Wildlife in Walking Distance

California sea lion

I awoke to the sound of barking. It was the unmistakable call of a California sea lion—the first of the season, as if announcing his return to his winter home. He sounded relatively close to shore, so after breakfast I wandered down to the harbor.

There were the sea lions, diving and surfacing, with one large male raucously vocalizing as he swam. Before today, I only heard them bark when they were resting out of the water and didn’t know they do that in the water. Or at least this guy does.

Sea lion barking away

As they dove and surfaced in the harbor, the size difference between the males and females was striking. The males were also easy to spot with the sagittal crest on their heads.

Female and male sea lions

I spotted two harbor seals as well. Silent, slow-moving, and mostly solitary, they predictably kept their distance from their gregarious and boisterous marine mammal relatives.

Harbor seals don’t have an external ear flap like sea lions do, a way to tell them apart
This harbor seal looked so relaxed

Closer to shore was a group of ducks, buffleheads and a single greater scaup who must’ve gotten separated from her buddies. She dwarfed her smaller companions.

I’ve been trying for years to photograph male buffleheads, with their seemingly black feathers on their heads that become iridescent in the sun. They quickly swim away when they see people. They’re often on the surface only long enough to take a few breaths before completely submerging again in pursuit of fish, leaving me with countless images of blurry tail feathers.

This time I got lucky. The little flock seemed comfortable with all the activity going on, surrounded in the harbor by the shoreline, a dock, the sea lions, and an occasional boat slowly motoring by. The buffleheads were close enough that I could see them well through my zoom lens, admiring their stunning feathers in the sun. They were so small and fragile with their tiny blue beaks and pink feet. If I could capture photos, that would just be a plus.

Buffleheads with one greater scaup

Bufflehead drake with sunlight highlighting his iridescent feathers—the photo I was hoping for

Bufflehead couple
Less colorful than their male counterparts were this female bufflehead and greater scaup

I walked further along the docks past the moored boats to where a colony of double-crested cormorants were resting. Cormorants look the part of their ancient bird species, reminding me of dinosaurs. They lack the greater amount of oil that other water birds use to keep their feathers dry and stay warm. Instead, after they’ve been diving for fish, cormorants hang their wings out to dry in the avian version of a clothesline.

Double-crested cormorant
A closer look reveals a cormorant’s blue eyes and textured feathers

I spent a couple hours staring at and listening to my wildlife neighbors. I thank my lucky stars that I live near San Francisco Bay. If I start to take that for granted, the bark of a sea lion reminds me.

As always, I welcome your comments, including observations of your own local wildlife.


  1. A very enjoyable post! Interesting to see the marine mammals and the birds. I love how you describe your experience and your great photos!

  2. I felt as tho I was accompanying you. Thanks for a grand morning. Congrats on the bufflehead pic…fabulous!

  3. Hey, I just read your blog and it made me feel closer to you than the distance. Today I was walking with a friend on our town beach and I was telling her the same interesting facts about cormorants and their lack of oils (she commented on one drying thinking it was trying to warm itself, and thought that was confusing in the cool breeze).

    Just after that a passerby told us she thought she heard a whale. Right there in town near the marina! We stopped and chatted awhile as we all scanned the sea. She was a lifelong local resident with indigenous heritage and had fascinating stories. She said her whole life she had been looking for whales in the sound. Her brothers used to tease her that the orcas would mistake her for a chubby seal and eat her up. So she’s always been scared of whales, but also fascinated because it was her ancestors saying hello, and so she always wanted to say hello too, since she’s adopted and it’s one of her few known connections to her ancestors. Just as she was aiming to go, my friend said, “Wait!” and there was a whale only about 100 meters away or less, humpback head, dorsal fin and tail in all its glory.

    It was a special moment for all of us, and we may not have paused if it weren’t for the humble cormorant. I love knowing that you and I were also connected by this charismatic dinosaur, on the Pacific shores, talk about ancestors!

    P.S. I love your buffleheads… what a handsome fellow!

  4. Thank you for this. We live in a wonderful place where a short stroll can bring us to vestiges of nature. And sometimes they come to visit us unexpectedly. Like the coyote who nonchalantly gazed at me from a dozen feet away in the park across the street. And it is a park dedicated to soccer and other sports, not nature.

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