A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

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


Tolay Lake Regional Park, Petaluma CA 94954

Location aliases: Referred to variously--by its proper name, Tolay Lake Regional Park--or Tolay Lake Park, or simply Tolay Lake. Some birders will just call the place Tolay.

Imagery ©2013 DigitalGlobe, GeoEye, US Geological Survey, USDA Farm Service Agency. Map data ©2013 Google

Location: On Cannon Lane, Petaluma (which also appears on Google Maps as Mangel Ranch Rd.). Southeast of Petaluma proper--between Petaluma and Highway 37. The Keller Estate Winery sign is the most obvious landmark for the turn-off from Lakeville Highway. Note that Tolay Lake Regional Park is not yet open to the general public (see “Access” below).

GPS address: 5831 Cannon Lane, Petaluma, CA, 94954 will take you close to the key card-activated access gate.

GPS Coordinates: 38.2050N, 122.5210W will take you to the main parking area.

Access: At time of writing (early 2014), by permit only. Obtaining a permit is not onerous. You simply need to attend a one-hour orientation lecture at the park (free). Orientations are offered once or twice a month. The permit consists of a parking permit that goes on your dashboard and a “pocket permit” that is carried on your person. You also get a gate card to open the access gate, which is about a mile before the parking area and trailheads (see map above). The permit does not allow you to park free, however. You must pay a parking fee of $7 (at time of writing). Holders of Sonoma County Regional Parks annual passes park free. For more information about the park, about the permit process, and about annual passes (which are good for all Sonoma County Regional Parks), see the Sonoma County Regional Parks website and specifically Tolay Lake permit information. Permit holders are allowed to bring in one vehicle and up to three guests per permit holder. Access with permit is limited to Saturday and Sunday from 8:00AM to sunset in the winter (October to March), Friday, Saturday, and Sunday 8:00AM to sunset in the summer (April to September). Information is available also by calling 789-9644 or sending e-mail requests to TolayPermit@sonoma-county.org

Habitats: Seasonal wetlands, marsh, creeks, ponds, meadows, woods, vineyards and other cultivated land. Mature oaks at higher elevations. Scattered Eucalyptus. Tolay Lake is now a mostly dry lake bed, having been drained in the 19th century for agricultural purposes. The lake bed fills to some extent during the wet winter months. In heavy rain years, a proper (if temporary) lake forms. Long-term plans look toward restoring the lake permanently.

Typical Species: Great Egret, Canada Goose, Mallard, American Wigeon, Cinnamon Teal, Turkey Vulture, Red-tailed Hawk, Northern Harrier, American Kestrel, White-tailed Kite, Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Golden Eagle, Killdeer, Greater Yellowlegs, Burrowing Owl, Short-eared Owl, Anna’s Hummingbird, Acorn Woodpecker, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Black Phoebe, Say’s Phoebe, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Western Wood-Pewee, Loggerhead Shrike, Hutton’s Vireo, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Western Scrub-jay, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Oak Titmouse, American Crow, Common Raven, Northern Mockingbird, Western Meadowlark, Barn Swallow, Tree Swallow, Violet-green Swallow, Bushtit, White-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, Bewick’s Wren, Marsh Wren, Western Bluebird, American Robin, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Red-winged Blackbird, Brewer’s Blackbird, European Starling, American Pipit, California Towhee, Spotted Towhee, Lazuli Bunting, Song Sparrow, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Golden-crowned Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, House Finch, Lesser Goldfinch, American Goldfinch.

Among the best places in the county to see raptors. Seeing eight to ten raptor species in a day here is not unheard of. Golden Eagle, Ferruginous Hawk, and Rough-legged Hawk are often present. American Kestrel, Northern Harrier, White-tailed Kite, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, and Sharp-shinned Hawk are regularly present. Merlin and Peregrine Falcon are also possible. At dawn and dusk, look for Short-eared Owl. Also, a reliable place to see Loggerhead Shrike.

Unusual birds, sightings: Vesper Sparrow (12/21/15-12/3/16, Robin Winning, Ron Storey); Golden Eagle (12/14/2013, Colin Talcroft, Robin Blaney, Theadora Block); Rough-legged Hawk (12/14/2013, Colin Talcroft, Robin Blaney, Theadora Block); Ferruginous Hawk (12/14/2013, Colin Talcroft, Robin Blaney, Theadora Block); Ferruginous Hawk (Feb 9, 2013, Colin Talcroft); Eastern Phoebe (Dec 28, 2012, Josiah Clark); Rough-legged Hawk (Nov 11, 2012, Colin Talcroft); Wilson’s Warbler (late sighting for this bird, Nov 11, 2012, Colin Talcroft); Grasshopper Sparrow (Oct 17, 2012, Peter Colasanti); Ring-necked Pheasant (Oct 17, 2012, Peter Colasanti); Prairie Falcon (Oct 10, 2012, Peter Colasanti); American Bittern (Sep 5, 2012, Peter Colasanti); Long-billed Curlew (Sep 5, 2012, Peter Colasanti); Golden Eagle (Aug 29, 2012, Peter Colasanti); Rufous-crowned Sparrow (Aug 29, 2012, Peter Colasanti); American Bittern (May 9, 2012, Peter Colasanti); Rufous-crowned Sparrow (Mar 3, 2012, Gene Hunn); Ferruginous Hawk (Mar 3, 2012, Gene Hunn); Rock Wren (Jan 18, 2012, Peter Colasanti); Eastern Phoebe (Jan 18, 2012, Andy Lacasse)

Restroom facilities: Public restrooms (portables) available in the parking lot only. No other facilities. Bring your own water. Pack out all trash.

Restaurants nearby:  Not a lot in the immediate area of Tolay Park except Papa’s Taverna at 5688 Lakeville Highway, Petaluma CA 94954 (769-8545)--hours somewhat erratic; may be best to call ahead. If you're in a hurry, the best bet may be the Subway at 2620 Lakeville Highway, Suite 320, Petaluma, CA 94954 -7621 (789-9011). There is a Starbucks at 3100 Lakeville Hwy. (775-3708) for the basics. Otherwise, downtown Petaluma is probably the best bet for lunch. My favorite has long been the Water Street Bistro at 100 Petaluma Blvd. North, Petaluma, CA 94952 (763-9563). Small, but delicious. Lombardi’s Barbecue (3413 Petaluma blvd. North, Petaluma, CA 94952; 773-1271) has excellent sandwiches. Try the pulled pork sandwich. Ask for your cole slaw IN the sandwich. Yum. If you find yourself in Petaluma in the evening and want a delicious and relatively inexpensive sit-down dinner with wine, try Cucina Paradiso, at 114 Petaluma Blvd. North Petaluma, CA 94952 (782-1169). Acre Coffee, at 21 4th St., Petaluma, CA 94952 (772-5117) is good for early birders (open from 7:00AM). 

Other Petaluma-area restaurants that come recommended to me by readers in the Petaluma area include:

Aqus Cafe, 189 H Street at 2nd St., Petaluma

Della Fattoria Bakery and Cafe, 141 Petaluma Blvd. North, downtown Petaluma

Velasco's North of the Border, 190 Kentucky St., downtown Petaluma 

Zocalos Latin Grill, 3120 Lakeville Highway, Suite A, Petaluma.

Nearby attractions: The historic downtown area of Petaluma has restaurants, galleries, antique and other shops, mainly on Kentucky St. and the surrounding areas. Good for a stroll and shopping. This area has some good Victorian architecture.  If you’re in the mood for bargain hunting, the Petaluma Village Factory Outlets outside of town may be of interest, at 2200 Petaluma Blvd. North (778-9300). Petaluma has a nice Carnegie Library still in operation that houses a small museum of local interest. (built in 1904; 20 Fourth St., Petaluma, CA 94952). For the gardener, Cottage Gardens is an excellent nursery, at 3995 Emerald Dr., Petaluma, CA 94952 (778-8025).

Related bird watching spots: Shollenberger Park and the ponds and trails at Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility are the closest birding spots. See the relevant pages for details. On the opposite side of Shollenberger Park is Alman Marsh. A one-mile trail leads from the bridge over Adobe Creek through marshy areas, terminating at the Sheraton Sonoma County hotel (745 Baywood Dr., at the Petaluma Marina). The Petaluma Wetlands Alliance oversees all three areas--Shollenberger Park, the areas around Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility, and the Alman Marsh area. See the Wetlands Alliance Website for more information. Also nearby are Reclamation Rd., Port Sonoma, Skagg’s Island Rd., and Hudeman Slough.

Further afield: Continuing south on Lakeville Hwy/Route 116 from the Shollenberger Park area will bring you to a T-junction at Hwy 37. To the left with the water in front of you (east) is the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge (mostly in Solano County). To the right, you can head back to Highway 101. The Atherton Rd. exit gives access to good birding at wetlands accessible from Bahia Dr. (Marin County). Head for the intersection of Bahia Dr. and Topaz Dr. A GPS address of 500 Bahia Dr., Novato CA should get you close. 1600 Armstrong Ave. should take you close to good birding along Binford Rd., on the other side of the same area (heading toward Gnoss Field, a small airport here). Trails connect the two areas.

Notes: Tolay Lake Regional Park is a raptor heaven. If you love raptors, don’t miss this place. Red-tailed Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, American Kestrel, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, Prairie Falcon, Turkey Vulture, Rough-legged Hawk, Ferruginous Hawk, Northern Harrier, White-tailed Kite, Golden Eagle, Great-horned Owl, Short-eared Owl, and Burrowing Owl have all been seen here. Harriers, kites, kestrels, and Red-tailed Hawks are particularly numerous.    

One of the few places in the county to reliably see Loggerhead Shrike (look around the vineyards along the Causeway Trail) and Golden Eagle (look for them above the ridges in the distance as you head out the Causeway Trail).

The birds in the photo: Above--American Goldfinch, winter plumage, January 13, 2013; below--Juvenile Northern Harrier, December 14, 2013

All photos by the author, unless otherwise indicated

Maps by Google Maps



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016

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.