San Francisco Bay North Bay Stinson Beach

Stinson Beach is one of the best places in the Bay Area to photograph large shorebirds, including Long-Billed Curlew, Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit, and Willet. Sanderlings also make regular appearances.

Photographing shorebirds is all about tides. At high tide, the birds will generally roost. Sometimes they roost in the surf, which can make for serene shots. Other times they roost elsewhere, which makes bird photography challenging (I have not yet found their other roosting spots). The birds are more reliably active at low tide. Low tide also exposes flatter sections of the beach, which opens up more composition possibilities.

Near the winter solstice, the lowest tides of the cycle occur close to sunset. The days with the lowest tides in October through February are good times to photograph shorebirds at Stinson Beach, if these days have partly cloudy skies near sunset. Forecast tools such as Ventusky provide very granular cloud cover forecasts, which can help predict good sunsets.

In the summer, the lowest tides occur close to sunrise. The hills behind Stinson Beach shade the sun for most of golden hour, but it can produce a muted pastel clouds offshore on partly cloudy days. However, there are many fewer shorebirds around in the summer.

Prior to 2023, it was possible to get good photographic opportunities with gently sloping beach in the swash zone at moderately low tides (roughly 1 foot) and below. The birds feed in or near the swash zone, so ideally the swash zone is flat to allow for good subject/background separation and to make it possible to get between the birds and the setting sun without getting completely soaked.

Stinson Beach saw major change during the early 2023 atmospheric river storms, with a significant part of the beach eroding away. Much of the tidal flat is gone, resulting in a steeper beach, so it’s possible the best opportunities will only occur at lower tides. More outings are needed to learn how to account for the reconfigured beach.

Stinson Beach is a wintering spot for the shorebirds, so they will be in their more drab plumage except late summer/early fall just after southward migration and early spring just before northward migration. These can be good times to photograph the birds if the goal is an impressive plumage.


Marbled Godwit

Long-Billed Curlew