Abbotts Lagoon is a chain of three lagoons nestled in a gentle valley in the northern part of Point Reyes. The upper lagoon is small and isolated, feeding directly into the middle lagoon, which can be seen from the main hiking trail.
A roughly mile walk down the main trail leads to the connection between the middle and the lower lagoons. There are plenty of birds all along the trail.
At the connection point, the shore of the middle lagoon can be reached by scrambling down a steep bank. Crossing the bridge and walking down a gentle dune gives access to the sandy shore of the lower lagoon. While it’s less of a scramble, the backgrounds at the lower lagoon take more work to incorporate into pleasing photos.
Being in Point Reyes (the second foggiest place in North America according to the Farmers’ Almanac), Abbotts Lagoon is often foggy or cloudy. When the skies are clear, the walls of the valley can obscure the sun up to 20 minutes before sunset. This varies by time of year: in some months sunset is visible from inside the valley.
California Quail can be found year-round at Abbotts Lagoon.
Abbotts Lagoon is a great place to photograph quail. There are enough sizable well-established coveys that you can count on seeing many of the birds on every visit. The scrub where they roost is surrounded by pastures with woods in the distance, so you have a variety of clean backgrounds to choose from if the quail get up off the ground. In the dry season (roughly April or May through at least September), the perennial grasses die off giving a pleasant golden background.
I’ve found that the quail start heading to their roost before sunset. That means they can be a little harder to find up on perches right at golden hour. About an hour before sunset appears to be the sweet spot to balance decent light with plenty of prominent quail. But, a few still are on perches even late, and they can be found on the ground right up until sunset.
California Quail in Summer
So far, I’ve had great luck photographing the quail in the summer months and early fall.
Especially while rearing chicks, quail tend to post sentinels to keep watch for the covey go about their. From July through September, I regularly see some quail on the fence posts with the remainder in the nearby pasture or under the coyote brush. On each visit, I see plenty of exposed quail along the trail from the parking lot to the upper lagoon, wherever there’s coyote brush next to pasture.
If you prefer not to have unnatural objects in your photos, some of the sentinels will sometimes stand on bushes instead of fence posts. The bushes are roughly the same height as the fence, so you can also make creative use of foreground to hide the fence posts.
The coyote brush blooms in October, which makes for a very pleasing element in quail compositions.
California Quail in Late Fall and Winter
Sometime between late fall and winter, the quail get more shy. They are still present, but they appear to cede the fence posts and bush tops to the hawks that pour into Point Reyes after their breeding season concludes. As opposed to the spring and summer when I can count on multiple quail on prominent perches on every visit, in the fall and winter I can go many visits without seeing exposed quail. The quail seem to be on the move more, staying closer to the ground or under the bushes.
California Quail in Spring
By late spring, the quail start to reassert themselves. They’re regularly up on fence posts, bushes, and other prominent perches, but seem more active and less tolerant of humans than in the summer. I’ve found I can get more varied and interesting photos on a wider variety of perches in the spring. However, I have to work a little harder at them because the quail are more likely to take cover when approached.
Early spring brings green grasses in the adjoining fields, a nice contrast to the muted brown backgrounds of the summer. In late spring, the wildflower blooms can provide stunning foregrounds and backgrounds. The coast lupine blooms in June, which leads to many creative opportunities.
Abbotts Lagoon is home to a resident population of Northern Harriers. They can often be seen hunting between the parking lot and the upper lagoon. Look for harriers perched on coyote bush. They can appear as if from nowhere when startled off a low bush by a passing deer, coyote, or human.
As with hawks, Northern Harriers are present year-round, but more common from late fall through late winter. In the summer, I would only sometimes see a harrier sighting at Abbotts Lagoon over the course of a day, while I see at least one harrier on nearly every visit in the winter.
Harriers like to perch on bushes before popping up for short, low flights to hunt.
Red-shouldered hawks are occasionally present at Abbotts Lagoon, especially in the fall and winter. These are supposedly forest specialists, but with little forest in the park they do their hunting from bushes or fence posts.
While individuals vary, I’ve found red-shouldered hawks to be the most approachable hawks in the park. Whereas other hawks won’t let you get anywhere near them on foot, red-shouldered hawks have allowed me to walk right up and take a full-frame portrait. As always, don’t push it if a particular individual seems stressed by your presence.
In the breeding season, Cooper’s Hawks are typically forest birds, and especially forest edge birds. In the winter, they are much less picky about their habitat. They make regular appearances at Abbotts Lagoon despite the open scrubland habitat. So far, I’ve only seen them very late in the day, flying along the fence posts shortly after sunset.
Turkey Vultures can be found all over California and are often seen wheeling around Point Reyes. They go wherever fresh carrion is available, so their movements aren’t predictable from day to day.
There is often carrion at Abbotts Lagoon, including bird carcasses left by river otters. When carrion is present, they’ll stay close, making photography relatively easy.
The topography of Abbotts Lagoon provides good conditions to photograph them in flight. The vultures will sometimes ride the updrafts coming off the hill just before the bridge to the lower lagoon section, leading to particularly close up views.
Herons and Egrets
Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets are usually present in or around the lagoons. Snowy egrets are less common, while American Bitterns, Black-Crowned Night Herons, and Green Herons are occasionally seen.
The Great Blue Herons are reasonably tame at this location. With a low and slow approach, it’s possible to get in range for 200 mm portraits without disturbing them.
The Great Blue Herons are also sometimes seen in the fields near the trail, foraging for worms, gophers, and other rodents.
Abbotts Lagoon is a popular roosting and feeding spot for Caspian Terns. While the terns do not breed at the lagoon (they prefer rocky islands where they’re safe from mammalian predators), they arrive at Abbotts Lagoon with juveniles once they’ve fledged.
In season from July through early September, Caspian Terns are a common sight in flight at the lower lagoon. They frequently hang out in the closed off area on the west side of the lagoon, but sometimes can be found on the northern shore of the lagoon.
Terns are flighty birds, so loafing terns are easier to photograph on less crowded days. Approach slowly and then belly crawl once the terns show the first signs of noticing your presence. Keep an eye out for terns bringing their young fresh-caught fish. Arrivals are often announced with loud calls as they make a few passes over the flock.
Abbotts Lagoon hosts a variety of sandpipers, curlews, godwits, plovers, and other shorebirds.
These sandpipers might be mistaken for Sandlerings at first glance, but Sanderlings prefer to feed in the surf. Small peeps feeding on the shores of the lagoon are likely Western Sandpipers or (rarely and only in late summer) Semipalmated Sandpipers.
There are a variety of duck species a Abbotts Lagoon, notably Northern Pintail, Canvasback, Common Goldeneye Bufflehead, Redhead, American Wigeon, Common Merganser, and Red-Breasted Merganser.
I rarely photograph ducks at the lagoon. There is a lot of foot traffic, and little of the easily accessible cover needed to reliably get within photographing range of the ducks. A tolerant duck will occasionally swim within range, such as the Common Goldeneye below. I would not make a special trip to the lagoon just for ducks, however.
Coyotes range all over Point Reyes, including the environs of the lagoons. The dunes near the lower lagoon are fertile hunting grounds. Coyotes will occasionally take carrion left by river otters from the edges of the lagoon. They’re equally likely to be spotted in the fields next to the foot trail.
Abbott’s Lagoon is ideal habitat for Brush Rabbits, with lots of coyote brush under which to take cover. They tend to come out an hour or so before sunset. Watch for them eating plants near the foot path or sitting at the edge of the path.