Summer Wildlife to Discover in Marin County
By Matt Dolkas,
Senior Manager, Marketing
June 19, 2023
With the sun high in the sky, there is an abundance of summer wildlife to enjoy in our local open spaces. From acorn woodpeckers, migratory birds, humpback whales, and more, each species plays a unique role in sustaining our local ecosystems. It is easy to play favorites, but each plant and animal contributes in their unique way — a synergy of players exchanging nutrients, genes, and energy between different parts of the landscape.
While much of our work at the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) is focused on the preservation of agriculture, our work is also about protecting this landscape to help protect a vast array of biodiversity. It is about stewarding the mosaic of working lands for the benefit of all. This work is especially important amid our changing climate as plants and animals are forced to move to find what they need to survive.
As summer sinks in, now is the time to experience the peak of our local abundance and the bounty of wildlife in Marin’s natural landscapes. Below are a few of the summer regulars for you to keep an eye out for and where you might find them; a short list from California’s distinguished list of fauna.
Did you know that acorn woodpeckers live in family groups, mate for life, and are among the most socially complex creatures in the world? Each encounter with these colorful birds is a chance to witness their sophisticated family dynamics and, with summer underway, the next generation is just learning to spread their wings.
You can find acorn woodpeckers in many of Marin’s oak woodland habitats as acorns (hence the name) are their primary food source. In the fall, they gather acorns by the hundreds and wedge them into holes they have made in ancient oaks and telephone poles, storing them for later use. The vast oak forests of Bowman Canyon, just west of Novato, are a sure bet on spotting them — look for flashes of red on the top of their heads.
During the summer months, the cool waters off the coast of California offer an abundance of food for migrant-weary humpback whales. The life-rich waters here have attracted these gentle giants for millennia and, if you’re lucky, it is among the most spectacular of summer migrations to experience in Marin County.
Females with small calves can occasionally be seen close to shore along the rocky promontories of the Marin Headlands and Point Reyes National Seashore as well as from many of our local beaches. But the Point Reyes Lighthouse and Chimney Rock lookout areas are two of the most popular spots as their exposure to the Pacific provides an ideal vantage point. Bring your binoculars!
The sweet, flute-like song of the Swainson’s thrush is a sure sign of summer. It’s sometimes difficult to believe something so small could travel so far, wintering in tropical forests before heading north to breed in the northern latitudes and along the coast of California. This is your chance to witness a long-distance migratory bird in our local open spaces.
You will find Swainson’s thrush in thick, streamside habitat and occasionally in tough coastal scrublands. The Bear Valley Visitors Center offers great birding to witness a host of our feathered friends visiting for these summer months. With a range of habitat types close to the main buildings, there are great birding opportunities just minutes from the parking area.
Another summer visitor taking up residence in our open spaces is the variegated meadowhawk, the first insect in our list and a medium-sized dragonfly that migrates as far south as Honduras. Identifying this species can be difficult as their most consistent feature is actually their lack of consistency. Each encounter is a unique experience with one of the hemisphere’s smallest migratory species.
The variegated meadowhawks enjoy ample fresh water, and the mouth of Lagunitas Creek at its confluence with Tomales Bay provides an ideal habitat. The trail is also close to Point Reyes Station which offers many great stops for lunch and boutique shopping.
With its bright yellow body and contrasting black wings, the western tanager is among the most dramatic of summer migrants to observe. Wintering as far south as Panama and summering as far north as Alaska, they are the northernmost-breeding tanager and, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful.
This colorful migrant prefers the safety of Douglas fir forests for its nesting habitat but can be seen foraging in a variety of habitat types. We recommend a visit to Mount Tamalpais’ Pantoll Road area to spot this species, a state park well-known for its incredible diversity of habitat types and resident wildlife. Start your search by listening for their melodic songs.
Western Tiger Swallowtail
A backyard garden might be one of the best places to witness this species of summer wildlife, especially gardens lush with native plants offering a menu of delicious nectars. The western tiger swallowtail is a very active butterfly and is rarely seen at rest — so you’ll likely find them on the move.
Mount Burdell is a great place to look for this species too, especially for those without easy access to native backyard gardens. With a lifespan of just 6 to 14 days, a sighting of this species should be deeply cherished.
Tips Before Venturing Out
• As always, when viewing wildlife, observe with caution and keep a safe distance for both your safety and theirs.
• Bring binoculars or a camera so you can view them without disturbing their habitat.
• You can do your part to leave no trace by hauling out all items that came in with you and leaving behind the rocks, shells, and other parts of the natural habitat you explored along the way (and picking up any litter you see, whether you created it or not!).
• Dress appropriately for the weather with a hat, sunscreen, boots, or other outerwear.
• Carry water and snacks.
• Always check weather advisories, trail closures, or for park hazards before venturing out.
• Stay safe and enjoy the bounty of Marin’s wildlife during our summer season.