Number 29 - February 2010
Welcome to "Rick's Tips," Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel's quarterly newsletter of fun and interesting things to do in San Francisco, the Bay Area, and Northern California. Whether you are visiting San Francisco or hosting visitors, Blue Heron can provide an unforgettable experience. Visit our website,, to learn more about our private, custom tours.

Wildlife Viewing in Northern California

When most folks visit San Francisco and environs, they come to enjoy our beautiful sights, good wine and food, and urban life. They usually don't associate wildlife with San Francisco. However, you can easily view a wide variety of animals in the wild and in captivity during your trip to San Francisco and Northern California. Below is a list of animals, from smallest to largest, that can easily be seen in Northern California.

Monarch Butterflies

These beautiful insects winter in Central and Northern California. The best places to view them are in Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz, the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Pacific Grove, and the Monarch Butterfly Grove in Pismo Beach. The butterflies usually arrive in late October and depart around Valentine's Day. Try to go when the temperature is above 55? F so you can see the butterflies in flight.

Long-billed Dowitchers

PRBO Conservation Science (formerly known as Point Reyes Bird Observatory) sponsors a bird walk on the first weekend of each month. The walks are held at various locations in Marin County so the types of birds you'll see vary depending on the location and time of year. If you are lucky, perhaps you'll spot a long-billed dowitcher.


You are unlikely to see these birds in the wild in Northern California. However, the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park is home to a colony of African penguins and over 900 other species of animals and plants that make their homes in water.

Great Blue Herons

These magnificent birds and Great Egrets nest in the trees along the shore of Bolinas Lagoon in West Marin County. Audubon Canyon Ranch's Bolinas Lagoon Preserve is a great spot to see the nesting birds and their chicks. From March 20 to July 11, 2010, the Preserve will be open from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on weekends and holidays, and by appointment on Tuesdays through Fridays.

Sea Otters

These furry sea mammals were nearly hunted to extinction by the early twentieth century. Today, they can be spotted along the shores of Monterey Bay and the nearby Pacific Ocean. Good places to try to see otters are the overlooks along Cannery Row, the bike path along the shore in Pacific Grove, Cypress Point Lookout on the 17-Mile Drive, and Point Lobos State Reserve about 3 miles south of Carmel. If you want to be sure to see otters, visit the fantastic Monterey Bay Aquarium on Cannery Row in Monterey. You'll see otters as well as plants and other animals from Monterey Bay. If you are at the Aquarium at the right time, you can watch the staff feed the otters.

Harbor Seals

These cute creatures are easily seen in San Francisco Bay, the Pacific Ocean, and Monterey Bay. In late winter and early spring, harbor seals arrive to give birth on Fanshell Beach and near Cypress Point along the 17-Mile Drive on the Monterey Peninsula. During this time, fences block views of the seals to provide them with privacy. However, when the fences come down in May, the seals are still around and can usually be seen from the Cypress Point Lookout.

Sea Lions

These sea mammals are found along the Northern California Coast. Pier 39 in San Francisco was home to a large colony of sea lions. In early November 2009, over 900 sea lions were counted on the platforms next to Pier 39. By the end of the month, nearly all had disappeared. Sea Lions also used to climb all over Bird Rock, near Pebble Beach, and could be seen from the Bird Rock stop on the 17-Mile Drive. The consensus seems to be that the sea lions formerly seen in San Francisco and Monterey went north to Oregon in search of more abundant food. Perhaps they will return later in the year when the El Ni?o effect diminishes.

You may be able to see some sea lions at the Marine Mammal Center, just across the Golden Gate Bridge in the Marin Headlands, where sick sea lions, seals, elephant seals, and other pinipeds are nursed back to health. Visit the Center's website to see what types of animals are currently patients.


Zebras are not naturally found in California; although, William Randolph Hearst had some on the grounds of his castle at San Simeon. Today, you can view zebra and other African mammals and birds at Safari West near Santa Rosa about 90 minutes north of San Francisco. If you aren't planning a trip to Africa, visit Safari West to see cheetah, giraffe, and other African wildlife.

Tule Elk

Tule elk have been restored to their natural habitat in Point Reyes National Seashore, about 1 hour north of San Francisco. The best place to see them is in the Tule Elk Preserve on Tomales Point. Hike the 9.5-mile roundtrip trail from Pierce Point Ranch to Tomales Point for spectacular views of the Pacific and Tomales Bay. You have a good chance of encountering elk along the way.

Elephant Seals

These two-ton animals come to A?o Nuevo State Park, about 55 miles south of San Francisco, to mate and give birth. The best time to visit is during the breeding season from December to March, when guides lead groups among the mating seals. Advance reservations are a must. You can see molting seals without a guide from April through August. Elephant seals can also be seen at Pedras Blancas, just north of San Simeon.

Gray Whales

Gray Whales pass along the Northern California coast during their annual migration between Alaska and Baja California. They pass San Francisco in late fall/early winter on their way south and again in late winter/early spring on their way north. The whales travel closer to shore on their northward journey so are more easily seen at that time. Good places to look for whales are Point Reyes Lighthouse and Chimney Rock in Point Reyes National Seashore, two hours north of San Francisco, and Pigeon Point State Park, about 45 minutes south of San Francisco. The Oceanic Society offers regular whale watching boat trips that depart San Francisco and Half Moon Bay.

If you would like to take a private, custom tour to see some of these wild animals, please phone me at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or e-mail me at

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See you on the road,

Rick Spear
Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel
275 Staples Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94112
(866) 326-4237 (toll free)
(415) 337-1874 (local)
(415) 587-7433 (fax)
TCP 16309-S CST 20685 16-40

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