On this hilltop just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, you can see the San Francisco skyline, all of San Francisco Bay, the Marin County hills to the north, and Mount Diablo to the east. To the west, in the vast Pacific Ocean, the Farallon Islands are mere dots.
Hawk Hill is my favorite birding site, but not just for its scenery. It also hosts the largest known concentration of migrating raptors in the Pacific states. In fall, we average 30,000 sightings of 19 raptor species. On a peak day in late September, squinting into the mosaic of sky, clouds, and hills, you can see handfuls of hawks every minute. I say hawks, but it’s really all kinds of birds of prey: kites, falcons, eagles, buteos, Osprey, vultures, harriers, and accipiters. The diversity is astounding.
Making a few powerful wing flaps, some birds choose to stream across to San Francisco. Others work the thermals and updrafts to gain altitude until they can glide south across the cool air of the Golden Gate. Still more choose to fly north from the Gate and disappear over the hills of Marin. — Allen Fish
Allen Fish is the director of the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory. In 2003, he received the Maurice Broun Award for contributions to raptor migration research.
Steep-sided, round-topped hills. Summit is a 10-minute walk from parking area; the elevation gain is 100 feet. Raptors can also be seen from parking lot and peripheral trails.
Raptors: Turkey Vulture, Osprey, White-tailed Kite, Bald and Golden Eagles, Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned, Cooper’s, Red-shouldered, Swainson’s, Red-tailed, Ferruginous, and Rough-legged Hawks, American Kestrel, Merlin, Prairie and Peregrine Falcons. Swallows, swifts, Band-tailed Pigeon. Rarities: Northern Goshawk, Short-eared Owl. The best place in California to see Broad-winged Hawk (peaks in late September).
When to go
September through November, mid-day hours. Raptor flight is best on a light northwest wind.
On September and October weekends, docents lead HawkTalk at noon and banding demonstration at 1 pm. Marin Headlands Visitor Center, a few miles west of Hawk Hill, has bird guides, restrooms, snacks and drinks, and a record book of recent wildlife sightings.
National recreation area. No entrance fee for Hawk Hill or the Marin Headlands. Visitor center open 9:30-4:30 daily. Hawk Hill closed sunset to sunrise. Golden Gate Transit bus route 76 lets riders off about a mile from Hawk Hill at Conzelman and McCullough Rds.
Bring binoculars and a spotting scope, and dress in layers.