Spring Summer Fall Winter
Coyote Point is many things to many people: a first rate environmental education museum, a beloved recreation area and picnic grounds, a yacht club and harbor, and an utterly marvelous place for birding. Different times of the year offer different rewards, but there is always some kind of prize for the birder at any season.
Coyote Point County Recreation Area is situated on San Francisco Bay south of San Francisco Airport and east of the city of San Mateo. The location has a rich history, with evidence of occupation by Native Americans dating from 4000 years ago. Its more recent history includes a brief stint as an amusement park ("The Coney Island of the West"), the location of the Merchant Marine Cadet School during World War II, and the original College of San Mateo campus.
Currently the Park includes a small craft marina and the internationally known Coyote Point Museum for Environmental Education. The Museum building contains exhibits and dioramas depicting the various ecological plant and animal communities of San Mateo County. The adjacent wildlife habitat exhibit depicts the various habitats in the county complete with representative live animals. All of the animals are non-releasable, either because they were injured or were pets that became imprinted on humans. There are aviaries for songbirds and raptors. There is a modest admission charge. It is free on the first Sunday of the month and is open Tuesday through Sunday. Annual membership supports continuing Museum efforts and gives free access to the entire Coyote Point County Park. More information is available at their web site.
There is also an admission fee to enter the Park, currently $5.00 per vehicle, collected by a ranger at the entrance kiosk. On weekdays senior citizens are admitted to the Park free. Museum members are admitted free at all times. The fee is seldom collected on weekdays during the colder months.
Coyote Point is an excellent place to introduce children to nature in general and birds in particular. The Museum, the easy-to-see birds (especially in the harbor and off the breakwater/jetty), and the non-birding recreational opportunities (including some snazzy playgrounds) make this a terrific kid-friendly combination.
In all but the mid-summer birding along the Bayshore and adjacent marsh can be superb for waders and water and shore birds. Land birds are present in the Park's wooded and shrubby areas all year, but are more numerous in migration and the winter. On a good day in migration you might find abundant passerines anywhere in the Park. Even in summer you should be able to find some interesting birds, and the Museum is always worth a visit even if just to look in on the rescued Burrowing Owls in their little Museum habitat.
At various times checklists of the birds of Coyote Point have been available from Sequoia Audubon Society. Check the Sequoia webpage regularly to see when the next updated version is made available. A great way to get a feel for the birding possibilities at this location is to subscribe to Penbird on Yahoo Groups. Print "Coyote Point" in the message search field, and you can scroll through hundreds of reports from all seasons. Share the joy of great days at the Park, such as Ron Thorn's experience of a memorable migration fall-out on May 3, 2003.
The locations described here can be covered individually in one or two hour visits, or combined into a morning or even a full day of birding. This account divides the Park into four main areas: The north beach and picnic grounds, the museum "forest," the harbor and jetty areas, and the freshwater marsh.
At the northern end of the Park is a cove with sandy and pebbly shoreline, lawns, picnic areas and ornamental plantings. The small stretch of beach is one of the few surviving accessible stretches of original, unfilled, shoreline in San Mateo County. This was also the location of a large amusement complex in the 1920's known as Pacific City Amusement Park, of which no trace remains. To reach this area take the first or second left after entering the Park (both roads lead to large, adjoining parking areas), or just walk down the hill through the Eucalyptus/Pine grove from the main museum parking area.
The first-time visitor on a quiet winter or weekday morning might be surprised that this tranquil, seemingly abandoned area can explode with human activity on weekends, especially on fair weather weekends year around and on hot summer days. When there aren't too many people around to scare away the birds, check the beach for roosting gulls in winter, the cove offshore for wintering waterfowl, the mudflats for shorebirds on falling tides in winter and migration, the lawns for White-fronted and Cackling Geese or other interesting geese that might mix in with the resident feral Canada Geese, and, if you have the patience, sparrow flocks, warblers and other passerines in the ornamental plantings. This area has not turned up as many records of unusual birds as other parts of the Park, but some of that may be attributable to less coverage.
When crowds are present it is probably best to skip this area for birding, though you might still find the people watching (especially windsurfer watching) rewarding. Birders with small children should note that compromise strategies built around the superb "Magic Mountain" play structure and an understanding spouse are a distinct possibility. Good birding is only minutes away!
Just outside the Park proper is the headquarters of the estimable Peninsula Humane Society. One of their many worthy programs is a very busy wildlife rescue service.
This area includes the mostly non-native groves (Primarily Eucalyptus and Monterey Pine, but with a scattering of native oaks and huckleberry) surrounding the Coyote Point Museum and the picnic areas just south of the Museum. Although in season this area can be good for birding at any time of day, the best birding -- and highest chance for unusual sightings -- comes in the morning when more birds are present; those that are around are more likely to be seen, and the happy and noisy crowds have not yet geared up. Weather plays a part in the number of species present during migration, with greater numbers coinciding with passing fronts that cause migrants to drop in for rest and fuel replenishment.
A good strategy is to step out of your vehicle (or dismount the bicycle), and just spend a few minutes looking up and around. The parking lot grove itself can have a lot of good birds. Flowering Eucalyptus often harbor interesting hummingbirds, warblers (including Black-throated Gray among the more common Yellow-rumped, Townsend's and Orange-crowned) and other passerines, with huge waxwing flocks common in winter and migration. Cooper's Hawk has nested, joined in winter by Sharp-shinned Hawk. Walk up the path behind the museum's animal enclosure, checking overhead and in the lower plantings all around. The ornamental plantings adjoining the museum can have many birds, including all of those mentioned above, plus occasional regional oddities such as Brown Creeper, Winter Wren and others. Western Tanager and orioles are regular in migration, and there is always a chance -- or at least a hope -- for a rare warbler. On a really good day in migration it can be a positive clinic in Empidonax flycatcher identification, with possible Hammond's and Dusky spicing up the usual supply of Pacific-Slope Flycatchers, and very occasionally something even more rare. Nuttall's Woodpecker has become established in the Park in recent years, an interesting, natural range expansion. Red-tailed Hawk has nested in some years.
Walk through as much of the grove as you have time for, which should always include the area around the top of the small hill behind the museum. Look especially for flowering Eucalyptus, which seem to harbor the most birds. The ornamental plantings along the outside of the animal enclosure can also be very good. Pygmy Nuthatches are common in the pines and Eucalyptus. The area around the Captain's House meeting center and the brushy slopes below and around it can be very good for sparrows, with Dark-eyed (Slate-colored) Junco and White-throated Sparrow regular in the winter, amongst the abundant "regular" Juncos and White- and Golden-crowned Sparrows.
Continue around the hilltop to the two overlooks north of the museum. The upper one gives a lovely view of the Bay, with a ravine below that can have interesting skulking birds. The overlook closer to the Museum provides an excellent perch for scoping the Bay closer in to the breakwaters and the main harbor channel. Careful scope observation of the Bay can result in a surprising number of seabirds not typically expected inside the Bay. A path leads down to the North Beach area past the former location of Castaways Restaurant, a popular place in its day (many older birders wonder why it had to disappear).
From the entrance station continue past the two entrances to the North Beach Area and along the edge of the Golf Course (scanning for grazing geese when there aren't too many golfers present), pass the left turn that leads uphill to the Museum, and continue all the way to the parking area near the Yacht Club. Take the paved path leading south under some electric transmission towers. Bear right along a murky canal to a small marsh south of the parking area and Coyote Point proper. The area along the canal can have interesting sparrows in the winter, including Lincoln's, and possible warblers in the trees and understory. Some years the field under the transmission towers has flowering and seeding fennel and attracts passerine migrants and rarities in the fall, including Yellow, Nashville, Palm and other Warblers, and, on at least one occasion, Tennessee Warbler and Harris's Sparrow.
Continue on to the marsh and check for waders, water birds and shorebirds. In winter this can be a good area for Wilson's Snipe and the occasional rail. Most winters a careful search might result in a Swamp Sparrow lurking in the tangles along the edges of the marsh. Keep an eye out on the trees and towers for raptors including Peregrine Falcon. The large field on the other side of the marsh can be good in some years, depending on the flowering and seeding of the foliage and whether it has been mowed or disked lately. Access is difficult and uncertain; it is best to check locally for information on whether this area is currently accessible.
Harbor and Jetty
This area is best accessed from the same parking area in front of the Yacht Club building described for the prior section. There are various points of entry to the harbor area, which can produce a variety of interesting species in the winter and to a lesser extent during migration. Clark's, Western, Horned and Eared Grebes are all likely, as are a number of diving ducks including Bufflehead and Common Goldeneye. Also look for Belted Kingfisher perched in the boat rigging. Shorebirds might be present on the muddy edges at low tide, and sparrows hide in the pickleweed and low shrubs along the levee banks.
One of the finest shorebird roosts in San Mateo County is located at the far eastern edge of Coyote Point. From the Yacht Club building find the outer path that extends north to the mouth of the harbor entrance. At high tide the sand and shell bar provides a fine resting place for thousands of shorebirds of many species, gulls, terns and waders. In winter and migration periods you can expect a wide variety of shorebirds from Least and Western Sandpipers, through Dowitcher, Semi-palmated Plover, Ruddy Turnstone (less common here than at Foster City to the south) right up through Whimbrel and Long-billed Curlew. The standard set of gulls makes this their home in the winter months, with Elegant Tern common in the summer through fall and Least Tern occasionally spotted in summer. Some years one or two Common Terns join the much more abundant Forster's Terns in the late summer and early fall. Red Knot is present regularly in small numbers in winter and migration. Somewhat surprisingly, this is a good place for rocky shoreline shorebirds, with Black Oystercatcher and Black Turnstone common in season, and regular appearances of Surfbird and Wandering Tattler. The shorebirds are good at high and low tides, but are most easily seen on a falling high tide as the mud is freshly exposed. At peak high tide the birds are tucked in at the roost and can be hard to see. At low tide the birds are spread out as far as the eye and scope can see, sometimes in astonishingly large numbers.
Offshore is a line of concrete blocks that are nearly submerged at high tide and exposed at low tide. Shorebirds and gulls, terns and cormorants (mostly Double-crested but with regular sightings of Pelagic and-lately--Brandt's as well) loaf on the rocks, while diving ducks and grebes abound around them. In recent years a male Harlequin Duck has taken up permanent residence, often joined by another. Long-tailed Duck is reported most years from this area. In the late summer Parasitic Jaegers regularly patrol the area, scaring away the roosting birds. Similarly, a passing Merlin or Peregrine Falcon can wipe away the shorebirds, leaving the birder both delighted and frustrated at the same time.
The weeds, brush and especially fennel along the path out to this marvelous area can be very productive, with Palm Warbler present most falls as well as other interesting migrants.—
An old and almost adequate map of the Park is available at the entrance station. The map that follows is based on that map and shows some, but not all, of the areas mentioned in this account. In particular, this map cuts off before the full extent of the mud flats can be shown on the southern edge. What this map does show convincingly is that there are many habitats here in a small space; add to this that Coyote Point is a peninsula, and you will understand why it is the one indispensable migrant spot on the Bayshore side of San Mateo County.
Brant (rare), Canada Goose, Wood Duck (rare at this site), American Wigeon, Mallard, Gadwall, Northern Shoveler, Green-winged Teal, Blue-winged Teal (rare), Cinnamon Teal (rare), Northern Pintail, Lesser Scaup, Greater Scaup, Ring-necked Duck, Canvasback, Black Scoter (rare), White-winged Scoter (rare), Surf Scoter, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Barrow's Goldeneye (uncommon), Hooded Merganser (rare), Red-breasted Merganser (rare), Common Merganser (uncommon), Ruddy Duck, California Quail, Wild Turkey, Pacific Loon (rare), Red-throated Loon (rare), Common Loon, Pied-billed Grebe, Horned Grebe, Eared Grebe, Western Grebe, Clark's Grebe, American White Pelican, Brown Pelican, Brandt's Cormorant (rare and notable at this location), Pelagic Cormorant (rare and notable at this location), Double-crested Cormorant, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Green Heron, Black-crowned Night-heron (uncommon), Turkey Vulture, Northern Harrier, Osprey (uncommon), White-tailed Kite (uncommon), Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper's Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel (uncommon), Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, Ridgway's Rail (rare at this location), Sora (rare at this location), Virginia Rail (rare at this location), American Coot, Black-bellied Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Snowy Plover (uncommon), Killdeer, Black Oystercatcher, Black-necked Stilt (fall-winter), American Avocet (fall-spring), Spotted Sandpiper (fall-spring), Lesser Yellowlegs (uncommon), Greater Yellowlegs, Willet, Whimbrel, Long-billed Curlew, Marbled Godwit, Ruddy Turnstone (uncommon, fall-winter), Black Turnstone, Surfbird (uncommon, fall-spring), Sanderling, Western Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Dunlin, Red Knot (uncommon), Red-necked Phalarope (rare, spring and fall migration), Short-billed Dowitcher (uncommon, fall-spring), Long-billed Dowitcher (fall-spring), Wilson's Snipe (uncommon), Parasitic Jaeger (rare here, mainly in late summer-early fall), Pomarine Jaeger (1979), Bonaparte's Gull, Heermann's Gull (rare), Herring Gull (uncommon), Short-billed Gull (winter), Ring-billed Gull, Western Gull, California Gull, Glaucous-winged Gull, Iceland Gull, Caspian Tern (spring-summer), Forster's Tern, Elegant Tern (late summer-early fall), Black Skimmer (rare at this site), Common Murre (uncommon), Pigeon Guillemot (rare, seen 2013 and 2014), Rhinoceros Auklet (exceptionally rare in the bay, seen in 2014), Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Band-tailed Pigeon (uncommon), Eurasian Collared-Dove, Barn Owl, Great Horned Owl, Western Screech-Owl, Burrowing Owl, Vaux's Swift, White-throated Swift, Anna's Hummingbird, Allen's Hummingbird (migration), Belted Kingfisher, Acorn Woodpecker, Nuttall's Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Northern Flicker, Olive-sided Flycatcher (rare), Pacific-slope Flycatcher (migration), Western Wood-Pewee (migration), Ash-throated Flycatcher (migration, rare), Black Phoebe, Say's Phoebe (uncommon), Cassin's Vireo (migrant), Hutton's Vireo (rare), Warbling Vireo (rare), California Scrub-Jay, American Crow, Common Raven, Steller's Jay (rare), Tree Swallow (migration), Violet-green Swallow (migration), Northern Rough-winged Swallow (migration), Cliff Swallow (migration), Barn Swallow (spring-fall), Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Oak Titmouse, Bushtit, White-breasted Nuthatch, Pygmy Nuthatch, Red-breasted Nuthatch (rare), Brown Creeper, House Wren, Bewick's Wren, Pacific Wren, Marsh Wren, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Golden-crowned Kinglet (rare), Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (rare), Wrentit, Western Bluebird, Swainson's Thrush (migration), Hermit Thrush (fall-spring), Varied Thrush (uncommon, irruptive), American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, California Thrasher (rare), American Pipit (uncommon), European Starling, Cedar Waxwing (spring migrant, in great numbers), Yellow-rumped Warbler (fall-spring), Common Yellowthroat, Yellow Warbler (fall migration), Wilson's Warbler (spring), Black-throated Gray Warbler, Townsend's Warbler, Hermit Warbler (migration), Orange-crowned Warbler (spring), Spotted Towhee (rare), California Towhee, Savannah Sparrow, Fox Sparrow (fall-spring), Song Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow (unusual at this location), Lincoln's Sparrow (fall-winter), White-crowned Sparrow (fall-spring), Golden-crowned Sparrow (fall-spring), Western Tanager (migrant), Black-headed Grosbeak (migration), Lazuli Bunting (migration), Dark-eyed Junco, Red-winged Blackbird, Western Meadowlark, Brewer's Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, Tricolored Blackbird (rare), Hooded Oriole (rare, migration), Bullock's Oriole (rare, migration), House Finch, Purple Finch, Pine Siskin (rare), Lesser Goldfinch, American Goldfinch, House Sparrow
In this guide, "rarities" are defined as those species given an County Abundance Code of 4, 5, or 6.
Greater White-fronted Goose (2010, 2011, 2015, 2016, 2020, 2021, 2022), Snow Goose (2018, 2019, 2020, 2021), Ross's Goose, Cackling Goose (2012, 2013, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022), Tundra Swan (1987), Eurasian Wigeon (2007, 2020, 2022), Redhead (2017), Long-tailed Duck (2012, 2017, 2022), Harlequin Duck (a persistent non-migratory male), Redhead (1977), Red-necked Grebe (2020), Brown Booby (2017, 2021), Cattle Egret (2012), Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (2002), Swainson's Hawk (2017, 2018), Bald Eagle (2018), Golden Eagle, Common Gallinule (2012), Mountain Plover, American Golden-Plover, Pacific Golden-Plover (2016), Solitary Sandpiper (2016), Pectoral Sandpiper (2017, 2021), Baird's Sandpiper (2014, 2015, 2018), Semipalmated Sandpiper (2010, 2011, 2012, 2019), Wandering Tattler, Red Phalarope (2011), Glaucous Gull, Laughing Gull (2017), Sabine's Gull (2012), Common Tern (2009, 2010, 2014, 2017, 2018), Arctic Tern (1978), Least Tern (2013, 2014, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2022), Long-tailed Jaeger, Manx Shearwater (2022), Long-eared Owl, Short-eared Owl (2021), Black Swift (2020), Black-chinned Hummingbird, Calliope Hummingbird (2011, 2019), Rufous Hummingbird (migration, at times in large numbers), Lewis's Woodpecker (2003), Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (2020, 2022), Dusky Flycatcher, Hammond's Flycatcher (2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2020, 2021), Willow Flycatcher (2011, 2012, 2013), Gray Flycatcher, Vermilion Flycatcher (2019), Western Kingbird (most years in migration), Cassin's Kingbird, Tropical Kingbird (2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2022), Plumbeous Vireo (2016), Yellow-billed Magpie, Horned Lark (2008, 2018), Bank Swallow (2011, 2018), Purple Martin (June 2012), Bohemian Waxwing, Dusky Warbler (2017), Sage Thrasher (2013, 2020), Phainopepla (2014), European Goldfinch (presumed escapee with band, 2017), Yellow-breasted Chat (2008), American Redstart (2010), Chestnut-sided Warbler (2017), Lucy's Warbler (2019), Nashville Warbler (2013, 2015, 2016), Tennessee Warbler (2017, 2018, 2020), Palm Warbler (many years), Blackburnian Warbler (2022), Blackpoll Warbler (2011, 2017, 2018, 2020), Yellow-throated Warbler (2012), Northern Waterthrush (2015), Chestnut-collared Longspur, Chipping Sparrow (2012, 2013), Clay-colored Sparrow (2009, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2020, 2021), LeConte's Sparrow (2020), Black-throated Sparrow (2020), Vesper Sparrow (2016, 2020), American Tree Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow (2010, 2013, 2014, 2022), White-throated Sparrow (2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2020), Harris's Sparrow (2006, 2013), Brewer's Sparrow (2009, 2020), Lark Sparrow (2009, 2013, 2016, 2021), Summer Tanager (2017, 2018), Dickcissel (2012), Rusty Blackbird, Yellow-headed Blackbird (2013, 2017, 2018, 2020), Orchard Oriole (2009, 2012), Great-tailed Grackle (2014, 2016, 2018), Rose-breasted Grosbeak (2017), Lark Bunting (2020), Lawrence's Goldfinch (2013, 2017), Evening Grosbeak (2011)
Normally the automobile entrance to the Park is via Peninsula Avenue. During the ongoing highway construction that may vary considerably. Presently northbound access from US 101 is via the Dore Avenue exit (then north along the Frontage Road) and southbound access from US 101 is via the Broadway (Burlingame) exit, and then south via Frontage Roads. The Coyote Point Museum website has current information on auto access. One can also enter on foot or via bicycle. The Park is bisected by a segment of the San Francisco Bay Trail, a paved bike/hiking path running along the Bayshore (veering inland for awhile just south of the Museum).
Red Markers: Parking Area or Trail Head
Hover mouse pointer over marker, or click marker, for identification.
The Park entrance fee, when collected, is $5.00 per vehicle. There is no charge for entering the park via bicycle or on foot. There is a separate fee to enter the Museum proper-see the Museum website for current information on Museum entrance fees. A M
The Park officially opens at 8:00 am, but it is often possible for birders to enter earlier (and discreetly) since the gate is open for access to the Marina. Furthermore, non-vehicular access is not regulated. Closing hours vary depending on season; check the official park website for clarification.
There are no particular hazards associated with this location, other than the ubiquitous danger of ticks. This is a heavily-used, public park. Leave items in your car out of view. As described in this account, the picnic and beach areas can be noisy and crowded on summer days and warm weather weekends. You may have to share the outer jetty with careless off-leash dog walkers, but consider it an opportunity for friendly consciousness raising and the experience might not be so bad -- surely better than gnashing your teeth in silence!
There are restrooms in all of the picnic and main parking areas, and in the Museum (admission charge or membership required). The North Beach area has a snack bar with irregular hours. In the summer there is usually a push cart ice cream vendor somewhere around. Otherwise, bring your own food and drink like most of the other folks enjoying this Park. There are many dining options in nearby San Mateo and Burlingame of many styles and price ranges.
See the links information below for further information on the Park.
Coyote Point County Park is a very active Hot Spot in eBird, with all forty-eight calendar quadrants having data!
There is a second, more specialized hotspot, labeled Coyote Point County Park--harbor and marsh. It, too, has data in all forty-eight time quadrants. Coyote Point is one site where birders have used eBird to really build a significant picture of local avifauna. Please continue to submit your sightings to eBird.
The iNaturalist place marker for Coyote Point County Park has less thorough coverage than eBird at this point in time (2020).
Coyote Point Park was the site of a BioBlitz in April of 2015, as part of the partnership between Sequoia Audubon and the San Mateo County Parks. See the results here
The presence of the Coyote Point Museum means that there are always people interested in what you find here. Sequoia Audubon Society has an ongoing working relationship with the Museum.
The San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory (SFBBO) is conducting a long-range study of gull movements in the Bay Area. California Gulls have been leg-banded with plastic colored bands. If you see any of these gulls, please note the leg and the color of the band; if it is possible to read the number on the band, record that also. This information can be shared directly with Carly at SFBBO (firstname.lastname@example.org). If the birds also have a metal band, and you can read that number, too, please report that to the National Bird Banding Lab.
Sequoia Audubon Society has long been involved with Coyote Point, with 47 scheduled field trips from 1960 to 2019! Going on a field trip to this location is an excellent introduction to bird diversity in the county - as well as a good way to apprentice to be a field trip leader yourself!
Author: Francis Toldi, with thanks to original by Nick Coiro, Uploaded: May 4th, 2009 Last Update: December 15th, 2022, 8:36am. Updated by: Jennifer Rycenga
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