This past spring, I was hiking solo on a little-known trail high above Mill Valley’s Cascade Canyon. This dense, shady coastal redwood forest is just over the ridge from the famous old-growth redwood trees of the Muir Woods National Monument in Marin County.
Despite being a neighborhood of sorts, the canyon is also a wildlife haven. Dozens of species of resident and migratory birds, animals, insects, amphibians, mollusks and even crustaceans make this magical forest their home. And you never know what you’re going to see on a stroll in the redwoods.
Rounding a bend into a deep, shady ravine, I heard a slight hooting sound. I paused to locate the sound and continued walking just a bit further up the trail. To my astonishment, I had lucked into an encounter with some of the rarest creatures in the redwoods: Northern spotted owls, a threatened species that lives mostly in the old growth coastal redwoods and the forests of the Northwest.
Amazingly, right above the trail in the hollow of a time- worn redwood tree were two fuzzy baby owls — owlets — looking like cute little Star Wars ewoks as they bobbled their heads and warbled in curiosity. Two parent birds were in the nearby redwood canopy, keeping a watchful eye on their brood.
Spotted owls are the holy grail of veteran Bay Area birders. To see fledgling spotted owls was truly a moment to remember.
This wasn’t the first time I’ve spotted these rare owls and other exotic birds in this particular redwood forest. Walking the trails that follow Mill Valley’s Old Mill Creek, I’ve seen great blue heron and snowy egrets — birds usually found in San Francisco Bay’s estuaries — fishing for tiny steelhead trout. And I regularly see red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures circling the canopy high overhead, bold Steller’s jays winging among the trees and Anna’s hummingbirds flitting about in high-speed searches for nectar. Acorn woodpeckers and pileated woodpeckers with their distinctive red crest and distinctive call peck away at rotting trees with a rat-a-tat-tat, searching for bugs to eat.
Among my favorite avians are the most common: tiny Pacific wrens that hop along logs with their stubby tails held upright, chirping high-pitch notes. They’re cute and perky, like little welcome ambassadors to the redwood forest.
California’s 2 million-acre coastal redwood forest, which is unique to the state’s north coast and the extreme southern Oregon coast, is also home to an abundance of small mammals, such as bobcats, Western gray squirrels, raccoons, skunk, bats and medium-sized members of the weasel family, including Pacific fishers and pine martens. You may spot larger animals, too, such as black-tailed deer and Roosevelt elk.
Once, while visiting Muir Woods, I spotted elusive gray foxes and their young emerging from a den below the deck of the park’s visitor center. Another checkmark for my redwoods wildlife bucket list, right next to black bear and mountain lions.
Once common amphibians such as Pacific giant salamanders, red-bellied newts and tailed frogs have become less common, at least on my walks, perhaps victims of increased global temperatures. But garter snakes and slimy, slow moving banana slugs (the mascot of UC Santa Cruz — Go Slugs!) are still seen here and there, with the latter most commonly seen on moist and rainy days.
And there are fish! In Oakland’s Reinhardt Redwood Regional Park, a unique variety of rainbow trout has adapted to dammed-up waterways and can still be seen spawning in streams shaded by the park’s redwood trees. On Mount Tamalpais’ north side, Coho salmon make their way up Lagunitas Creek to spawn each year and can be seen from the Leo Cronin Fish Viewing Area off Sir Francis Drake Boulevard between the village of Lagunitas and Taylor State Park.
It’s yet another remarkable wildlife scene in our unique and vibrant coastal redwood forest.
If you’re heading out to go birding or wildlife-watching in California’s coastal redwood forests, you’ll want to wear comfortable hiking shoes, of course, and tote trekking poles, a good pair of binoculars and birding, wildflower and wildlife guidebooks or smartphone apps. A hat, sunscreen, a sack lunch and plenty of water are a must for any Bay Area hike. And a digital camera with telephoto and close-up lenses will provide the highest resolution images.
Smartphone applications such as Merlin and Sibley have detailed identification information and illustrations along with bird calls that can help you identify a wide variety of birds. The latter, which costs $20, includes all the content in David Allen Sibley’s 644-page “Sibley Guide to Birds,” as well as audio recordings. But like its print counterpart, the app is aimed at die-hard birding devotees. Beginning birders will likely want to start with Merlin, a free app designed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
You can download a copy of the Save the Redwoods League’s free, 81-page birdwatcher’s guide to the coastal redwood and giant sequoia forests and other helpful travel guides at www.savetheredwoods.org under the Experiences tab.
Having seen spotted owls in the redwoods and checked those off my list, my new priority is to spot other rare birds, such as California condors, peregrine falcons, bald eagles and especially marbled murrelets, seabirds that curiously split their time between the open ocean and nesting sites high in the canopy of old growth redwoods.
So many birds, so little time.
For neophyte birders, I suggest following the sage words of the Save the Redwoods birding guide: “Walk slowly and stop often. Listen. Look. Speak softly. Birds, after all, are wildlife, and wildlife is reflexively reclusive and retiring. To observe birds, you must become part of the wild.”