Don Edwards San Francisco National Wildlife Refuge - Mallard Slough Trail

Sometimes you feel a breeze from a thousand years ago, and it wakes you up to what once was, and what might still become. The native population once observed the bay skies clouded with millions of migrating birds. We can now see the descendants of those birds carrying on the migration, though in fewer numbers, in the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. 

California Brown Pelican

California Brown Pelican

Here, you can see giant brown pelicans float on by like ancient pterodactyls, and great egrets launch with effortless grace and power. The beauty of the refuge is that it allows nature to continue its patterns and processes in a protected space, and gives us a front row seat to the show. 

Great Egret

Great Egret

The 3.3 mile Mallard Slough Trail  gives you access to a variety of habitat in the refuge's 30,000 acre space. There are 15 different types of habitat here, each one hosting a variety of different plant and animal species. Each season brings new life and opportunities for visitors. 

The trail is a wide, fire road size levee that navigates a wedge of the refuge. Occasionally, a big lumbering Caltrain commuter shuttle roars by along the west stretch of the trail, but the birds seem to be used to it. 

Great Egrets on the island, along with Double-Crested Cormorants. Brown Pelican taking off in the foreground.  

Great Egrets on the island, along with Double-Crested Cormorants. Brown Pelican taking off in the foreground.  

There are man made islands in the refuge, and many of the birds roost and observe from these places. I hiked the trail in late afternoon, looking to watch the end of the day activities. Pelicans were flying in and settling on the islands. Sandpipers were whipping by like a fast moving cloud. Their movements seemed choreographed in advance, like a high speed flying ballet. 

Flying cloud of Sandpipers

Flying cloud of Sandpipers

Gulls dropped lightly out of the sky to roost on little plate sized patches of mud. They cleaned and warmed as they watched the sun drop.

California Gull landing

California Gull landing

All along the way Great Egrets flew and flapped their giant wings and looked like slim white sheets on a windy clothesline. 

A Great Egret joins the party

A Great Egret joins the party

On the western stretch of the Mallard Slough Trail, I looked up to see a big Brown Pelican coming in for a landing. Like a mirage, he just appeared before my eyes, and grew larger as he approached. 

As he came close, he took a look at me, then he banked to his left and posed with the blue sky behind him.

I really got the sense this Brown Pelican was observing me. You may notice a sense of wary acceptance of visitors from the birds. They were quick to launch and get distance as I observed them. Parts of the refuge are open to waterfowl hunters during certain times of the year, and my camera and tripod may have looked like something else to these birds. 

Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican

Fortunately, I had a long enough lens to capture moments like this below. Among this group of Northern Shovelers, some were landing and some were taking off. 

Example of the speculum (wing) of the male shoveler flying.  The light blue on white on dark green is specific to the shoveler...Northern Shovelers (male and female in water), Green-winged teal flying (small duck with black and green on wing, green stripe on head) and possibly a male gadwall peeking up from the pickleweed. American coot in background. 

Example of the speculum (wing) of the male shoveler flying.  The light blue on white on dark green is specific to the shoveler...Northern Shovelers (male and female in water), Green-winged teal flying (small duck with black and green on wing, green stripe on head) and possibly a male gadwall peeking up from the pickleweed. American coot in background. 

Nestled in the deep grasses are pockets of open water, and Shovelers drift and float about.

Female Shoveler

Female Shoveler

Approaching the end of the western part of the trail, I came across a Great Blue Heron standing with a pocket of Northern Shovelers. I stood for a while on the trail, waiting to see if he would move. He was off the trail to the right, just on the shore. He gave me a side glance and ruffled his feathers. I lowered my tripod off my shoulder, placed it on the ground and stood behind my camera. He lowered himself, and launched, cutting through the air with powerful downward thrusts of his giant wings. As he flew by me he let out a haunting jurassic screech. 

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

And just moments later the last light of the day touched down, warming the roosting White Pelicans on one of the little islands. 

Sun sets on White Pelicans

Sun sets on White Pelicans

There was last minute chatter and negotiation for space as they took their places to observe the sunset. 

Enjoying the last light

Enjoying the last light

The sky had a campfire glow, with the cloud's orange flames dancing in the high winds. 

Evening show of color

Evening show of color

The sunset's pink orange color lit up the water for this hunting Great Blue Heron.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Please respect the wildlife and habitat of this beautiful area, and consider volunteering here at the refuge. There are many interesting and fun things to do, and you'll be helping to preserve and protect an amazing sanctuary.

To learn more about visiting the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge, click here. 

Special thanks to Carmen Leong-Minch of the National Wildlife Refuge for her help in captioning the photos.

Resources

Full Photo Gallery of this hike

Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge

Trail Map of the Mallard Slough Trail

Directions to the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge

Free Pocket Guide Books for Western Birds (PDF files)

The State of the Birds - San Francisco Bay - 2011