My 16 Best Bird Watching Spots in California You Should Try


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California is a large state, covering 163,695 square miles. It is not surprising that the bird species richness is very high, with 450 species being seen in the state.

The best bird watching spots in California are those that include many habitats, such as Klamath National Wildlife Refuge and Yosemite National Park. You can also see a lot of birds on the seashore and in estuaries at spots like Point Reyes National Seashore at Bolinas Lagoon.

A table giving the most exciting birds you can see at each of my top 16 birding spots in California.

PARKINTERESTING BIRDS YOU CAN SEE
Big Morongo Canyon PreserveLawrence’s Goldfinch and California Thrasher
Lower Klamath National Wildlife RefugeBald Eagle and Tundra Swan
Arcata Marsh and Wildlife SanctuarySharp-tailed Sandpiper and Bar-tailed Godwit. 
Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve Bonaparte’s Gull and Marbled Godwit
Yosemite National ParkAmerican Dipper and Pacific-slope Flycatcher
Point Reyes National SeashoreNuttall’s Woodpecker and Chestnut-backed Chickadee
Bolinas LagoonWhimbrel and Greater Yellowlegs
Golden Gate National Recreation AreaWillow Flycatcher and Bank Swallow
The PresidioMew Gull and Allen’s Hummingbird
Tijuana River National Estuarine Research ReserveLight-footed Clapper Rail and California Least Tern
Point St. George Reef Offshore State Marine Conservation AreaCommon Murre and Brown Pelican
Anacapa Island State Marine ReservePigeon Guillemot and Sooty Shearwater
Point Lobos State Natural ReserveWestern Gull and Black Oystercatcher
Anza-Borrego Desert State ParkLe Conte’s Thrasher and Gambel’s Quail
Salton SeaAmerican White Pelican and Eared Grebe
San Joaquin Wildlife SanctuaryCinnamon Teal and Snow Goose
The Best Bird Watching Spots in California

Read further to find out what the best bird watching places are in California.

Best Bird Watching Spots in California
Best Bird Watching Spots in California

TIP: If you are interested in checking out the best pair of binoculars for bird watching, we recommend a pair of waterproof and fog-proof 8 x 42 binoculars like the Celestron – Outland X 8×42 Binoculars (Amazon link).

Best Places to Bird Watch in California

California is the third largest state in the U.S. The shoreline is 900 miles and extends from the drier regions bordering Mexico in the south to the wetter areas of Oregon in the North. The extensive range of habitats and microclimatic conditions provides many good places to find birds.

  1. Big Morongo Canyon Preserve

This preserve is located at the bottom of the Little San Bernadino Mountains and is a 31,000-acre area. Cottonwoods and willows surround a riparian area. There are boardwalks and trails for people to walk on, making access easy for bird watchers.

At least 220 bird species have been recorded in the preserve. It would be best to look for birds like the California Thrasher, Red-shouldered Hawk, Phainopepla, Lawrence’s, and Lesser Goldfinch.

  1.  Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge 

This is part of a set of refuges in northern California and extending into Oregon. The Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge has a visitor center in Tulelake, California. The refuge has such habitats as grasslands, croplands, and lakes. 

You can see several birds here, and it is excellent in winter for seeing hundreds of Bald Eagles and thousands of Tundra Swans. Other water birds include Buffleheads and American Wigeon. In summer, look for nesting birds like White-faced Ibis, Great-Blue Herons, and Northern Flickers.

  1. Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary

This sanctuary is along the northern coast of the state. At least 300 bird species have been noted here in the sanctuary.  

The sanctuary is so good because it is on the Pacific flyway of bird migration. The sanctuary is part of the wastewater treatment facilities for the city of Arcata. Many ponds with marginal vegetation and mud flats attract large numbers of waterfowl, marsh-loving birds, and shorebirds. 

Species include Cackling Goose, Brant, and rare species like Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and Bar-tailed Godwit. At least 40 species of shorebirds have been recorded here.

  1. Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve

This reserve is on the California coastline about 100 miles south of San Francisco. The reserve is rich in birdlife, with several waterfowl and waders present.

At least 251 species of birds have been recorded in this birding hotspot. You can also find Great-horned Owls nesting in reserve.

Bonaparte’s Gull, Western Sandpiper, Forster’s Tern, Marbled Godwit, Long-billed Curlew, and Bufflehead are some birds you can see here. In vegetation, you can find Bewick’s Wren, Hutton’s Vireo, and Anna’s Hummingbird.

  1. Yosemite National Park

Yosemite is a great place to see birds of higher elevation coniferous forests. The park has a range of different types of trees, including ponderosa pine, junipers, giant sequoia, and lodgepole pines. 

The birds to watch include White-throated Swift, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Steller’s Jay, Cassin’s Vireo, and the unusual American Dipper.

The best time to visit Yosemite is in late spring and summer because some roads are closed during winter, and you won’t have as much access. You can visit the Yosemite park website for more information on road closures.

  1. Point Reyes National Seashore

This protected area is 71,028 acres and is located on the Point Reyes Peninsula. The bird species list for the area is more than 400, making this a must-visit spot for bird watchers.

Some of the birds found in the area include Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Wrentit, California Towhee, and Chestnut-backed Chickadee, 

In winter, you can see birds like Varied Thrushes and Golden-crowned Sparrows. You can take many trails and roads in the area to look for birds.  

  1. Bolinas Lagoon

Over 300 species of birds are found here. It’s wise also to visit this area while visiting Point Reyes, as it is only a couple of miles south.

Bolinas Lagoon is a tidal estuary and an excellent spot to see shorebirds like Willet, Marbled Godwit, Whimbrel, Greater Yellowlegs, and American Avocet. 

Look out for Ring-billed Gulls, Brown Pelicans, Great Egrets, and Belted Kingfishers. You can also find birds like Anna’s Hummingbird and California Scrub-Jay. You can use the checklist of birds for the area to see which species have been recorded here previously.

  1. Golden Gate National Recreation Area

The Golden Gate National Recreation Area has a diversity of habitats, including sandy and rocky shores, scrub, grasslands, forests, and tidal marshes. The Willow Flycatcher and Bank Swallow are two threatened species in this area. 

The cliffs in the area provide nesting sites for Brandt’s Cormorants and Brown Pelicans. Peregrine Falcons are also seen hunting around the cliffs. Mudflats provide ample foraging opportunities for shorebirds like Sanderlings and Western Snowy Plovers.

  1. The Presidio

This urban park is located just before the Golden Gate bridge. Even though it is in an urban area, over 200 bird species have been noted. The Presidio has open water, rocky and sandy beach areas, mixed woods, grassland, and marshy areas.

Birds in the water and muddy shores that you can look for here include Red-throated Loon, Western Grebe, Surf Scoter, Willet, Mew Gull, and Heerman’s Gull. Land birds like Brewer’s Blackbird, Allen’s Hummingbird, and American Goldfinch are also present. 

  1. Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve

The reserve includes Imperial Beach on the California and Mexican border. It covers 2,500 acres and includes habitats such as a tidal salt marsh at the Tijuana river mouth, sand dunes, coastal sage scrub, and riparian thickets.

Bird species that you can find here include Light-footed Clapper Rail, California Least Tern, Northern Harrier, California Gnatcatchers, and Bell’s Vireo. 

  1. Point St. George Reef Offshore State Marine Conservation Area

This is an island that you can only access by boat. It is located in northern California and provides excellent views of seabirds.

Unique birds include Common Murre, which breeds on the island. Brown Pelican and many other birds, including an assortment of gulls and terns, can also be seen in the area.

  1. Anacapa Island State Marine Reserve

This island is part of the Channel Islands found off the coast of Santa Barbara. There are boat trips to the island a few times a day. You can learn more about trips to the island, the costs involved, and the available facilities.

It is worth a trip to see the thousands of seabirds here. Some of these birds are actual ocean birds that you won’t easily see elsewhere.

Pigeon Guillemot, Common Murre, Red-necked Phalarope, Northern Fulmar, and Sooty Shearwater can be seen. Guillemots, fulmars, murre, and shearwaters are oceanic birds worth seeing.

  1. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve

This is an excellent reserve to visit close to the town of Carmel-by-the-Sea. The most popular trail for bird watchers is the Bird Island Trail.

At the end of this trail, you can see Bird Island, which has many birds, especially in spring and summer. Look for Western Gulls, Black Oystercatchers, Black-crowned Night-Herons and Brown Pelicans.

Point Lobos is for day use only. so you cannot camp in reserve. However, it is well worth a visit. There are many trails beside the Bird Island Trail that you can also walk on. It is also partly a marine reserve; if you are interested in sea life and birds, this is also a benefit. 

  1. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

This is a large state park at 600,000 acres. More than 300 bird species have been recorded at Anza-Borrego park, making it an excellent spot for bird watching.

You can see Verdins, Cactus Wrens, Western Bluebirds, California Quails, Le Conte’s Thrashers, White-winged Doves, Gambel’s Quails, and Crissal Thrashers. 

  1. Salton Sea

The Salton Sea is classified as a globally significant area for birds. It consists of an area of water and mudflats. The habitat is constantly changing, though, regarding how much water is present, and, therefore, which species are most numerous varies.

About 400 species nest, feed, or stopover in the area. It is also on the Pacific flyway for bird migration. Birds seen here in the past included the American White Pelican, Eared Grebe, American Avocet, Ruddy Duck, and Northern Shoveler.

  1. San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary

 This is a 300-acre sanctuary that is located in San Diego. It consists of several wetlands and riparian vegetation providing habitat for many bird species. 

You can pick up a trail map at the Audubon house in the sanctuary. Birds on the wetlands include Cinnamon Teal, Blue-winged Teal, and Snow Goose.

These water birds are more abundant in winter. In summer, you can find Yellow-breasted Chats: yellow-throated Warblers and Yellow Warblers.

Best Time to Bird Watch in California

California is a large enough state you can always find a good spot to bird watch regardless of the time of year, but certain birds are most accessible and seen in certain seasons. 

TYPES OF BIRDSSEASON
Warblers Spring
Sparrows and Varied ThrushesWinter
Best Time to Bird Watch in California

The California State Bird

Valley Quail: The State Bird of California
Valley Quail: The State Bird of California

The California Quail, sometimes called Valley Quail, is the state bird of California. This little bird lives on the ground and is known to be adaptable. They have a very distinctive plume of feathers on their heads.

The male has a blue chest, while the female has a brown chest. Both males and females have brown backs; the plumage on the flanks consists of white streaks on brown feathers.

Bird Watching Laws in California

You are not permitted to possess or harm in any way the eggs or nests of any bird or possess any wild bird. Scientific research on birds requires the necessary permits.

My Favourite Equipment for Bird Watching

Bird watching is one of the least expensive hobbies out there, but you still need some equipment to get the most out of it. 

The essential equipment to start bird watching is a pair of binoculars. My preference is 8 X 42 binoculars. The number 8 is how much the magnification is, while 42 is the field of view in millimeters of the lenses.

A pair of waterproof and fog-proof 8 x 42 binoculars like the Celestron – Outland X 8×42 Binoculars on Amazon is an excellent choice for both beginners and experts. 

In time, you can choose more expensive models and also opt to buy a spotting scope like the Celestron Ultima 80 on Amazon.

These are a lot more expensive compared with binoculars though, so if you are only a beginner, start with binoculars first. A spotting scope is only helpful for birds far away, such as out on a pond or seashore.

Bird Watching Ethics

There are a few rules or guidelines you should abide by as an ethical birder. These are listed below.

  • Do not enter private lands without prior permission from landowners.
  • Follow all the rules in refuges and reserves, including cleaning up any garbage from your campsite.
  • Do not disturb birds on nests.
  • Do not use apps and play songs to call up birds when they are hungry, tired, and breeding during spring and summer.

Conclusion

California should be on your list of top bird watching spots. It has a range of habitats, including tidal marshes, mudflats, grasslands, forests, sandy shores, rocky seashores and cliffs, and scrub.

These different habitats attract a large number of different bird species. It is also on the Pacific flyway, so you can expect to see many more birds on migration during spring and fall. 

Rae Osborn

Rae Osborn is an avid bird watcher and holds a doctorate in Biology. Her interests in birds began as a child growing up in South Africa. She has continued to study birds and has bird watched in the United States and South Africa.

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