Beginner’s Luck: My First Golden Gate Bird Alliance Birding Trip

By Kara Henderson

My excitement faded with each step I took as sheets of water fell. I hadn’t received word the field trip—my first—had been canceled, but how many birds would we really see in this weather? Twenty minutes later, I arrived at Fort Mason Community Garden and was greeted by a dozen or so hardy folks. David—a volunteer guide with the Golden Gate Bird Alliance, along with Erica and John—briefed us on the upcoming two hours: “This corner of the peninsula hosts many habitats—186 species of birds were counted last year. We’ll start here, make our way to the bay and then wrap up at the General’s Residence where a Great Horned Owl couple has been spotted once or twice. Birds hunker down in the rain but need to come out for food.” And as if on cue, the rain stopped, and we were off through saturated plots of flowers and vegetables.

Golden Gate Bird Alliance birding group at Fort Mason by Kara Henderson

Our first sightings did not disappoint. A red-shafted Northern Flicker rested on a pine’s crown like a Christmas tree topper. The underside of its wing feathers blazed a fiery streak as it flew away, but its voice was never far for long. Two—TWO!—Northern Mockingbirds fluttered and danced on a picnic table. Anna’s Hummingbirds whizzed past, sooty Fox Sparrows raked and foraged and California Towhees posed. All of them delighted, but my heart and head still hung on three words: Great Horned Owl. Onward.

As we gathered above Aquatic Cove, winter’s chill made itself home within my bones. Western Grebes floated and Brown Pelicans and various gulls soared. But the real scene-stealer, thanks to John’s scope, was the Black Skimmer—12 in all—hiding out among cormorants on the breakwater. More likely found in southern California, catching a glimpse of the skimmer’s striking black-on-white plumage and orange-streaked, scissor-like bill drew smiles as we each took turns viewing. “Just where were those Great Horned Owls?” I asked David.

Black Point Historic Gardens by Kara Henderson

Trekking through Black Point Historic Gardens, I bottled the smell of damp fresh earth in my memory, while the sound of waves hitting the beach and fans cheering on swimmers wafted from the park below. Nearly at the end of our trip, we had been graced by 58 different species of avian life. An embarrassment of riches, I would have gone home with a spring in my step. But could we make it 59? I went solo to inspect a eucalyptus tree. Nothing. Turning around to rejoin the group—my gaze still up—a bump on a palm tree caught my attention. I almost ignored it, but some force of nature raised my binoculars. And as I focused in, I couldn’t help but shout, “Great Horned Owl!” It roosted alone, perfectly blended with the variegated browns of dried fronds and bark. I love owls but had never seen one during the day or this close. So powerful. So breathtaking.

Great Horned Owl by Kara Henderson

Erica remarked that the encounter happened because I’d set the intention, and she might be right. Or perhaps it was just a simple case of beginner’s luck. For a relative novice like me, the true manifestation was, well, all of it. That I’d finally signed up for an outing like this after months of contemplating it, and that I’d stuck with it, though the elements gave me pause. As a result, I was rewarded by making new friends—both the human and beaked, egg-laying, mostly flying kind. And, if only briefly, I released myself to the wild.

Kara Henderson is fascinated by plants and animals and tells their stories through pictures and words. Raised in Indianapolis and a graduate of Indiana University Bloomington, Kara lives in San Francisco.