Where to See Raptors in Winter in Sonoma County

Some of the best places to spot raptors are along hiking trails at some of Sonoma County’s most treasured public lands.

Forget canaries in the coal mine. For Larry Broderick, the real indicator species are raptors soaring high overhead, hunting along Sonoma’s rich marshlands, or nesting in our native trees. “They’re a biological bellwether,” says the Santa Rosa-based leader of the Jenner Headlands Raptor Migration Project and West County HawkWatch. “When things are going wrong with them, it often means that things can go wrong with us.”

Citizen scientists like Broderick consider fall and winter the best time of year to observe these adaptable hunters. That’s when migratory harriers, hawks, kites, kestrels, merlins, eagles, and osprey from farther north join year-round residents countywide in search of “little furry things” to eat.

Visiting birds move freely among Sonoma’s wildlands in search of a good meal. “There are like all these restaurants throughout the area, and [the birds] are gonna go to which ones are serving the food based upon prey availability,” says Broderick. Even so, individual birds have been observed to return year after year to the same overwintering location, like a vacation home. Others are only passing through.

After three decades of observing raptors, Broderick has noted population declines in several species. The timing of local migrations has also changed, moving back about two weeks since the early 1990s, an outcome Broderick thinks is at least partially due to climate change. “It’s a good way to gauge how healthy the environment is,” he says, “by checking out your top-of-the-food-chain predators.”

Where to observe raptors

It’s no coincidence that some of the best places to spot raptors are along hiking trails at some of Sonoma’s most treasured public lands. Each destination shows off early winter’s quiet beauty.

Tolay Lake Regional Park, Petaluma. parks.sonomacounty.ca.gov

Shollenberger Park, Petaluma. cityofpetaluma.org

Laguna de Santa Rosa Preserve, Santa Rosa. parks.sonomacounty.ca.gov

Jenner Headlands Preserve, Jenner. wildlandsconservancy.org