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What is the Best Birdwatching Tour in the San Francisco Bay Area?

Last Updated on January 12, 2024 by Jess Grigsby

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birdwatching tour bay area

Imagine gliding along glassy water in a kayak, your paddle slicing through the surface silently.

All around you, migrating shorebirds like sandpipers, dunlins, and dowitchers call out, flapping and frolicking in the water.

At Kayak Connection, we love introducing people to many San Francisco Bay Area bird species, including the shorebirds that flock to the Elkhorn Slough each fall and winter. 

In this blog, we’ll discuss why kayaking is the best way to see migratory shorebirds and what to expect during one of our birdwatching tours.

What is the Best Place to Go Birding in the San Francisco Bay Area? 

best way to go birding bay area

While Elkhorn Slough is an excellent birding destination year-round, it’s one of the best places for winter birding in the Bay Area. 

In fact, the Slough has held the record for the highest number of bird species (116) observed from a fixed point in one day. 

Every day during the fall and winter, flocks of shorebirds like sandpipers, dunlins, and dowitchers (among others) land in the Slough as part of their annual migrations.

Some of these birds have traveled thousands of miles and are only visible in this area once a year.  

Our experienced guides are expert birders and have been lucky enough to spot rare and endangered species, like the snowy plover and the peregrine falcon. 

Why is Kayaking the Best Way to See Birds in the Bay Area? 

If you’ve never tried “paddle-birding” before, you’re in for a treat.

Here are a few reasons that kayaking is the best way to see birds in the beautiful San Francisco Bay Area:

1. Access to more secluded areas

Birds love to hang out in areas where they feel safe and secluded. Usually, those areas aren’t accessible by trails or roads.

If you’re in a kayak, though, it’s easy to find the birds wherever they are. 

Being on the water allows you to paddle silently to secluded, natural areas where birds nest, breed, and feed.

These peaceful, private spaces along wetland and coastal shorelines provide excellent photo opportunities and chances to see some of the world’s most stunning birds.

Plus, being in a kayak offers a unique perspective from which to see the birds.

We often paddle right underneath established nests or enjoy exciting views of birds feeding, bathing, and playing in the waters all around us.

Don’t forget to bring your camera!

2. Educational opportunities

At Kayak Connection, all our kayak guides are expert birders.

Booking a paddle-birding tour allows you to learn about the unique species that land in the Slough during their annual migrations.

Our guides will provide fascinating, real-time education about the birds you’re seeing and help you learn how they fit into the greater ecosystem of the Bay Area. 

3. Ease and comfort

Let’s face it: birding can be difficult sometimes. It often involves hiking into secluded nesting areas, sitting still for long periods, and lots of waiting.

Paddle-birding, however, is a different (and much more comfortable) experience.

When you book one of our bird-watching tours, our guides will set you up with a comfortable, easy-to-paddle kayak that fits you perfectly.

The protected waters of the Slough make for easy, flat water paddling, and our tours are accessible for almost everyone – even if you’ve never kayaked before.

Click Here to Book Your Birdwatching Tour Today!

What Birds Can I See on My Birdwatching Tour? 

kayaking bird tour elkhorn slough

Here’s a list of a few of the birds you may see on your paddle-birding tour:

Sandpipers

Sandpipers are some of the most beloved birds of Moss Landing.

They live on shorelines throughout North America and are known for their stunning spotted plumage, teetering movements, and elaborate mating dances. 

Sandpipers are also known for their unique social structures in which females determine territory while males take the primary role in incubating, hatching, and caring for the young. 

Dunlins

Once called the Red-Backed Sandpiper, the Dunlin is a common bird species that nest throughout the arctic regions of the world. 

In the winter, Dunlins gather in large flocks in estuaries, bays, and along coastlines.

They’re known for their long, curved bills that allow them to capture invertebrates living just below the surface of the mud. 

Dowitchers

The Bay Area is home to both short-billed Dowitchers and long-billed Dowitchers.

Long-billed Dowitchers are most widespread and are known for their spotted brown plumage and long beaks, which allow them to probe deep, muddy ground to find invertebrates to eat. 

As they feed, flocks of Dowitchers twitter at each other, which is an exciting spectacle to witness. 

Black-Bellied Plover

Featuring a dazzling combination of jet black and snowy white plumage, Black-Bellied Plovers are known for their agility.

These birds regularly perform swift, acrobatic aerial maneuvers before settling on a beach to look for food. 

Black-Bellied Plovers also serve as the resident alarm system for migrating shorebird groups.

They’re quick to sound a sharp, shrill alarm when they sense danger and are tasked with keeping foraging flocks safe from harm. 

Willets

One of the larger shorebirds in the Bay Area, the Willet is known for its distinctive calls and wing markings.

Willets feed together in groups along beaches, mudflats, and rocky shorelines. 

When threatened, Willets will pretend to be injured to draw attention away from their young and entice predators to follow them instead. 

American Avocets

A tiny, elegant shorebird, the American Avocet is striking in appearance.

Known for its long legs, slim, upturned bill, and black, white, and rust-colored plumage, this bird can be found throughout the Bay Area in the fall and winter. 

To feed, the American Avocet moves its bill from side to side in shallow water, grabbing aquatic invertebrates as they swim or drift by. 

Marbled Godwits

The Marbled Godwit is a relatively rare shorebird known for its long, swordlike bill.

Its striking black legs and speckled plumage make it easy to spot, while its tendency to forage on plant tubers sets it apart from other shorebirds, which rely on invertebrates for the bulk of their diet. 

Long-Billed Curlews 

The Long-Billed Curlew is cinnamon-colored and speckled, spending the winter along its coastal feeding grounds throughout California and Central America.

While males and females of this species look much alike, females have a longer bill with a more dramatic curve at the tip.

Your San Francisco Bay Area Birdwatching Tour Itinerary 

san francisco bay area birdwatching itinerary

Elkhorn Slough is one of the best bird-watching sites on the west coast.

Each winter, tens of thousands of birds pass through the area during their migration south.

If you’ve booked a birdwatching tour, get excited for your winter kayaking adventure! Here’s what you can expect during the big day:

Gearing up

Before we hit the water, we’ll get you and every member of your tour fitted for gear, including a kayak, PFD, paddle, wet or drysuit, and anything else you might need on the water.

Our professional team ensures all your gear fits well, so you’re comfortable as you paddle.

Cruising Elkhorn Slough

Next, it’s time to get on the water!

During this tour, it’s possible to see shorebirds, egrets, ducks, pelicans, terns, raptors, gulls, and more.

Our kayaks’ silence and low profile allow us to observe these birds on their level without disrupting their natural routines.

It’s not uncommon to see 30 different species on a 3-hour tour. 

What are you waiting for? Join us for a birding extravaganza on “The Slough.”

Book Your Paddle-birding Tour Online Today!

Birdwatching Kayak Tour FAQs 

birdwatching bay area

1. What is the best season for bird watching in the bay area?

Although you can see birds in the Bay Area all year long, fall and winter are the best seasons for paddle-birding tours since rare and endangered seabirds migrating south along the Pacific “Flyway” enjoy the protected environment and abundant food found in the Elkhorn Slough.

2. What should I wear on my bird-watching kayak tour? 

We recommend dressing in layers and avoiding cotton material any time you’re on the water.       

Start with a moisture-wicking base layer and add a vest, light jacket, or raincoat, depending on the time of year and weather forecast. Wear water shoes or shoes you don’t mind getting wet. 

We’ll provide you with a PFD and a wet- or dry suit, depending on the time of year.  

3. What should I bring on my tour? 

We’ll provide all the kayak gear you need, including a kayak, paddle, and PFD. 

You should pack sunscreen, a sun hat, sunglasses with retainers, a spare change of clothes for once the tour is over, snacks, Dramamine or ginger tablets if you tend to get seasick, and plenty of water. 

Gloves or a warm cap can be a nice touch on especially cool days.

If you want to take photos on tour, bring your camera. We rent and sell drybags to keep all your items safe and dry as you paddle along. 

4. Is this tour beginner-friendly? 

Yes! Kids and adults can participate in this tour, even if you’ve never kayaked. 

Book Your Birdwatching Kayak Tour in Elkhorn Slough Today!

The fall and winter are the best time to see shorebirds in the Bay Area.

If you’re looking for a unique outdoor experience to enjoy this season, book your paddle-birding tour with Kayak Connection today.

Our team of expert kayak guides will help create a fun, safe, memorable experience while teaching you about all the stunning bird species that call this area home or “an important pit-stop” during the fall and winter.

Grab your spot today! Visit our tours page or click here to book directly online

Author: Jess Grigsby

Since 2012, Jess has co-owned and operated Kayak Connection together with her husband Dave. She is a lawyer, coach, avid kayak enthusiast and mother of two teenage girls. At Kayak Connection, Jess oversees a team of experienced kayak guides who are all CPR certified, with many holding advanced Wilderness First Responder (WFR) certifications. Our team is composed of environmental educators, naturalists and classroom teachers with experience working with all kinds of visitors, from school groups to large corporate teams.