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Arcata Marsh and Humboldt Bay
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arcata marsh
Arcata Bay
Main pond from parking area (view east)


Humboldt Bay, with the twice-daily ebb and flow of the tide, presents an extensive mud flat where thousands of shorebirds and waterfowl stop on migration or to spend the winter. The Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary, a freshwater marsh on the north end of Humboldt Bay, is where many shorebirds go to rest during high tide when the mud flats are flooded; it is also the center of birder activity in the area. More than 250 species of birds have been seen at the marsh.

I did my undergraduate work in wildlife management at Humboldt State University. The Arcata Marsh, my sanctuary from the rigors of the university and where I went to do some of my earliest wildlife research, will always be a special place for me. If you are on the northern California coast, this is a must-visit kind of place.

Link to Maps

Arcata Bay
Humboldt Bay from the parking area (view south)


The Arcata Marsh developed out of an innovative solution to a small town sewage treatment problem. When the state mandated better, but expensive, waste water treatment, the city (the center of counter culture in northern California), looked for a different solution -- and they found it: make a marsh and give it to the birds.

The Arcata Marsh is the last (tertiary) step in the sewage treatment for Arcata. Water is pumped from secondary treatment ponds (another great place to bird), into the marsh, where the water is naturally treated by microbes, aquatic creatures of all sorts, and vegetation, before it is released into Humboldt Bay. Water runs through a series of ponds, each with different characteristics: some are deeper and more open while others are shallow and full of marsh vegetation or willows, and each pond tends to attract different species of landbirds and waterfowl.

Arcata marsh
Main pond from levy (view east)

Check the pine trees, alders, and willows towards the center of the marsh for landbirds. Birding the marshes and willow thickets around the ponds can be great, and the open ponds on the edge of the bay have small islands that often are packed, literally shoulder to shoulder, with a variety of shorebirds during high tide. Watch the mud flats in the bay for shorebirds during the two hours before and after high tide. Be sure to check the high-tension power towers that run through the area: Peregrine Falcons like to rest on the towers before diving on the shorebirds.

Arcata marsh
Watching birds on island in Main Pond (view east)


The Arcata Marsh is located on the south end of Arcata, on the edge of Humboldt Bay (GPS coordinates: 40.85582, 124.09722. To get there from Highway 101, the main highway through the region, exit the highway (a freeway at this point) onto Samoa Boulevard (Hwy 255), the south-most off ramp to the west in Arcata. Turn towards the ocean, and drive west for a couple of blocks.

To get to the Arcata Marsh Interpretive Center, where you can get a good introduction to the area and current information on what is flying about, turn south (left) at the light on G Street. Drive down past my old apartment and turn right into the parking lot at the Arcata Marsh Interpretive Center. Trails lead from the visitor center out into the sanctuary.

Arcata marsh
Stan Harris was my Ornithology-101 professor

To get out to the edge of the bay, turn south (left) at the light on I Street (Samoa Boulevard, 2 blocks west of G Street). Drive to the end of the pavement, where there is a nice picnic area with trees on the edge the Arcata Marsh and Humboldt Bay.


Always open; should be considered day use.



Arcata Marsh
Birding at low tide


This is a place for shorebird and ducks. Check the mudflats and islands in the pond on the edge of the bay for shorebirds (bring a spotting scope). It is not unusual to see thousands of Marbled Godwits, Least and Western Sandpipers, Dunlin, Black-bellied and a variety of small plovers, American Avocets, and other shorebirds. The ponds and the bay also attract thousands of ducks and geese. Virtually all of the western ducks come through or over-winter here, and this is a wintering area for Canada Geese and Brant. The trees and shrubs attract thousands of migrant dickey birds (warblers, sparrows, swallows, kinglets, vireos), and the marsh vegetation attracts several species or rails, American Bitterns, and Black-crowned Night-herons.

Arcata Marsh
A delightful place to sit on a warm spring day

For More Information

Visit the Arcata Marsh Interpretive Center, which has interpretive displays, maps, bird lists, and a log of recent bird sightings. Interpretive Center, open daily 9-5, is located at 569 South G Street, Arcata (707-826-2359).

Trip Notes

August 27, 2002. We awoke to a cool, calm, overcast, 59-degree morning in the redwoods. What amazing trees! We were out of camp by 0900 hours, but we spent the rest of the morning wandering around the forest and along the Eel River. We had lunch at the Founder's Grove, then headed north to Humboldt Bay. Eureka and Arcata looked much like they did when we left in 1986, but they removed all of the driftwood art from the edge of the bay, which was disappointing. The tide was high, so we drove straight to the Arcata Marsh to do a little birding in our old stomping ground. It was fun to be back where we had spent so many good times. We got a room in Arcata, then called Doc Harris, who invited us over for the evening. After dinner, we went over and spent a great evening catching up with Doc and hearing about old friends. Doc and Lourie took us up to campus to see the new wildlife building and to see all of their taxidermy work. They really have something to show for a lifetime of work. We left there about 2300 hours, with plans to go birding in the morning.

August 28, 2003. We got up early to a typical north coast morning: cool and overcast. We had a quick breakfast at the hotel and arrived at Stan's house at 0730. We then went back to the Arcata Marsh, but this time we walked around the freshwater pond section (oxidation ponds), and birded for the morning with Stan. We saw the first big batch of Green-winded Teal fly in for the winter, plus the first sightings of a Redhead duck and a Mew Gull. We birded with Stan until about 1100, then went into town to do laundry and shop for groceries. From there, we drove north for about 30 minutes to Patrick's Point State Park and got a campsite for the night. We spent the rest of the afternoon on Agate Beach looking for stones, watching birds (the gulls were catching "day fish," which are like grunion and lay eggs on the beach. We even saw 4 Wandering Tattlers working over the rocky shoreline. That evening we went out to dinner at Lauripin Cafe, a special place that Liz want to visit again.

Observations: American Crow, Barn Swallow, cliff swallow , least sandpiper, western sandpiper, double-crested cormorant, brown pelican, greater yellowlegs, black-bellied plover, turkey vulture, mallard, great egret, California gull, red-tailed hawk, ring-billed bull, belted kingfisher, ruddy tern, short-billed dowitcher, snowy egret, great blue heron, starling, house sparrow, black-crowned night-heron, song sparrow, black phoebe, marsh wren, lesser goldfinch pintail, pied-billed grebe (juvenile w/ stripes), American bittern, American avocet, yellow warbler, Virginia rail.

August 9, 2008. It was nice to be back in Arcata. The tide was way out, so the birding was quiet, but we were delighted by the antics of a family of river otters in the main pond.

Happy birding! All distances, elevations, and other facts are approximate.
copyright; Last updated 100402

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