Birding Hotspot: El Polin Spring

This is the first in an occasional series of reviews of Bay Area birding locations. Do you have a favorite site you’d like to share? Email

By David Anderson

My first impression of Upper Tennessee Hollow was an unfinished project. The plant growth seemed low, much of it very fresh, stakes still de-marking plant lines. Then, as I walked further along the El Polin Spring, the centerpiece and focal point, I heard the distinct mcWEEdeer call of an Olive-sided Flycatcher, followed by a Red-tailed Hawk’s shrill cry, a cacophony of finch calls, Violet-green Swallows overhead, and an Ash-throated Flycatcher(!) perched on the west slope. Oh boy, oh boy, this was a place for the birds.

Situated at the southern end of MacArthur Avenue in San Francisco’s Presidio, the El Polin Spring and the Upper Tennessee Hollow have recently been restored. However, it turns
out half the growth is quite mature, and the flanking Monterey pine and redwood groves are long settled. The year-round spring and the varied habitat make it a bird magnet. The archaeological excavations (from a Spanish/Mexican settlement there in the early 1800s) and ample graphics complement nicely as an added point of interest.

Boardwalk and benches at El Polin Spring / Photo by David Anderson

The Presidio Trust went to great lengths to capture the spring as a feature, creating slightly sunken spillways across the path – which the birds use continually for bathing – and creating a series of small ponds with weirs flowing into one another through wetlands. A Great Blue Heron has adopted the uppermost pond, though a Snowy Egret shared it recently. California Towhees, Black Phoebes, American Robins, White-crowned and Song Sparrows, Bushtits, and hummingbirds (Anna’s and Allen’s) all were in abundance.

Cedar Waxwings at El Polin Spring / Photo by Dominik Mosur

On the early June day I visited, fledgling House Finches were lined up in the sun, two Lesser Goldfinch youngsters came to the spring, and a Hairy Woodpecker brought three small, fluffy young to a small oak right by the trail. I had to say “awww!”

Reconstructed watercourse at El Polin Spring / Photo by David Anderson

The upper bowl is partial grasslands, and the Lesser Goldfinches, American Goldfinches, House Finches, and several weeks ago a pair (or trio?) of Lazuli Buntings enjoyed the grasses and seeds.

Pine Siskin at El Polin Spring / Photo by Dominik Mosur

The woods and fringe attract Pygmy Nuthatches, flycatchers and woodpeckers, Western Bluebirds, American Crows, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Hutton’s Vireos and more. Overhead I saw Turkey Vultures, Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks, an American kestrel, Barn Swallows, Western Culls, common ravens, a Double-crested Cormorant, and a Caspian Tern.

El Polin Spring ponds / Photo by David Anderson
Excavated water storage basin, from an adobe home in the early 1800s / Photo by David Anderson

Winter trips to Upper Tennessee Hollow are sure to add warblers, more vireos, kinglets and the odd vagrant. No matter what time of year, the Hollow and El Polin spring are a great stop for birders, and a fun walk.


David Anderson, vice president of the Golden Gate Bird Alliance Board of Directors, was Director of the San Francisco Zoo for 14 years, leading its transformation into a modern zoological institution with a strong focus on conservation activities. More recently, David led Audubon of Florida, where he was responsible for the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and six other sanctuaries.


About El Polin Spring

Location: Presidio of San Francisco (run by National Park Service)

Habitat: Meadow, scrub, pine and redwood forest.

Ease of access: Paved road (MacArthur) to small parking lot. Paved trail at Spring. Gravel trails around Hollow.

Nearby services: Restroom at parking lot. Restaurants on main Presidio Post. At the spring, there is a small picnic area with picnic tables and a grill.

For more info: The Presidio web site has extensive information on El Polin and Tennessee Hollow. For directions, see the Presidio map or the Google map below.


View Larger Map