birding, nature, landscape, california

“What’s that?” I asked Virginia Guhin, Education Programs Coordinator of the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve (ES NERR). We walked some of the trails at the reserve, and I had spotted a large bird hovering in mid-air, almost like a helicopter, just with more flapping. Peering through my binoculars, I saw a white bird with black spots on the undersides of the wings.

Guhin knew without binoculars, “White-tailed Kite,” she identified.

Life-bird for me! I had never seen this species of kite before, but Guhin explained that they often hunted in the natural acres of the reserve.

The ES NERR is a world-renowned biodiversity hotspot, drawing birders from around the country and around the globe, all happy to see as many of the over 200 species recorded here as possible.

During the evening – a great time to bird – my mother and I walked miles of the trail system to discover a taste of the species that call this reserve home.

birding, nature, landscape, california

Historic buildings at Elkhorn Slough.

The path started at the parking area, moving to an overlook presenting a gorgeous viewshed of the marsh, rolling hills, and mountains beyond. The trail wove downhill, around farm buildings demonstrative of the agricultural history of the site before it became protected. A wooden boardwalk extended out into the mud of the low-tide marsh, and we found ourselves completely surrounded by shorebirds. Willets, godwits, and plovers picked for food in the soft earth, while Snowy and Great Egrets stalked prey in the shallow water, and gulls and terns patrolled the skies.

We crossed the train tracks that bisected the property, hiking up a staircase to a wooded island with another beautiful marsh overlook. Songbirds bounced around tree branches, Spotted Towhees and Chestnut-sided Chickadees and Yellow-rumped Warblers created a twittering cacophony before their mixed flock moved to another forest patch.

birding, nature, landscape, california

Sunset at Elkhorn Slough.

By the time we began to loop back to the reserve buildings the sun had begun to set, washing the sky in brilliant gold and crimson hues. Acorn Woodpeckers squeaked to each other as they moved up and down bare tree trunks, and a soft owl hoot echoed from the distance.

The brilliant bird diversity found here at Elkhorn Slough is a direct result of both the incredible resources naturally occurring in an estuary, but also the effort Elkhorn Slough staff have put into stewardship and restoration, including restoring traditional water flows and removing invasive species. The impressive trail network makes the ecosystem accessible not only to birders and walkers, but also school groups of all ages and sizes. Supporting NERR sites like Elkhorn Slough means protecting these incredible landscapes for the public’s education and, of course, native wildlife.

Written by Erika Zambello
Erika Zambello is a National Geographic Young Explorer who grew up in Maine, inspiring a deep interest in nature at an early age. She fell in love with birding after receiving a Sibley field guide for Christmas during her senior year in college, and has birded across the eastern seaboard and internationally ever since. To inspire others to protect birds and the environment, she has blogged for the Conservation Fund, Sarah P. Duke Gardens, Triangle Land Conservancy, and Duke University, and is writing a birding guide to Northern New England for Wilderness Adventures Press. She has founded, and is currently living along the Emerald Coast in Florida's Panhandle. You can check out her exploration site or follow her on Instragram.