They're a common sight around California's wetlands: tall, long-legged, long-necked birds wading in the shallows, looking for fish. If they're white, they're probably egrets. The gray ones are herons. They're often found together.
Because of dense human population along the southern California coast, you won't find many places to watch herons and egrets. Most of these spots are in central and northern California. They're listed in order from north to south.
Herons and Egrets in Marin CountyAudubon Canyon Ranch on the edge of the Bolinas Lagoon is a favorite nesting spot for herons and egrets, who favor the trees on its hillsides. It's open only from the third weekend in March through the second weekend in July on weekends and holiday or Tuesday through Friday by appointment.
Docents are on hand with spotting scopes set up, ready to answer your questions, making this an especially good place to see them. And it's only 30 miles north of San Francisco.
Herons and Egrets at Elkhorn Slough
The shallow waters of Elkhorn Slough at Moss Landing are great places to see herons and egrets any time. Often, all it takes is a glance out your car window. To get a better look, you can kayak in the slough either by yourself on a group tour, or go on a naturalist-led boat trip with Elkhorn Slough Safari.
More than 7,000 acres around Elkhorn Slough are protected by various organizations. You'll find a visitor center a few miles off CA Hwy 1 where you can learn more and explore the marshes on foot. Turn at the power plant onto Dolan Road, then left on Elkhorn Road.
Herons and Egrets at Gray Lodge Wildlife Area
Gray Lodge Wildlife Area isn't on the coast but in the central valley, 60 miles north of Sacramento in Butte County. Located on the Pacific Flyway, it attracts almost 40 kinds of water birds and provides winter habitat for approximately 5 million birds. Besides the more common great blue herons and great egrets, green herons, black-crowned herons, little blue herons and snowy egrets at Gray Lodge. Great blue herons also nest there.
Herons and Egrets Elsewhere in California
Heron and Egret Watching Tips
- Don't get too close, staying at least 1/4 mile away when they're nesting, so you don't disturb them or their babies.
- Bring binoculars or a bird-watcher's spotting scope. You can see them better.
- Photographing moving birds is difficult. Practice "panning," following birds with your camera before you go and remember: don't stop following when you press the shutter. If you're photographing the white egrets, set your exposure slightly lower than normal to avoid losing detail in those white feathers.
- Herons and egrets are free-ranging, wild creatures and sometimes they just don't show up, no matter where you are or how much you want to see them.