Flight of the Raptors: See the graceful autumn bird migration in the Marin Headlands

Coopers Hawk

Wouldn't it be nice to be able to fly south with the birds for the winter to bask in sunshine? Well, if you can't join the birds, you can watch them soaring overhead as they travel to balmier climates. Every autumn, tens of thousands of migrating raptors make an appearance at Hawk Hill in the Marin Headlands during their journeys along the Pacific Flyway. Some birds come from as far north as Alaska and some will fly all the way to South America.

The birds you'll see swooping over Hawk Hill are mainly diurnal raptors -- daytime birds of prey. Nineteen species of raptors pass through the Marin Headlands during the fall migration, and the most frequently spotted birds are red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures. While they are observed less frequently, peregrine falcons can also be found at Hawk Hill, and sightings of these birds have steadily increased since a 1972 ban on the pesticide DDT helped restore the population of this formerly endangered species. Only a handful are seen each year, but if you're really lucky and have a keen bird watching eye, you may spot a bald eagle -- the official bird of the United States.

Part of what makes the Marin Headlands such an attractive ecosystem for raptors to migrate through probably goes unnoticed by most human visitors. In the Headlands, birds can spread their wings and take advantage of warm thermals and updrafts along ridges which help them gain height and glide. This enables the raptors to fly for long stretches of time without flapping their wings, which helps them conserve their energy. Birds of prey can also feed on a plentiful supply of small animals in the Marin Headlands and refuel before continuing on their southward journeys.

The first raptors make an appearance at Hawk Hill in August, and the peak viewing season occurs from mid-September through October. While the overall numbers of raptors passing through begin to dwindle after October, the various species have different schedules, and migrating birds of prey can still be spotted in the Marin Headlands until December.  

If you're interested in an in-depth overview of raptors, there's still one more weekend to partake in the Hawk Talk and Banding Demo, an educational event that runs every Saturday and Sunday in September and October at Hawk Hill. Organized by the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, the event begins with a one hour docent-led presentation on hawk identification and the annual raptor migration. At the end of the discussion, a newly banded wild hawk is brought out for the crowd to observe which provides a fitting finale for this experiential learning event. After the organization’s banding program is explained, the hawk is released back into the wild.

For optimal raptor viewing, you'll want to visit Hawk Hill from about 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on clear, fog-free days. Due to its 920-foot elevation above the sea, Hawk Hill tends to be windy and chilly and the weather can be unpredictable. Dressing in layers is recommended, as is bringing along a supply of water, snacks, and sunscreen. And of course, you should also pack binoculars so you can take a closer look at the raptors as they gracefully glide over the Marin Headlands.

Beyond offering opportunities to see the raptor migration and learn more about birds of prey, Hawk Hill affords stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge, the San Francisco skyline, and the grand space where the San Francisco Bay meets the Pacific Ocean. At Hawk Hill, you can also explore the ruins of Battery 129, one of the many World War II era relics in the Marin Headlands. So even if you're not a bird enthusiast, there's still plenty to discover at Hawk Hill, and spotting a few raptors flying by while taking in a majestic panorama of the great Golden Gate will only add to the enchantment of this extraordinary place.

Hawk Hill is easily accessible from the Marin Headlands Hostel via a 1.8 mile walk or a 3 mile drive, and many visitors travel there by bicycle. As it is just over the Golden Gate Bridge from the city, Hawk Hill also makes for a great day trip from San Francisco.

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Stay at the historic Marin Headlands Hostel, or at one of our three unique San Francisco hostels.