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Wildlife Watch: Tips for spotting species in the Marin Headlands

The picturesque Marin Headlands, located just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, is an ideal destination for wildlife watching. As part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), the entirety of the Headlands, including the historic Marin Headlands Hostel, reside within federally protected lands, and enfold an astounding richness of biological diversity.

According to Hostelling International Naturalists who regularly lead group night hikes, the Headlands offer some of the best chances for sighting wildlife in the whole state. Black tail deer, bobcats, coyotes, wild turkeys, river otters, owls, and hawks are just a few of the animal species who make their home here. While there are no guarantees when it comes to spotting wildlife, these tips on finding various species might just make for some memorable glimpses.

The Headlands exist within a Mediterranean-type climate, and because of the characteristic mild, wet winters and warm, dry summers, an incredible amount of flora and fauna have evolved here. Over 1,200 species of native plants, 53 mammal species, 250 bird species, 20 reptile species, and 11 species of amphibians are found within the GGNRA. Not all are flourishing though -- currently, there are 35 endangered, rare, and threatened species here, more than in any other National Park in the continental United States.

One of these endangered species, the mission blue butterfly, can be spotted on the Coastal Trail just behind the Marin Headlands Hostel, flitting amongst the wildflowers that dot the Headlands from early spring through late autumn. This secluded trail is an ideal place to spot wary black tail deer before they bound off. Follow the Coastal Trail east, and remember to gaze skyward as you walk -- threatened northern spotted owls roost in the trees above.

Once you reach a parking lot, follow the Upper Fisherman's Trail to Black Sands Beach. This trail bursts with wildflowers, particularly from March through July. Maybe you'll spot some yellow bird's foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) or blue western hound's tongue (Cynoglossum grande), growing in serpentine soils. Serpentinite is a rock composed of oceanic crust and mantle fragments that have, over eons, ascended to the earth's surface; along with ribbon chert and pillow basalt, it is central to the unique geology of the Headlands. 

East of Black Sands Beach, follow Conzelman Road to Hawk Hill, where, as its name suggests, seven species of hawks can be sighted. Ospreys, golden eagles, kestrels, peregrine falcons, and other birds of prey also make layovers here during the fall raptor migration which lasts from late August to late December. 

Make your way back to the Marin Headlands Hostel, where wild turkeys are often seen strutting around. Coyotes frequent the meadow in front of the hostel, and are becoming overly habituated to humans. Do your part to combat this problem by practicing ethical wildlife viewing; observe from a safe distance, and remember that approaching wildlife in a National Park is prohibited. Please do not feed any wildlife -- animals that are fed lose not only their natural fear of humans, but also their ability to forage on their own. 

From the hostel, take a leisurely stroll to the Point Bonita Lighthouse; the last half-mile of trail provides stunning ocean views and a prime opportunity to spot whales and seals. Gray whales migrate from cold Arctic feeding grounds to warm breeding waters off Baja, California, between December and May. In December and January, pregnant females are traveling south to birth their calves. From February through May, northward-migrating mothers and babies swim close to the coast to avoid predators.

Speaking of predators, bobcats, elusive though they are, are periodically sighted in Marin. Try the Bobcat Trail, a five-mile loop which connects to a network of other trails, and overlooks the splendid Gerbode Valley. This wide-open valley, made up of coastal chaparral and prairie grassland, provides excellent odds of spotting bobcats, and their bush rabbit prey.

From the Bobcat Trail, meet up with the Miwok Trail, and follow it to Rodeo Lagoon, a brackish body of water which provides a refuge for the endangered tidewater goby, seabirds like egrets and brown pelicans, and an adorable family of river otters. Just beyond the lagoon is Rodeo Beach, where at low tide during a new moon, the incredible natural phenomena known as bioluminescence can be witnessed. Bioluminescence is the name for light emitted by living organisms, in this case, plankton. Fall is the ideal season to see the bioluminescent plankton twinkling like stars in the wet sand.

The wildlife noted in this article represent just a small portion of the biodiversity present here. With ecosystems ranging from coastal to prairie to riparian and more, there's always something magical to experience in the Marin Headlands, no matter the season.

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Stay at the historic Marin Headlands Hostel