An Artistic Take on Northern California Bird-Watching

Lesser sandhill cranes near San Joaquin river valley
Lesser sandhill cranes forage in a field near San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge (photo by Lori Eanes)

Bird-watching has always been a popular pastime in Northern California, and one that seems to attract countless new enthusiasts every year. Local photographer Lori Eanes counts herself among the newly enthralled. 

“I first heard of the bird refuges from fellow photographers a few years ago. I’ve visited them before, but I never really thought of them as a project idea until the pandemic,” she says. Last fall when most of us were holed up at home, Eanes decided to start exploring. “As it turns out there are many nearby refuges that are destinations for thousands of winter birds. After visiting a few spots and seeing so many up close, I became hooked,” she admits. 

Tree swallows
Tree swallows at Merced National Wildlife Refuge (photo by Lori Eanes)

A visit to Richardson Bay or Tomales Bay in the fall and winter months is a fascinating study in ornithology, as the number of migratory birds that pass through are in the tens of thousands. Traveling a little farther out to places like Shollenberger Park in Petaluma and the Grizzly Island Wildlife Area — especially during the pandemic, when the outdoors provided such solace — turned out to be an indelibly memorable experience as well. “The sheer number of birds visiting the refuges is unforgettable and there’s such diversity. The sights are amazing, but the sounds are otherworldly,” Eanes says. 

As you would expect, springtime presents a very different picture of birdlife. “The water from the fields begins drying up, the migratory birds have left and the remaining birds are now raising families,” she says. “Other animals that live in the refuges year-round become more apparent, such as otters, raccoons, rabbits and snakes. This photography project has made me really aware of the fragility of their environment. The drought has brought more hardships on the birds; conserving water so they can survive is really important.” 

In this piece we look at birds in their natural habitats throughout the seasons. If you want to help support Marin’s native and migratory populations, visit www.marinaudubon.org to donate.

snow geese near Cosumnes River Preserve
Snow geese fly overhead near Cosumnes River Preserve (photo by Lori Eanes)

Where to See the Birds

  • Colusa National Wildlife Refuge
  • Cosumnes River Preserve, Galt, south of Sacramento
  • Grizzly Island Wildlife Area, Suisun City
  • Merced National Wildlife Refuge
  • Richardson Bay, Marin
  • Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge
  • San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge
  • Merced National Wildlife Refuge
  • Shollenberger Park, Petaluma
Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge
The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge at dusk (photo by Lori Eanes)
swans
Photo by Lori Eanes