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California's Hawk Hill

Watch birds of prey swoop overhead at Hawk Hill on the Marin Headlands north of San Francisco.

A man releases a merlin on Hawk Hill, Calif., image
Photo credit
Photo courtesy of Walter Kitundu
Photo caption
A released merlin takes to the sky on Hawk Hill in the Marin Headlands.

Every autumn, the sky above the Marin Headlands just north of San Francisco becomes a raptor superhighway. Stand on Hawk Hill during the southward migration’s peak—from September 10 to October 10—and you can expect to see from dozens to hundreds of birds of prey in an hour, says Allen Fish, director of the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory. To study the migration, the group harmlessly captures some of the birds, then sets them free equipped with identifying bands.

Fish explains that the shape of Marin County—wide at the top, narrow at the bottom—funnels the birds over Hawk Hill. Burly red-tailed hawks and glider-like turkey vultures take up most of the airspace, but sharp-eyed watchers can also spot Swainson’s hawks, peregrine falcons, merlins, and other commuters.

There’s no needless flapping or swooping; the birds soar with their wings spread wide, many with their eyes fixed toward Mexico and points beyond. For Fish, the show never gets old. “Raptors have a lot of mystique, nobility, and machismo,” he says.

You’re not wowed by predatory birds? The view from Hawk Hill to the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco is itself thrilling. Roadwork has at times complicated the route to the site, so check the group’s website for driving directions. (415) 331-0730,

This article was first published in September 2013. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.