shovelers, and gadwalls among others.
To take the shorter route to Cemetery Marsh along the Pinheiro Fire Rd, continue east along Atherton Rd and then take a left turn on Bugeia Ln. There is room for a few cars in a pullout on the left side of the road a short distance from this intersection.
Bahia: In from the Water, Into the Woods
On the eastern end of the preserve (though this border is flanked by Marin Audubon Society property and then by Fish and Wildlife land, so you don’t really feel like you’re at the end of the birdzone) there is another trailhead at the end of Bahia Dr. Unlike the trails described above, which skirt directly along the wetland edge, the trail from Bahia is up a short distance from the water and passes instead through a pleasant mixed woodland of coast live, black, valley, and blue oaks mixed with bays, buckeyes, madrones, and good-sized manzanitas: everything you need for a nice mixed woodland replete year-round with several woodpecker species, buzzing Bewick’s wrens, honking white-breasted nuthatches, squeaking titmice and chickadees, and tremulously whispering brown creepers. (There was formerly a lower trail along the water’s edge, but it flooded frequently and is now closed; please stay on the main upper trail. There is also a fireroad along the ridgetop a few hundred feet up which allows for loops if you’d like to mix things up a little.) You’ll still get periodic approaches to the water, where you can look out in winter and see the large flocks of canvasbacks, pintails, scaups, and other ducks. The trail winds in and out along the undulating shoreline, stretching the journey from trailhead to Cemetery Marsh to a few miles of pleasant, mostly shaded and mostly level walking.
To get to the Bahia trailhead, take Atherton east to Bugeia Ln, turn left and then continuing to the end (the street turns into Bahia Dr). The trailhead is located at the edge of the Bahia neighborhood at the corner of Bahia Dr. and Topaz Dr. A full map can be found from Marin County Parks.
Bird Lists and Recent Sightings: Rush Creek, as a big place, is divided up into multiple hotspots on eBird. The wetlands closest to the highway and Binford Rd trailhead go by the name Airport Ponds–Binford Rd. If you’re walking all over the inner woodlands, you’re probably best off using the general Rush Creek Preserve listing. And if you’re entering from the Bahia trailhead, there is a third eBird hotspot known as Bahia Dr. at Topaz Dr.
Getting There: See directions above to the three main access points.
Getting Around: Click here for an abridged, printable pdf of this park profile. For a full trail map, see the official preserve page from Marin County Parks or come into Wild Birds Unlimited and get a copy of the indispensable Pease Press map of Northeast Marin County trails.
Rules and Access: Rush Creek is a Marin County Open Space Preserve and so is open to free public access 24 hours a day, but lacks amenities like restrooms or tables. Leashed dogs are permitted on trails.