Sonoma County Wildlife You Can Spot Each Season

Seagull perched on a bluff along the Sonoma Coast

Sonoma County is celebrated for its unique microclimates and biodiversity, supporting a wide array of mammals, birds, and more — and one of the great joys of visiting here is spotting our native (and even non-native) creatures in the wild.

Just remember, when visiting Sonoma County’s open spaces, trails, state and regional parks, and beaches, it’s important to adhere to the Leave No Trace Seven Principles, which include efforts to keep wildlife wild. In order to avoid injury to wild creatures and yourself,  observe and photograph them from afar, using a telephoto lens and/or binoculars. Together, we can protect and preserve the beauty and natural resources of Sonoma County for generations to come.

Here are some of the most exciting wildlife spotting opportunities in Sonoma County, in every season and throughout the year.

Whale Watching: Mid-Winter Through Spring

whale watching in sonoma coast state park
Whale tail spotted at Bodega Head, in Sonoma Coast State Park

The annual north-to-south gray whale migration blows through Sonoma County from January to May, with good opportunities for whale-spotting all along the Sonoma Coast.

Traveling along Highway 1, some key Sonoma Coast whale-watching spots are Bodega HeadStillwater Cove Regional ParkSalt Point State Park, the six public access trails at The Sea Ranch, and Gualala Point Regional Park. 

Otter Spotting: Late Winter & Early Spring

river otter in sonoma county
Photo courtesy of the River Otter Ecology Project

February through March, female river otters are denning under fallen trees near rivers and streams, having litters of one to four pups who will stay by their mothers’ side for the next year. Year-old male pups see this period of parental distraction as a good opportunity to explore outdoors alone for the first time, so keep an eye out for them from late winter through early spring.

You may spot some of these adventurous otter pups (and the occasional fishing mom) in Spring Lake Regional Park, by the Petaluma,  Russian, and Gualala rivers, or the coastal streams in Gualala Point Regional Park. The Bay Area-based River Otter Ecology Project invites you to become an “otter spotter” by posting your otter sightings to its interactive map.

Seal Seeking: Spring & Summer

Pacific harbor seals basking on Goat Rock Beach
Pacific harbor seals basking on Goat Rock Beach

Each spring, a large sand spit builds up at the mouth of the Russian River on Goat Rock Beach in the Sonoma Coast State Park, providing Pacific harbor seals with an ideal rookery — an area where they feel safe to give birth, rear their pups, and forage for food.

Seal pupping season begins in March, reaches a peak during the last week of April, and continues through May. Mother seals spend four to six weeks bonding with their pups, then they’ll leave them to tend to/fend for themselves all summer, adapting naturally to a state of independence. While these little pinnipeds and their moms are still together, it’s crucial that you stay quiet and keep your distance while observing them; if a mother seal perceives a threat, she may leave and not return, leaving her offspring vulnerable to predators.

Pacific harbor seals resting on a sand spit at Goat Rock Beach
Pacific harbor seals resting on the sand spit at Goat Rock Beach 

From March through Labor Day, Goat Rock Beach is safeguarded by the Stewards of the Coast & Redwoods‘ all-volunteer Seal Watch, who protect the seals here by educating visitors. Come to this special spot to simply observe Pacific harbor seals lolling on the sand, basking in the sun, and bobbing in the water, or consider joining Seal Watch as a volunteer.

Wildlife Spotting All Year Long

Birdwatching in Regional Parks

Green heron
Green heron perched in a tree in Spring Lake Regional Park

Consider yourself a bird fan? Head to any of the 50 regional parks, trails, and open spaces of Sonoma County — and keep your eyes peeled for feathered friends.

For instance, when roaming the hills, grasslands, and forests of 320-acre Spring Lake Regional Park in Santa Rosa, you’re all but assured of seeing towhees, warblers, finches, sparrows, and orioles, as well as ducks, hawks, and herons.

Birdwatching guide along the Laguna de Santa Rosa Trail
Birdwatching guide along the Laguna de Santa Rosa Trail

Sebastopol’s 1.8-mile Laguna de Santa Rosa Trail is Sonoma County’s largest freshwater wetland, and home to 200 species of birds. Here you’re bound to see woodpeckers, bluebirds, and hawks, as well as warblers, finches, and even wild turkey.

The roughly one-mile Bird Walk Coastal Access Trail in Bodega Bay runs alongside a restored saltwater marsh, circling two ponds and offering coastal views before connecting with Doran Regional Park. Keep a lookout for geese, ducks, and gulls, as well as sandpipers, grebes, swallows, phoebes, and hummingbirds.

Tide Pools Along the Sonoma Coast

Green sea anemone in a tide pool at Salt Point State Park
Green sea anemone in a tide pool at Salt Point State Park 

The Sonoma Coast is a wonderland of tide pools — little wells of eroded rock that are exposed at low tide and become mini marine ecosystems of sea anemones, hermit crabs, sea stars, chitons, limpets, mussels, tiny fish, and other colorful creatures.

Tafoni pattern in sandstone at Salt Point State Park
Tafoni in sandstone at Salt Point State Park

The largest concentration of tide pools, though, can be found at 6,000-acre Salt Point State Park, where erosion causes tafoni, a honeycomb-type network of pits, knobs, and ridges in the sandstone rocks.

At the southern end of Sonoma Coast State Park in Bodega Bay, you’ll also find clusters of tide pools along the shore at Doran Regional Park and Schoolhouse Beach, as well as at Pinnacle Gulch. Remember to wear shoes with grippy soles, and walk with care along rocks that may be jagged or slippery.

Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue

Bobcat kitten at Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue Center
Bobcat kitten at Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue

Dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of injured and orphaned wildlife, Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue (SCWR) takes in native foxes, coyote, wildcats, raccoons, owls, bats, skunks, opossums, beavers, and even badgers. When animals aren’t able to be returned to the wild, they often become Enrichment Ambassadors for SCWR, serving as a source of wildlife education and connection with the natural world.

You can meet these ambassadors (and other animals) on various guided tours of their Petaluma facility, given by appointment only. Public tours are given on Saturdays, and private enrichment, behind the scenes, and/or VIP tours can be arranged Tuesday-Friday. Visit this page for more information, and call SCWR at (707) 992-0274 to make a tour appointment.

Safari West Wildlife Preserve & African Tent Camp

giraffes at Safari West in Sonoma County
Giraffe spotting at Safari West

Known as “the Sonoma Serengeti,” this 400-acre wildlife park is the closest you can come to Africa without actually going there. Home to more than 90 different species and 900 animals, including giraffes, Cape buffalo, antelope, lemurs, rhinos, and exotic birds, the park brings you face-to-face with mostly non-native creatures that are fascinating, beautiful, and in some cases, critically endangered.

You can spend anywhere from a few hours to a few days here, enjoying a variety of guided jeep tours, dining experiences, and even overnight stays in one of the park’s 30 luxurious safari tents.  Imported from Botswana, each of these tents sports a private viewing deck, bathroom, hardwood floors, and the exciting sights and sounds of the park’s wildlife.

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