John McLaren Park: Birding Hotspot
By Alan Hopkins
Located near San Francisco’s southern border, John McLaren Park is the city’s second-largest park. Its 312 acres have well-developed trails that cross rolling hills and provide ample opportunities to see a diversity of birds. Unlike Golden Gate Park and the Presidio, McLaren is not overrun with joggers and cyclists on weekends. Nor is a birding outing likely to be scuttled due to special events and road closures.
John McLaren was the horticulturist who turned the sand dunes of the Sunset District into Golden Gate Park. A friend of John Muir, he believed that our parks should be “naturalistic” in appearance. Unfortunately, some of his vision seems to have been lost in both parks. In parts of McLaren Park, however, it is possible to feel as if you’re out of the city, though great hilltop vistas bring the city into view.
I first visited McLaren Park some time in the 1970s, possibly for the SF Blues Festival or the SFMoMA soapbox derby. The park became a stop on my Bird Blitz field trips on the way to Candlestick Point Park. In 1990 city birders started the San Francisco Breeding Bird Atlas, and McLaren Park was my area. It was also my area for the Christmas Bird Count for a number of years. Now, as a naturalist for Kids in Parks, I am able to take Visitacion Valley Middle School students into the park and give them their first bird-watching experiences.
The park has changed quite a bit since I first started visiting: California Quail, Loggerhead Shrikes, and Olive-sided Flycatchers are no longer found there, many of the open fields have been planted with trees, and the ponds have been cleared of the tules where Red-winged Blackbirds nested. But there are still plenty of opportunities to enjoy the birds the park has to offer.
McLaren has a number of habitats. Of most interest are the open grassy slopes used by wintering Western Meadowlarks, Say’s Phoebes, and American Kestrels— species becoming harder to find in San Francisco as their preferred habitat is developed or planted. In the spring, the hills support an array of native wildflowers. The ridgeline along Mansell Street is frequented by local and migrating raptors. The park’s northwestern side has been planted with the usual cosmopolitan trees found in other city parks, and the species are similar: Downy Woodpecker, Hutton’s Vireo, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Pygmy Nuthatch, White-crowned Sparrow. Wintering birds are Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Yellow-rumped and Townsend’s Warblers. Many of the birding sites are along John F. Shelley Drive. This makes it possible to do a number of quick stops. However, when I have time, I like to walk a loop that takes me through most of the habitats and birding areas.
The most productive areas are the willow-lined springs and seeps. My favorite is along the boardwalk that runs through the willows between John F. Shelley Drive and McNab Lake, just down the hill from the intersection of Shelley and Cambridge Street. This is a great spot for migrants and is where I usually begin my walk so that I can check it twice.
Some of the migrants found here have included Northern Waterthrush, Black-and-white Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and Indigo Bunting. Usually there isn’t much on the lake, but it is worth checking for Hooded Merganser and other waterbirds passing through. Across Shelley Drive is the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater, which has a nice willow-lined seep and oak trees. This area is heavily used by professional dog walkers, and birding there can be frustrating, but the pro walkers are not as common on weekends.
From there I head up the hill to the southeast to Mansell Street, where there is a parking area and the trailhead for “Philosopher’s Way,” an artwork created by Peter Richards and Susan Schwartzenberg. The “Way” takes you to vista points with information about the area etched in stone. It is an interesting excursion but not the best for birds. Across Visitacion Avenue is a picnic area with trees frequented by Pygmy Nuthatches, Northern Mockingbirds, and migrating warblers and sparrows. The grassland below is the best place to look for Say’s Phoebe and spring wildflowers.
As you follow Visitacion Avenue downhill along the sidewalk, watch for the steps that lead to Campbell Avenue. The trees and willows at the end of the steps can be worth checking. As you continue down Visitacion Avenue, check the school garden for sparrows and finches. More than once, my students have spotted White-crowned, Golden-crowned, and Clay-colored Sparrows here for their first bird list. Where the sidewalk ends at the school parking lot, cross the street to the fire road. The fire road takes you west to where Persia Avenue and Mansell Street enter the park. Along the way, watch for Bewick’s Wren and Hairy Woodpecker and, in the spring, Lazuli Bunting. Crossing Mansell Street, look for trail up the street that will take you back to Shelley Drive. John F. Shelley Lake is located along the upper end of Shelley Drive. The riprap-lined lake has few waterfowl, and dogs can outnumber the ducks. Look for resident Hutton’s Vireo and Bewick’s Wren as well as migrant landbirds.
From the lake, a number of trails head north. My favorite runs steeply downhill through a small redwood grove. The redwoods are the best spot to look for Brown Creeper and occasionally for Golden-crowned Kinglet. A picnic area at the bottom of the redwoods has alders and willows at one end. From this point, cross Shelley Drive where the willows cross the street. You can either take the path that parallels Shelley Drive back to the starting point at Cambridge Street or continue down the hill to Yosemite Marsh.
The marsh, now a “marsh” in name only, is a small pond near the intersection of Bacon and Oxford Streets. The alders, oaks, and redwoods around the pond are worth checking for migrant landbirds. One day, if enough bird-watchers visit the site, the park staff will learn to appreciate what a marsh actually is, and the Green Herons and Red-winged Blackbirds will return.
Location: Southern part of San Francisco, south of Highway 280 and west of Highway 101.
Hours/Fees: No fee. Bathrooms and gates are locked on western John F. Shelley Drive.
Habitat: Hillside grasslands, willow riparian, cosmopolitan woodlands, small developed ponds.
Year-Round: Bewick’s Wren, Brown Creeper, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Hutton’s Vireo, Northern Mockingbird, Pygmy Nuthatch, White-crowned Sparrow.
Spring: Usually the best when early migrants arrive before all the wintering residents have left, including Lazuli Bunting, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Western Tanager, Wilson’s Warbler.
Summer: The slowest time of the year but a good time to watch for nesting Downy, Hairy and Nuttall’s Woodpeckers, Wilson’s Warbler, and sometimes Lazuli Bunting and Swainson’s Thrush.
Winter: Abundant sparrows including Golden-crowned Sparrow and possibly Swamp Sparrow, American Kestrel, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Say’s Phoebe, Townsend’s Warbler, Western Meadowlark, Yellow-rumped Warbler.
Fall: Migrant warblers, tanagers, and grosbeaks.
Ease of access: Trails vary from nearly flat to steep. ADA access is at McNab Lake via Woolsey Street and at the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater and Yosemite Marsh.
Getting There: The 29 Muni bus line stops on Mansell Street. By car, Mansell Street, the main thoroughfare through the park, is reached by taking Persia Avenue from Ocean Avenue. Persia becomes Mansell after 14 blocks. From the south: Turn onto Visitacion Avenue from Bayshore Boulevard. Visitacion ends at Mansell. From the north, turn southwest onto Cambridge Street from Silver Avenue. Cambridge ends at John F. Shelley Drive in the park.
Facilities: Bathrooms are located at McNab Lake, Jerry Garcia Amphitheater, and the clubhouse near the tennis courts.
Nearby cafes/restaurants: Located on Mission Street near Persia Avenue.
For more information:
SF Recreation & Parks Department – McLaren Park (includes a Google map)
Alan Hopkins, an artist and naturalist, is a founder and co-compiler of the San Francisco Christmas Bird Count. His chapters on Bay Area birds are published in 100 Birds of Heron’s Head, A Birders Guide To Metropolitan Areas of North America and San Francisco Peninsula Birdwatching. His web site is alanshopkins.weebly.com.