A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

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

Fairly common in suitable habitat (where the fishing is good) throughout the county. More common in summer than winter, but present all year long. Usually seen hovering over water or diving feet-first after fish, or perched near water looking for fish. Our only raptor that lives primarily on fish. Colloquially known as Fish Hawk in some areas. Usually solitary, but I've seen as many as five soaring together. Larger numbers may congregate where fish are abundant. Breeds in the county, making large stick nests in trees or on manmade poles, usually over or near water. Once severely threatened by the effects of DDT, the Osprey has made a good recovery and sightings are fairly common now. May be seen at lakes and reservoirs and along substantial rivers as well as at the sea coast, especially near estuaries. There is a resident bird at Lake Ralphine in Santa Rosa. Gaffney Point, at Bodega Bay is a favorite spot. Common also at the mouth of the Russian River.  

Large raptor (wingspan up to about 6 feet, or 1.8 meters). Dark above, mostly pale below, but with large dark patches at the "wrist." Short white crest. Head white, but with a conspicuous dark eye band (some believe the black across the eyes helps to reduce glare off of water surfaces). Females have a patchy "necklace," as in the photo above (the extent of the necklace seems to be quite variable; it's unusually distinct in this bird). Proportionately small tail. Feet specially adapted with barbs to help hold slippery prey. Long wings held slightly above the horizontal and often with a distinct bend in them. At a distance, may suggest a gull because of this "gull-winged" posture (see flight silhouette).

For current raptor migration information, visit the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory website

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 38

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 183

Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, p. 45

Clark and Wheeler, Peterson Field Guide to Hawks of North America, 2nd ed., 2001, pp. 22-23 (Plate 3), pp. 8, 113

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 118

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 126

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 147-148

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 242

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 103

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 118

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 118

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, pp. 70, 196

Liguori, Hawks from Every Angle: How to Identify Raptors in the Field, 2005, pp. 107, 112-113, 126-130

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, pp. 66-68, 69

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 20

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, p. 112, 114

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 98, 122

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 184

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 111

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 144

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 108

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Osprey




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

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.


Osprey, Goat Rock Beach, Jenner, February 23, 2012

Osprey carrying fish, Bodega Head, June 20, 2011


Pandion haliaetus

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated July 29, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County