A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


Lake Ralphine (at Howarth Memorial Park)

Location aliases: Variously referred to as the Howarth Park lake, the lake with the boathouse, and (erroneously) Spring Lake. Correctly called Lake Ralphine, but even many locals won't know it by that name. Howarth Park is formally known as Howarth Memorial Park, but almost always referred to simply as Howarth Park.

©2011 Google – Imagery ©2011 DigitalGlobe, USDA Farm Service Agency, GeoEye, Map data ©2011 Google

Location: The main entrance is at (approximately) 650 Summerfield Rd., Santa Rosa, CA 95405

GPS address: 650 Summerfield Rd., Santa Rosa, CA 95405 

GPS Coordinates: 38 27 11 N, 122 40 05 W (at the upper parking lot, by the Lake Ralphine boathouse)

Access: Enter from Summerfield Rd. and go left up past the "Howarth Park" sign and continue to the upper parking lot for closest access to the Lake. This lot is often full on weekends. Park in the lower lots or on Summerfield Rd. when parking is full. For recommended areas, see "Recommended Routes" below. Quieter on weekdays.

Habitats: Lake, lakeside woods, mature oaks, blackberry and native undergrowth.

Recommended Routes: 1. Start by looking around the small island near the boathouse. There is a resident population of Mallards and geese, but other birds are usually present as well. This is a good area to look for over-wintering gulls and ducks such as Common Merganser in the winter.

2. Next, put the boathouse behind you and walk along the water toward the right until you find the paved trail that goes around the Lake. Soon it will split. A lower, dirt trail stays close to the water, the paved trail takes a higher route. Take the unpaved, lower trail. During migration, the trees along the unpaved trail are good for warblers, otherwise, for most of the common woodland birds. Check the water's edge for herons, night-herons, and egrets. In the tallest trees at the far end of the lake, Look for hawks and Osprey.

At the far end of the unpaved trail, the path splits. Go sharp left (down and back) and you can walk entirely around the lake, coming back to the parking lot from behind the boathouse (there is a tiny, hard-to-see marker that identifies this as the "Eagle Scout Trail," but no one seems to call it that). If instead you go straight at the end of the lake you will merge with the upper, paved trail, but there is another stretch of unpaved trail to the left of the paved trail here that runs parallel for quite a distance before joining the paved section, just shy of Spring Lake Park, entering behind the West Saddle Dam (see the map above and the map on the Spring Lake Park page). This side trail is often productive, and it provides a good way to walk into Spring Lake if you want to avoid the parking fee at the entrances at Newanga Dr. or Violetti Dr. Holders of Sonoma County Regional Park annual passes can park free ($69 as of the end of 2011, but ask about the substantial senior discount, if you qualify--a good deal for residents or if you plan an extended stay).

3. An alternative is to walk past the boathouse and out the dam to the left as you face the lake from the boathouse. At the end of the low dam, there is a small footbridge that connects to the trail that runs along the far side (the northwest edge) of Lake Ralphine (this is the same trail accessed by making the sharp left at the northern extreme of the lake, as described immediately above, the "Eagle Scout Trail"). However, there is also a steep dirt trail here that climbs the ridge from the end of the footbridge and connects to a trail at the top that follows the northwest edge of the lake again but along the ridge above the lake, rather than along the water. This trail might be called "Upper Eagle Scout Trail," or the "Ridge Trail," if it has no official name (I'm still investigating). This upper trail, which affords nice views over Lake Ralphine (photo below), will eventually connect with Spring Lake trails at the north end of the "West Saddle Dam" at Spring Lake. Spring Lake is off the map here to the upper right.

Typical Species: Canada Goose, Mallard, Bufflehead, Common Merganser, Common Goldeneye, Pied-billed Grebe, Ring-billed Gull, Western Gull, California Gull, Red-winged Blackbird, Brewer's Blackbird, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Double-crested Cormorant, Oak Titmouse, Bushtits, Chestnut-backed chickadee, Scrub jay, American crow, House finch, Dark-eyed Junco, American Goldfinch, Lesser Goldfinch, Brown Creeper, White-breasted Nuthatch, American Robin, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Black Phoebe, California Towhee, Spotted Towhee, California Quail, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Acorn Woodpecker, Nuttall's Woodpecker, Hutton's Vireo, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler, White-crowned Sparrow, Golden-crowned Sparrow. There is also a resident population of barnyard ducks and geese, Canada Geese, and Mallards that people feed near the boathouse, as noted above.

Unusual birds, sightings: Common Loon (12/26-12-29/15 Wendy Dandridge); Great-tailed Grackle (12/20/15, Gene Hunn), Purple Finch (12/20/15, Colin Talcroft); Eared Grebe (10/26/15, Debbie Drechsler); Black-bellied Whistling Duck (8/2-8/7/15, Colin Talcroft)--this bird was later seen at Roberts Lake, in Rohnert Park and then at Lucchesi Park, in Petaluma, in the late autumn of 2015; Eared Grebe (9/16/13, Debbie Drechsler); Varied Thrush (3/28/12, Colin Talcroft); Gadwall (fairly unusual at this location, March 12, 2012, Colin Talcroft; Varied Thrush (January 10, 2012); Gadwall (fairly unusual at this location, January 10, 2012); Ring-necked Duck (December 11, 2011); Wood Duck (December 11, 2011); Horned Grebe (December 3, 2011); Fox Sparrow (December 3, 2011); Varied Thrush (December 3, 2011); Mew Gull (December 3, 2011); Orange-crowned Warbler--uncommon in winter (January 8, 2011). Osprey often present over the lake or in the trees, usually at the far end of the lake (with the boat house behind you). On May 19, 2011, I observed five Osprey over the lake at the same time--which is extremely unusual; Belted Kingfisher often present; favorite overwintering site for Common Merganser--sometimes as many as 30 or 40 at a time; Spotted Sandpiper has been present at water's edge at the right side and far end of lake (with the boat house behind you); during spring and fall look for Townsend's Warbler, Yellow Warbler; Black-throated gray Warbler (September 1, 2009); the best place to look for warblers is in the trees between the water and the (unpaved) trail that is closest to the water's edge (below the paved trail) on the right (or east) side of the lake.

Restroom and other facilities: Public restrooms near the boathouse and park entrance, summer concession stand

Restaurants Nearby: East West Café at 557 Summerfield Rd. (546-6142) has good Mediterranean-influenced fare, with many vegetarian choices. Lepe's Taqueria at 4323 Montgomery Dr. (538-8891, about a minute further up Summerfield Rd. (to the right at the first intersection and then on your left) offers very good informal Mexican.  Further afield: There is a deli in the Safeway at 2751 Fourth St. 522-1455. Michelle Marie's Patisserie, 2404 Magowan Dr. (575-1214) has sandwiches and full meals at lunchtime.

Nearby attractions: Howarth Park offers play areas for children, paddle-boating at Lake Ralphine; summer children's activities include a carousel, a miniature steam engine kids and adults can ride on, petting zoo, pony riding. Public tennis courts. Continuing beyond Howarth Park on Summerfield Rd. and then out Montgomery Dr. to the right will connect you with Highway 12 (also known as Sonoma Highway), which leads to the Sonoma Valley wine country with many excellent wineries. Bennett Valley Golf Club is at 3330 Yulupa Ave. (528-3673). Public tennis courts next door to the golf course at Galvin Park. There are one or two wineries also further out Bennett Valley Rd. beyond the golf course, the best known being Matanzas Creek Winery (6097 Bennett Valley Rd., 528-6464)--worth a visit for its lavender fields, usually in bloom in June.

Related bird watching spots: Spring Lake Park is next door and connected by the extension of the trail that extends along the east side of Lake Ralphine. Channel Dr. is near the Violetti Dr. entrance to Spring Lake Park. Arroyo Sierra Dr. is accessible from Hoen Ave. Strawberry School Park is close by, accessible from Summerfield Rd. to the east (to the left out of the main Summerfield Rd. entrance of Howarth Park).

The birds in the photos: (Top) Spotted sandpiper, Lake Ralphine, Santa Rosa; (Bottom) Common Merganser, Lake Ralphine, Santa Rosa

All photos by the author, unless otherwise indicated

Maps by Google Maps



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.