Science for a Blue Planet

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Team Mola Mola Madness Goes Bird Crazy in the Headlands

written by Meredith Elliott, Principal Scientist/ACCESS Program Leader

This account takes you along on this year’s Point Blue Marine lab team (Mola mola Madness) bird-a-thon adventure through the Marin Headlands. We hope you enjoy! And if you are inspired, we’d love your support. Find the donate button on our team page.

Moon rising over Rodeo Lagoon. Photo by Delaney Ortiz

As in previous years, our Bird-A-Thon team, which represents Point Blue’s Marine Lab,  met at the Marin Headlands Visitor Center to begin our day. As I drove into the parking lot, I saw that Alejandra and Natalia were already there, as well as Delaney (a former lab volunteer). A California scrub-jay and black phoebe were there to start our list. I added brown pelicans that I saw on my drive over the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge earlier. Laura (another former lab volunteer) pulled into the parking lot; this was Laura’s fifth year joining the lab Bird-A-Thon team, and as a certified naturalist, I appreciate her knowledge of the different wildlife species we see each year. Laura rattled off a few species she saw on her way to the headlands; I recorded them, and we piled into my car to head up to Hawk Hill.

Laura’s wingspan, somewhere between turkey vulture and golden eagle. Photo by Meredith Elliot

As in recent years, Holly (Golden Gate Raptor Observatory docent) was walking up to Hawk Hill from the nearby parking lot to begin her shift. We eventually made our way up to her, seeing a pair of Say’s phoebes and hearing a chestnut-backed chickadee during the climb. A brush rabbit darted into a bush—our first mammal sighting of the day! Laura and I were delighted to see the wingspans display was back on Hawk Hill (it had disappeared for a couple of years there).

We chatted with Holly for a while, seeing some sharp-shinned hawks, a northern harrier, and a Cooper’s hawk. We heard cedar waxwings, a Bewick’s wren, and a mourning dove in the distance. We observed our first and only reptile – a western fence lizard – sunning itself on a concrete wall. At Holly’s suggestion, we decided to make our way down the hill and return in the afternoon, which was when the good raptor action was likely to happen. We took our classic team photo, with the Golden Gate Bridge and the rising sun in the background.

The Coastal Trail led us down the hill, and we saw the fog rolling in. It soon engulfed us, making visibility challenging for the remainder of the day. Still, we managed to hear the California state bird, the California quail, in the brush on the hillside. With binoculars and spotting scope, we saw a western gull sitting on a rock, and a group of double-crested cormorants on the water. We spotted a couple of gorgeous pipevine swallowtail caterpillars on some vegetation (one is on poison oak), as well as some unknown chrysalises (maybe pipevine swallowtails as well?) on the guardrail post.

Team photo (left to right): Laura, Delaney, Natalia, and Alejandra. Photo by Meredith Elliott

We continued on the Coastal Trail, past the intersection with the Upper Fisherman’s Trail, down the hillside towards the Presidio Riding Club, and the strange looking barn that we jokingly said looked like a bunker where aliens were being kept. We heard (and confirm with the Merlin app) a spotted towhee, and we heard and saw a northern flicker.

Meredith, our fearless leader, clearing the way for her team! Photo by Natalia Castro

Now here’s where it got a little weird: this flicker flies around, perching on one treetop, then the next, and at some point, it sits for a minute in a nest. Was that its nest? Did it belong to another species? After chatting with someone at the riding club, we thought it was probably a crow’s nest. We had hoped we would have met Marcia Grand’s special challenge of $10 for each working nest, but we agree it must be close to impossible to find a working nest this time of year in California, and we continued on the trail. There were horses, so we add horse to the list—it’s domesticated, and if it doesn’t count for the challenge, it’s ok.

As we made our way closer to the hostel, we saw and heard American and lesser goldfinches heard on the electrical wires. We found scat on the trail (likely coyote) with blue plastic in it, a sobering reminder of human impacts to our local wildlife. Common snowberry (with the white berries) lined the trail, and a eucalyptus branch strewn across the trail slowed us down a little as we navigated around it. A turkey vulture made its way below the fog line into our view.

The tres amigos on bird lookout! Photo by Natalia Castro

We heard a different bird in the coyote brush; with the Merlin app’s help, we confirmed by sound (and finally by sight) that it was a fox sparrow. White-crowned sparrows were present, and we saw our first western bluebirds (still very brilliantly blue!) of the day, perching on the wires.

Time for lunch! The visitor center parking lot was where we stopped to sit, eat, and talk. The fog was thicker, and we were bundled up to stay warm. Rodeo Lagoon was the destination after lunch, and we picked up some waterbirds there: mallard, Canada goose, great blue heron, and snowy egret. A red-tailed hawk hovered low enough for us to see its dark patagial bars.

One of the more interesting finds of the day was a juvenile turkey vulture on the west end of Rodeo Lagoon, which had a prominent wing tag on its left wing. As it ate a dead bird, we put the spotting scope on it and were able to read 477 on the tag. With some help from Julie Howar (coworker), I was able to find a website about the GGRO’s Turkey Vulture Research Project. I reported the bird using their online form.

Turkey vulture with wing tag. Photo by Natalia Castro

We made our way north along Rodeo Beach, putting the spotting scope on a nearby rock to find Brandt’s cormorants. We added house finch and American kestrel to the list as well. Winding our way through the old barracks, we picked up dark-eyed junco and saw some California quail, which Alejandra was hoping to see (yay!). A hairy woodpecker called from a nearby tree. Walking back to the north side of Rodeo Lagoon, we heard a killdeer in the distance. And what’s that splashing in the water below? A group of three river otters! We enjoyed their antics for a few minutes—it was so fun to watch them play and swim. Laura and I thought we heard a marsh wren but couldn’t confirm. There were some interesting structures on a willow that I originally thought were berries of some kind, but upon closer inspection, they appeared to be insect galls. (I posted the picture to iNaturalist later, and someone identified them to be from the genus Euura, which are sawflies.) We spotted a pied-billed grebe on the east side of the lagoon before we ended our day.

We added additional species to our list after we separated for the day. We observed a total of 51 bird species, 4 mammal species, 1 reptile species, and 3 other interesting taxa.

Our Bird List

  1. Bushtit
  2. Brown pelican
  3. Belted kingfisher
  4. Great egret
  5. Black-crowned night heron
  6. California scrub jay
  7. Black phoebe
  8. American crow
  9. Say’s phoebe
  10. Chestnut-backed chickadee
  11. Song sparrow
  12. Cedar waxwing
  13. Common raven
  14. Bewick’s wren
  15. Anna’s hummingbird
  16. Sharp-shinned hawk
  17. Northern harrier
  18. Cooper’s hawk
  19. Wrentit
  20. Mourning dove
  21. California quail
  22. Western gull
  23. Double-crested cormorant
  24. Spotted towhee
  25. Northern flicker
  26. American goldfinch
  27. Turkey vulture
  28. California towhee
  29. Lesser goldfinch
  30. Fox sparrow
  31. White-crowned sparrow
  32. Western bluebird
  33. Mallard
  34. Canada goose
  35. Great blue heron
  36. Snowy egret
  37. Red-tailed hawk
  38. Brandt’s cormorant
  39. House finch
  40. American kestrel
  41. Dark-eyed junco
  42. Hairy woodpecker
  43. Killdeer
  44. Pied-billed grebe
  45. American white pelican
  46. American avocet
  47. Rock pigeon
  48. American robin
  49. Northern mockingbird
  50. Whimbrel
  51. Black Neck Stilt



  1. Brush rabbit
  2. Western fence lizard
  3. Monarch butterfly
  4. Horse
  5. River otter
  6. Fox squirrel
  7. Genus Euura (insect galls)
  8. Pipevine swallowtail (caterpillar)