By Mel White
|National Wildlife Refuges||National Parks||Acreage of Important Bird Areas|
More bird species have been recorded in California (660 plus) than in any other state. This is no surprise when you consider California’s size and its range of habitats, including Mojave Desert; the highest peak in the continental United States; coastal beaches, inland marshes; arid chaparral; fog-shrouded redwood forests. The state’s 840-mile coastline offers some of the country’s best pelagic birding—and all this terrain is covered by a very large and active contingent of birders constantly on alert for the latest rarity.
It would take a lengthy trip covering hundreds of miles to sample the best of California birding. It's a long way from the steamy shore of the Salton Sea in the south to the wetlands of Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge in the north. In between are scores of protected preserves and refuges, including iconic national parks such as Yosemite and Sequoia, with fine birding and stunning scenery.
California has two bird species found only in the state—Yellow-billed Magpie and Island Scrub-Jay—and several others bearing the state’s name in recognition of its importance in their ranges, including California Quail, California Condor, California Gnatcatcher, California Thrasher, and California Towhee.
All this adds up to make this state a must-visit destination for anyone who wants to experience the full range of North American birding. The only problem is deciding where to begin: the beaches and deserts of the south, the mountains of the east, or the forests and rocky shores of the north.
California Birding Hotspots
The entity known as Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges Complex comprises six units on the California-Oregon border. Two of the refuges in northern California, Lower Klamath and Tule Lake, offer excellent wildlife viewing along designated auto tour routes and other roads.
Set in an area of grassland largely developed for agriculture, refuge wetlands are famed for attracting enormous gatherings of waterfowl in migration, with many waterbirds and waders nesting as well. Bald Eagles and other raptors add to the refuges’ appeal.
One visitor center serves all the refuge units. Located on Hill Road west of the town of Tulelake, the center has exhibits, a bookstore, and staff and volunteers to offer advice. The 12-mile Tule Lake tour road begins a few miles south off Hill Road, while the 10-mile Lower Klamath route is reached by driving north on Hill Road and turning west on Highway 161. There are also walking trails near the visitor center.
Both refuge units have bird lists topping 200 species, from geese, swans, and two dozen species of ducks to five species of grebes, and more than a dozen kinds of raptors. Just a few highlights: Ross’s Goose, Tundra Swan, White-faced Ibis, Golden Eagle, Sandhill Crane, Prairie Falcon, Rough-legged Hawk (in winter), and the occasional Peregrine Falcon. Breeding-season passerines include Say’s Phoebe, Western Scrub-Jay, Bushtit, Rock Wren, Canyon Wren, Mountain Bluebird, Sage Thrasher, California Towhee, Spotted Towhee, Tricolored Blackbird, and Yellow-headed Blackbird. Northern Shrike is a winter possibility.
One of the true birding delights of the northern California coast, Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary lies between Highway 101 and Arcata Bay (a segment of Humboldt Bay) in the town of Arcata. With a bird list of more the 300 species, it’s pretty close to a birder’s paradise. Not only is it a superb nature site with a fine trail system, it also has an interpretive center where newcomers can get advice and learn about the latest sightings.
Flocks of waterfowl and shorebirds highlight the birding here, with the best seasons from fall through spring. Brant, Canada Goose, and Cackling Goose are seasonally common, and 27 species of ducks have been reported, including all three species of scoter and all three mergansers. Virginia Rail and Sora are regularly seen.
Forty-two species of shorebirds have been seen at Arcata Marsh, including all three phalaropes and such rarities as Bar-tailed Godwit, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, and Little Stint. Peregrine Falcon shows up year-round to prey on ducks and shorebirds, and Short-eared Owl sometimes flies over the marsh grasses.
Passerines nesting in the area include Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Black Phoebe, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Marsh Wren, Orange-crowned Warbler, and Wilson’s Warbler. Wintering sparrows include Fox Sparrow, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Lincoln’s Sparrow, and Swamp Sparrow.
One of North America’s best all-around birding destinations, Point Reyes National Seashore combines a location seemingly designed to attract seabirds and rare vagrants with a diversity of land habitats that host a correspondingly wide variety of land birds. With a species list well over 400, Point Reyes is on the list of places every birder should visit, along with sites such as Cape May in New Jersey, southern Florida, and Big Bend National Park in Texas.
Roads and trails wind throughout 111 square miles of park, offering nearly endless birding opportunities. For typical northern California land birds, good choices are the Bear Valley and Earthquake trails near the main visitor center. Here you might see California Quail, Anna’s Hummingbird, Acorn Woodpecker, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Hutton’s Vireo, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Bushtit, Pacific Wren, Wrentit, California Towhee, and in winter Varied Thrush and Golden-crowned Sparrow.
The Giacomini Wetlands near Point Reyes Station can be good for waterfowl, waders, shorebirds, and White-tailed Kite. Take the road to the Limantour area for waterfowl, loons, grebes, wading birds, and shorebirds. In the northern part of the park, Abbott’s Lagoon, reached by a hiking trail off Pierce Point Road, has a bird list of more than 260 species, with a great variety of waterfowl and shorebirds. The south end of the Point Reyes peninsula has more than 300 species on its bird list, with a chance to see species like Red-throated Loon, Pacific Loon, Sooty Shearwater, Brandt’s Cormorant, Pelagic Cormorant, Black Oystercatcher, Common Murre, and Pigeon Guillemot, to name just a few possibilities. Check the area around the lighthouse and the site known as the fish docks for seabirds and shorebirds.
Point Reyes’s location and geographical features make it a natural migrant and vagrant trap, and the list of species that have wandered here, especially in spring and fall, from eastern North America and Asia is lengthy.
When in the Point Reyes area, many birders head south ten miles to Bolinas Lagoon, where a tidal estuary attracts waterfowl, wading birds, and, when the tide is right, large flocks of shorebirds.
Between Santa Cruz and Monterey, near the town of Moss Landing, this reserve and the surrounding area constitute one of the premier birding locations on the California coast, with waterfowl, wading birds, shorebirds, and interesting land birds year round.
Ducks, loons, and grebes frequent open water, and shorebirds can be abundant most of the year (early summer is the slowest period). Snowy Plovers nest in protected areas away from close human approach.
Explore the five miles of reserve trails and you might find species including California Quail, White-tailed Kite, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Oak Titmouse, and Wrentit. Several nearby sites offer more birding, including Kirby Park and, on the north side of Elkhorn Slough, Moss Landing State Wildlife Area, with a trail beside the estuary.
About 20 miles south, the shore near the Point Pinos lighthouse is a great seabird-watching area, for ducks, loons, shearwaters, cormorants, gulls, and “rocky shorebirds” such as Black Oystercatcher and, from fall through spring, Black Turnstone and Surfbird.
On the northern side of the San Francisco’s Golden Gate is the peninsula known as the Marin Headlands, which are in large part contained within Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The many trails and lookout points here make it a fine birding locale, with typical regional birds such as California Quail, Black Phoebe, Western Scrub-Jay, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Bushtit, Wrentit, Golden-crowned Sparrow (fall through spring), and Spotted Towhee. Close to shore are many sites from which to watch for seabirds such as shearwaters, cormorants, Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot, and gulls.
Rodeo Lagoon on the west side is a favorite spot for waterfowl, loons, grebes, waders, shorebirds, gulls, and terns, mostly from fall through spring. The total species list for the immediate area tops 270, so this is a good site for land birds as well.
On a ridge above Conzelman Road is the site called Hawk Hill, home of an organized raptor watch each fall. Best viewing is from September though November. (This spot also offers a fantastic view of San Francisco, the bay, and the Golden Gate Bridge.) The most common species flying over in fall include Osprey, White-tailed Kite, Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, Merlin, and Peregine Falcon. You might even see a Golden Eagle or Ferruginous Hawk.
One of America’s most iconic national parks is also a fine place to see birds that thrive in mid- and high-elevation coniferous forests. Highways connect recreation areas and trails covering habitats from oak and chaparral to ponderosa pine and western juniper to giant sequoia, lodgepole pine, and western white pine, continuing up to treeless alpine meadows.
To see the widest array of birds, it’s best to visit from late spring (particularly in low elevation habitats) through summer. Some roads are closed due to snowfall from November into May or even June.
In the popular Yosemite Valley area, look for Band-tailed Pigeon, White-throated Swift, Acorn Woodpecker, Red-breasted Sapsucker, White-headed Woodpecker, Western Wood-Pewee, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Cassin’s Vireo, Steller’s Jay, Violet-green Swallow, Mountain Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, American Dipper, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Nashville Warbler, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Western Tanager, and Black-headed Grosbeak. The most famous bird here is the often-elusive Black Swift, which has traditionally nested in the valley.
Higher in Yosemite, possible species include Mountain Quail, Sooty Grouse, Great Gray Owl, Willliamson’s Sapsucker, Black-backed Woodpecker, White-headed Woodpecker, Hammond’s Flycatcher, Dusky Flycatcher, Clark’s Nutcracker, Mountain Bluebird, Townsend’s Solitaire, Hermit Thrush, Hermit Warbler, Pine Grosbeak, and Cassin’s Finch. Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch summers in the alpine zone in areas such as Tioga Pass.
Mono Lake is a salty body of water in the arid Great Basin region of eastern California that serves as a critical stopover for migrant birds, as well as a breeding area for a wide array of species. It has long been a battleground over water use that has threatened its viability as a refuge. Mono Lake is known for its oddly shaped “towers” of limestone called tufa, which formed underwater when the lake level was higher.
More than 230 species have been recorded at Mono Lake, which is known especially for vast numbers of Eared Grebes, Wilson’s Phalaropes, and Red-necked Phalaropes that throng the lake in fall to feed on migration. Tens of thousands of California Gulls nest at Mono Lake.
Breeding birds in the area include California Quail, Osprey, Virginia Rail, Sora, American Avocet, Great Horned Owl, Pinyon Jay, Violet-green Swallow, Mountain Bluebird, Sage Thrasher, Orange-crowned Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Brewer’s Sparrow, Sagebrush Sparrow, and Green-tailed Towhee.
There’s a regional visitor center in the town of Lee Vining that can provide maps and information regarding Mono Lake. Several sites around the shore provide viewpoints, including a county park north of Lee Vining and the Tufa State Natural Reserve on the south shore.
Ten miles northwest of San Luis Obispo, this coastal estuary and bay is known for great numbers of migrant and wintering waterfowl, loons, grebes, cormorants, pelicans, shorebirds, and gulls. The gathering of thousands of birds at peak times makes for a true wildlife spectacle.
Among the signature birds of Morro Bay is the small goose called Brant, which finds its primary food, eelgrass, around the bay shores. From November through mid-April, Brant make Morro Bay one of their most important wintering grounds on the Pacific Coast.
Another famed Morro Bay species isn’t a waterbird: Peregrine Falcons nest on iconic Morro Rock, a 576-foot dome-shaped volcanic feature at the north end of the bay—a major reason that climbing the rock is forbidden. Brandt’s Cormorant, Pelagic Cormorant, and Pigeon Guillemot also nest here.
Several viewing sites are scattered along the eastern and southern shores. At Morro Bay State Park a boardwalk near the marina is makes a great lookout point. (A nearby heronry has nesting Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, and Black-crowned Night-Heron.) The park is adjacent to 800-acre Morro Estuary Natural Preserve. Farther south, there’s a bay lookout point at the north end of Third Street in the Los Osos neighborhood. And less than a mile south of that spot, the 32-acre Sweet Springs Nature Preserve has a boardwalk and viewing platform.
Located just west of the University of California Santa Barbara campus, Devereux Slough is a tidal estuary with varying water levels that make it one of the region’s best sites for waterfowl, wading birds, and shorebirds.
Snowy Plovers nest on the nearby beach, and with 280 species on its bird list Devereux Slough has been named an Audubon Important Bird Area, particularly for its value to breeding and migrant birds. Locals consider late summer through winter the best time for birding here.
Birds found commonly or with some regularity include Brant, Cackling Goose, Eurasian Wigeon, five species of grebes, waders such as Black-crowned Night-Heron and White-faced Ibis, White-tailed Kite, Black-necked Stilt, more than a dozen species of gulls and terns, Allen’s Hummingbird, Cassin’s Kingbird, Bushtit, Wrentit, Savannah Sparrow, and Hooded Oriole.
Walking out to the Pacific shore at Coal Oil Point offers the chance to see more waterfowl, loons, cormorants, and shorebirds, including Black Turnstone and Surfbird when the tide exposes rocks.
A splendid trip combining birds and scenery awaits travelers in the Angeles National Forest north and east of Pasadena. The Angeles Crest Highway (Highway 2) winds up into the San Gabriel Mountains, ascending from 2,000 feet to more than 7,000 feet in its first 40 miles. The highway runs through the Angeles National Forest and much of it is within San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, designated in 2014.
As the highway climbs it passes through oak woodlands, then various species of pine, and in the high country mixed pine, fir, and Douglas-fir. Birdlife changes with elevation as well, and can be sampled at many picnic sites, trails, and recreation areas along the way.
In nesting season at the Switzer picnic area, about 10 miles from I-210, you might find Mountain Quail, Band-tailed Pigeon, Anna’s Hummingbird, Acorn Woodpecker, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Steller’s Jay, Western Scrub-Jay, Oak Titmouse, Bushtit, Wrentit, California Towhee, and Western Tanager. At Charlton Flats picnic area, 13 miles farther, you could see Nuttall’s Woodpecker, White-headed Woodpecker, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Mountain Chickadee, Western Bluebird, Hermit Warbler, Lawrence’s Goldfinch, and Purple Finch. In the higher parts of the highway find Williamson’s Sapsucker, Dusky Flycatcher, and Clark’s Nutcracker. Of course, there’s much overlap among the habitats and avifauna.
At about mile 26 from I-210 is the Chilao visitor center, which has exhibits, maps, and hiking trails. The Angeles Crest Highway is a wonderful drive but it can be crowded on weekends. Try to schedule a trip for a weekday if possible.
Located in Irvine less than a mile from the San Diego Freeway and only a little farther from the John Wayne Orange County Airport, San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary is an oasis of natural habitat in a landscape of concrete development. More than 300 acres of wetland and riparian areas have been protected and restored in a joint project of the city and a local Audubon chapter.
The many impoundments and natural wetlands here are accessed by miles of trails, more peaceful than most because no bicycles or dogwalkers are allowed. The ponds are used as part of the city’s water-treatment facility, cleaning water before it flows into the Pacific Ocean five miles away.
With roughly 300 species, the sanctuary boasts an amazing list of waterfowl, grebes, pelicans, wading birds, rails, shorebirds, gulls, and terns. Look for hummingbirds—Black-chinned, Anna’s, Costa’s, and Allen’s feeding on flowering shrubs, and six species of swallows darting over the open water.
Among the songbirds nesting in the riparian areas are Marsh Wren, Orange-crowned Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Song Sparrow. California Gnatcatcher is seen regularly, although Blue-gray Gnatcatcher is more common.
The Audubon House office at the sanctuary can provide a trail map and bird list.
This protected area north of Huntington Beach boasts one of the largest species lists of any California birding site. Located right beside Highway 1 (the Pacific Coast Highway), it includes freshwater and saltwater marsh, mudflats, riparian vegetation, and dunes.
A loop trail with boardwalks and benches makes bird observation easy. The avian residents are so used to people that photographers often get great close-up shots.
Waterbirds are the main attraction here, though they are not the only birding focus. More than 25 species of ducks, three species of loons, and five species of grebes can be found much of the year. There’s also a healthy number of waders and shorebirds, including herons, egrets, night-herons, and White-faced Ibis. Snowy Plovers nest here, as do Ridgway’s Rail, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Least Tern. Caspian Tern, Elegant Tern, and Black Skimmer.
Osprey and White-tailed Kite are among raptors seen at Bolsa Chica. Anna’s Hummingbird and Allen’s Hummingbird are regulars, and the dark Belding’s race of Savannah Sparrow is a nester.
As every visitor quickly sees. Bolsa Chica is a treasure of nature in the midst of California coastal development.
Point Loma is a peninsula that curves around the northern end of San Diego Harbor. Like many such coastal geographic features, it can often be the site of excellent birding as migrants concentrate, hesitant to cross open water or at least pausing to rest and feed before moving on.
Cabrillo National Monument occupies most of Point Loma, and its scrubby vegetation and scattered trees make it an excellent place to search for migrants in fall. More than 220 species have been recorded here, including the occasional autumn vagrant such as Eastern Kingbird, Gray Catbird, Ovenbird, and Black burnian Warbler. There’s a modest raptor migration in both spring and fall.
Residents in the area include California Quail, Brandt’s Cormorant, Great Blue Heron (a heronry is located in the area), Anna’s Hummingbird, Western Scrub-Jay, Bushtit, Wrentit, California Thrasher, Orange-crowned Warbler, and California Towhee. Black Oystercatcher and Black Turnstone are found often on the rocky shoreline from fall through spring.
Birders also visit Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery just north of the national monument, where tree plantings create resting places for migrants. Birders should of course be respectful of others visiting the cemetery.
North of Palm Springs, the 31,000-acre Big Morongo Canyon Preserve lies in the foothills of the Little San Bernadino Mountains. The section most visited by birders is a marshy riparian landscape of cottonwoods and willows, an oasis in the desert that has been designated an area of critical environmental concern and an Important Bird Area.
Eight miles of trails and boardwalks allow visitors to explore the woodland, marsh, and scrub. More than 220 species of birds have been recorded here.
Some of the regulars are Red-shouldered Hawk, Virginia Rail, Costa’s Hummingbird, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Black Phoebe, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Bell’s Vireo, Oak Titmouse, Verdin, Bushtit, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, California Thrasher, Phainopepla, Yellow Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Black-throated Sparrow, Summer Tanager, Lazuli, Bunting, Hooded Oriole, Bullock’s Oriole, Lesser Goldfinch, and Lawrence’s Goldfinch.
Local volunteers are often present at the preserve to lead nature hikes and bird walks.
It’s safe to say there’s no place in the United States like the Salton Sea. This large, salty lake 30 miles north of Mexico was created by accident in 1905 when water from the Colorado River overwhelmed an agricultural canal system. The flow filled a basin more than 200 feet below sea level, creating what is now the largest lake in California.
Many factors combine to make the Salton Sea area one of the state’s birding hot spots—in more ways than one if you consider the high temperatures in summer. The huge expanse of water attracts migrant and stray waterbirds and wintering geese and ducks; the proximity to Mexico means rarities stray north across the border; the scrubby arid landscape is home to desert birds; various riparian areas act as an oasis for songbirds.
Birding can be complicated at the Salton Sea, often involving exploring back roads around the shoreline. Newcomers should definitely head first to the visitor center of the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, at the southern end of the lake, about seven miles northwest of the town of Calipatria. Maps and advice are essential for getting to good birding spots. The refuge has observation towers and two hiking trails, and is near some popular sites such as Red Hill, Obsidian Butte, and Unit 1.
Even a list of the highlights is lengthy. This is the best (usually only) place in the United States to see Yellow-footed Gull, a summer visitor. It’s home to the Yuma race of Ridgway’s Rail, and the large-billed race of Savannah Sparrow. In winter, Snow Goose and Ross’s Goose can be common, along with many species of ducks and the Sandhill Crane. Wood Stork is often seen in late summer. Among the regular residents are four species of grebes, American White Pelican and Brown Pelican, many wading birds, Black-necked Stilt, and American Avocet. About 38 species of shorebirds have been recorded, along with 20 species of jaegers and gulls, and ten species of terns.
Greater Roadrunner, Burrowing Owl, Lesser Nighthawk, Costa’s Hummingbird, Horned Lark, Marsh Wren, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Phainopepla, Abert’s Towhee, and Yellow-headed Blackbird are among the land bird residents. Mountain Plover and Mountain Bluebird are often present in winter. On the Salton Sea’s long, long list of rare and very rare visitors are Least Grebe, Magnificent Frigatebird, Blue-footed Booby, Brown Booby, Tricolored Heron, Bridled Tern, Pinyon Jay, Cave Swallow, and all four species of longspur. Truly, just about anything can show up at the Salton Sea.
California Birding Trails
Less than a generation has passed since heroic birder-conservationists, led by the late David Gaines, won the fight to save Mono Lake from being drained. Mono Lake remains a mecca for birders because of this proud chapter in conservation history, as well as for the abundance of birds found here. About 50,000 California gulls nest on its islands, but they are outnumbered by the concentrations of eared grebes (close to a million) and Wilson’s and red-necked phalaropes (tens of thousands) that stop over during their annual migrations. Mono Lake is just one of the attractions in this region, where the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada meets the edge of the Great Basin. Thickets in the foothills are home to green-tailed towhees, lazuli buntings, black-headed grosbeaks, and other colorful songbirds. In open pine groves you may chance upon a roving flock of pinyon jays, harsh-voiced birds named for their taste for pinyon seeds, while at higher elevations you could find the soft-voiced Townsend’s solitaire or the flashy western tanager. Along rushing streams you might even be lucky enough to spot the American dipper, an odd aquatic songbird that once captivated John Muir. —Kenn Kaufman
Tucked away in the northwest corner of California are some of the most astonishing landscapes on the continent. This compact trail leads to 43 choice destinations in beautiful Del Norte County. At vantage points along the coast in fall you might look offshore and find such seabirds as rhinoceros auklets and marbled murrelets. On the shoreline, see a pageantry of whimbrels, willets, and other sandpipers marching across the sand. In the magnificent groves of iconic coast redwoods, some towering more than 250 feet in the air, pileated woodpeckers hammer on tree trunks, gray jays lurk, and endangered spotted owls roost in the secluded shadows. Farther inland, in cedar and fir old-growth forests at higher elevations, you might see flashy white-headed woodpeckers, roving flocks of Cassin's finches, or gangs of perky mountain chickadees. —K.K.
Halfway between bustling Los Angeles and San Francisco, California’s stunning central coast is tranquil and filled with birds. This trail, sketched by Audubon California, highlights 83 top sites in four coastal counties (Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura), including eight Globally Important Bird Areas. At rocky points along the shore, you’ll see Black Oystercatchers, Pigeon Guillemots, and other Pacific Coast specialties. The chaparral in the lowlands and canyons shelters California Quail, Wrentits, California Towhees, and more. Interior valleys on the east side of the coastal hills are home to the flashy Yellow-billed Magpie. With some effort and luck, you may see the endangered California Condor, which has been reintroduced in this region. —K.K.
This basin straddling the California-Oregon border contains abundant lakes and marshes protected by a network of National Wildlife Refuges. When there's enough water, tens of thousands of waterfowl, including Cinnamon Teal, Gadwall, Ruddy Ducks, and Redheads, linger through the summer to nest and raise their young. But the ducks are upstaged by Western Grebes performing their crazy high-speed courtship displays across the water surface. Continue on the birding trail and you’ll also find forests haunted by Cassin’s Finches, Fox Sparrows, and Varied Thrushes. The peak is Crater Lake National Park you’ll have to tear yourself away from the vistas to look at Clark’s Nutcrackers and other birds. —K.K.
Audubon State Office and Centers*
- Audubon California
- Audubon Bobcat Ranch
- Audubon Center at Debs Park
- Glide Ranch
- Kern River Preserve
- Richardson Bay Audubon Center and Sanctuary
*Be sure to call ahead before visiting Audubon centers to make sure that they are open to the public.