Common merganser. Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve. Dawn Page/Coastside Slacking

Pescadero Marsh Shelters a Coastside Birder Paradise; Bring Your Binoculars

We’ve never had much interest in birding beyond gawking at pelican squadrons and solitary raptors common to The Coastside. Too fussy. But our recent visit to Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve may have changed our minds.

The brackish, 600-acre marsh is the only significant coastal wetland on the San Francisco Peninsula. More than 230 bird species visit the marsh during the course of the year, and at least 68 actually nest there. And on April 4, the San Mateo County Resource Conservation District announced $3.1 million in grant awards to help restore populations of coho salmon and steelhead trout here and in the San Gregorio watershed. So cool!

The marsh is easy to miss as you cruise down Highway 1 from Half Moon Bay toward Santa Cruz, dazzled by the bluffs, beaches and surf. It’s hard for a low-lying wetland to compete with the majesty of the coastline — unless you stop the car and walk in.

We parked just south of Pescadero Creek and looped back across the bridge and onto the north side of Pescadero State Beach via a well-fortified pedestrian walkway. The beach is pretty standard for The Coastside – it is amazing! – and even includes a pretty little keyhole rock. Some days, The Geek might have waited many hours for just the right light to come pouring through the stone portal before moving on. But we had birds to discover.

The Sequoia Audubon Trail begins east of the bridge to the left of a small lagoon at the confluence of Pescadero and Butano creeks. We enjoyed an unusually entertaining gathering of gulls slacking at the lagoon before spotting the trail marker and walking out onto a levee, one of many left over from when portions of the marsh were farmed from the 1930s into the 1960s.

The trail was quiet aside from the regular squawks and chirps of birds unseen. A congregation of 10 to 12 snowy egrets huddled tantalizingly in North Pond throughout the walk but were too far away to enjoy without binoculars. Even The Geek’s weighty Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Telephoto Zoom Lens was inadequate for the moment.

Red-legged frogs, San Francisco garter snakes and other native critters also populate the marsh, we’re told, but we didn’t spot any amid the pickleweed, salt grass and California bulrush. And we certainly didn’t see any trout or salmon. (Perhaps in a few years.) In fact, other than the distant egrets and a smattering of ducks, we weren’t spotting many birds either. The narrow, elevated trail along the levee was pleasant enough, until a poison oak warning coupled with our decision to hike before lunch prompted us to turn back. We weren’t giving up but needed to refuel.

We had planned to grab a bite at Duarte’s Tavern in Pescadero but there was a wait, so we opted for Mercado & Taqueria de Amigos, a market, gas station and taco stand across the street. The Geek ordered carne asada and MontaraManDan got the California burrito, which along with steak, cheese and salsa is stuffed with French fries instead of rice. (Urp.) Granted, nothing about this lunch sounds appetizing here, but it was pretty tasty!

On the way out of town we spotted another marsh entrance at a wide spot on Pescadero Creek Road just east of Highway 1. With the endorsement of a pair of snowbirds from Michigan who had parked their van to enjoy the afternoon sunshine with a bottle of wine and a vase of California poppies, we headed down a service road leading to the marsh to walk off MontaraManDan’s burrito and found what we had been looking for. No, not indigestion. Birds!

We probably saw at least a couple of dozen species, but lacking birder knowledge or even a book we’d be hard pressed to name most of them. (Please correct us if we’ve misidentified any of the birds below and we’ll make a fix.)

During our lunch hour, the snowy egrets had scattered across the Marsh and their white plumage was clearly visible in all directions.

We saw a virtual United Nations of duck species, from mergansers to buffleheads to blue-winged teals, who squawked discontentedly and flapped downstream if we got to close A cover of coots alternately bobbed and skittered along the surface of Butano Creek. They sounded like aging squeeze toys.

Overhead, a cormorant passed with purpose, while a peregrine falcon swooped low over the marsh with its annoying – um, fascinating – high pitched screech. It produced quite the Doppler effect.

Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve. Dawn Page/Coastside Slacking
Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve. Dawn Page/Coastside Slacking

MontaraManDan already wants to come back later in the spring, when the blue heron chicks emerge from their nests of twigs and dung in the forest at the far end of North Pond Trail. And The Geek is contemplating a new lens to sharpen her camera’s bird portrait capabilities.

So, the marsh may make birders of us yet. But first we’d better buy a good pair of binoculars.

Blue heron. Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve. Dawn Page/Coastside Slacking
Blue heron. Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve. Dawn Page/Coastside Slacking

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