San Francisco Bay South Bay Palo Alto Baylands

Baylands Nature Preserve is an extensive open space preserve in Palo Alto. The preserve includes wetlands, marsh, lagoons, scrub, tidal mudflats, and an artificial duck pond. This page focuses on the northern part of the preserve. See the Emily Renzel Ponds page for details on that section of the preserve.

The preserve is a great place to photograph shorebirds. The water is easily accessible from hard paths. It’s possible to walk right up to water’s edge in many areas, making it easy to get at eye level with the birds. The marshy habitat makes for pleasing green backgrounds year round.

The park opens at 8 am every day and closes roughly 15-30 minutes after sunset. Closing times are posted on the City of Palo Alto website and at the entrance gate. The preserve is very flat, maximizing golden hour opportunities. In the summer, the Santa Cruz Mountains are distant enough that golden hour is only shortened by a couple of minutes on a clear day. However, clouds often form over the mountains, even on a clear day in Palo Alto. In the winter, sunset is cut short 10-15 minutes early.

The City of Palo Alto publishes a convenient map of birding hotspots.

Officially named the Baylands Nature Preserve, this park is often called the Palo Alto Baylands to distinguish it from the similarly named Sunnyvale Baylands Park.


American Avocet

Baylands Nature Preserve is one of the best places to photograph American Avocets in the Bay Area. In the late summer, the mudflats north of the P.A. Duck Pond are an especially good spot, with convenient places to get right at eye level with the birds.

The best opportunities are available when tides are at 3-4 ft (NOAA tide predictions for Palo Alto). At this level, the mudflats fill with water, but are shallow enough for the birds to forage. When the water gets higher, the Avocets roost. When it’s lower, they forage in lower-lying areas that are harder to photograph.

Avocets are elegant year round. If you want to capture their buff brown bleeding plumage, it’s best to visit in April through early August.

Black-necked stilt

The Baylands are home to a resident population of black-necked stilts. The stilts regularly fly between different bodies of water in the preserve, presenting good in flight opportunities. The pond west of the interpretive center (labelled “Nesting Black-Necked Stilts” on the city’s map) is the best place to photograph the stilts in water.

Stilts are skittish birds, but some of the individuals at the preserve will quickly get over their fear. On one visit, a pair of stilts started foraging near a pair of photographers within five minutes of their arrival.

Aim for lower tide to photograph the stilts. At higher tide, the resident American Avocets roost in the same pond, which makes for busier backgrounds.

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