Guest Site Profile by Susan Kelly
The Las Gallinas Wildlife Ponds is the birding community’s name for the complex of sewage treatment ponds, tidal mudflats, salt marsh, and agricultural fields around the Las Gallinas Valley Sanitary District plant in San Rafael. The wastewater facility includes four treatment ponds and two miles of flat levee trails around and between the ponds. Beyond the last pond a 1-mile trail continues along a levee with native salt marsh on the east side and agricultural fields on the west. Once you’ve birded this area and enjoyed the wide variety of waterfowl, shorebirds, raptors, and songbirds it attracts, you’ll understand why Las Gallinas is one of the most popular birding spots in Marin.
As soon as you get out of your car in the gravel parking lot, look for Red-winged and Brewer’s Blackbirds on the wires above you, Quail and California Towhees foraging on the ground, and perhaps a Red-tailed Hawk perched in a nearby tree or on a pole. In summer, look under the concrete bridge for nesting Cliff Swallows. Walk across the bridge and you quickly reach the first pond. Here several small islands attract nesting and roosting waterfowl and you can expect to see a wide variety of ducks, geese, and wading birds such as egrets, herons, and shorebirds. While Mallards, Gadwall, Pied-billed Grebes, and Canada Geese are resident and can be seen all year, in fall and winter the ponds attract large numbers of migratory waterfowl, including American Wigeon, Bufflehead, Canvasback, Cinnamon Teal, Green-winged Teal, Common Merganser, Greater Scaup, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Ruddy Duck, Cackling Goose, American Coots, and four species of grebes: Western, Clarks, Eared, and Horned.
The first pond fluctuates in level due to water management requirements. If the water level is low enough to expose bare ground along the shoreline you’ll see many shorebirds. Depending on the season, you could spot Avocets, Black-necked Stilts, Least Sandpipers, Dunlin, Long-billed Dowitchers, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Willet, Long-billed Curlew, Marbled Godwit, Wilson’s Snipe and Kildeer.
Naturally this abundance of prey attracts many raptors. Resident raptors that work the fields to the east and west of the ponds include Red-tailed Hawks, Red-shouldered Hawks, White-tailed Kites, and Northern Harriers; you can see then all year long. We now have Bald Eagles breeding in Marin; although rare, I saw one last year, flying low along the shoreline at the edge of the bay. Many other raptors arrive in the fall, including the occasional Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, American Kestrel, Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, and, at dusk or in the evening, the occasional Short-eared Owl and Barn Owl.
The vegetation near the water’s edge and in the shrubs along the levees is home to many songbirds, including Marsh Wrens, Bewick’s Wrens, Song Sparrows, Savannah Sparrows, Black Phoebes, Common Yellowthroats, House Finches and American and Lesser Goldfinches. In the fall and winter you’ll find large numbers of White-crowned and Golden-crowned Sparrows, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and solitary birds like Say’s Phoebes and American Pipits.
As a special treat, you might see river otters swimming in the ponds. Look for the tracks they’ve made as they cross from one pond to the next. Continue past the ponds on the levee trail along the salt marsh and you’ll be rewarded with fine views of San Pablo Bay and looming Mount Diablo. Watch for an Osprey flying by with a fish in its talons, or scan the distant towers for one. In the fall and winter flocks of Western Meadowlarks grace the fields, easily identifiable with their stocky bodies, bright yellow breasts, and white outer tail feathers, and American Kestrels hover over the grasslands looking for small prey items. If you’re there late in the day you might hear a chorus of Ridgway’s Rails sounding their loud kek-kek-kek calls across the marsh.
Bird Lists and Recent Sightings: Las Gallinas is probably the most well-birded site in the county, with multiple new lists submitted by local birders every week (3000+ so far) to the Las Gallinas eBird Hotspot. Also of note, Marin Audubon Society sponsors a monthly walk that’s great for beginner birders at Las Gallinas, on the first Thursday of each month from 9 am until noon (generally taking a break during the lower activity summer months).
Getting There: Just south of the Novato border off Smith Ranch Rd. in San Rafael, Las Gallinas is well worth the short trip down the road. To reach the ponds, exit Hwy 101 at Smith Ranch Rd./Lucas Valley and drive east toward San Pablo Bay. At the entrance to McInnis Park, cross the railroad tracks and turn immediately left, following the signs for the wildlife ponds. Follow this road .7 miles until it ends in a gravel parking lot.
Getting Around: The Las Gallinas ponds are one of our easiest and most accessible nature preserves, with a level gravel path surrounding the ponds in a 2 mile loop, with additional trails between and beyond the ponds. If you would like an abridged, printable pdf of this site profile, you can download one here.
Header image: A pair of common mergansers at Las Gallinas, by Doug Greenberg on Flickr. Given our relative scarcity of year-round freshwater ponds, this is the best local place to see these and other freshwater-loving birds.