Southern California offers wonderful birding opportunities for the novice and the experienced birder alike. There is nothing like the site of big waves crashing into the rocky shoreline, but there are many other locations that are fantastic birding areas along this picturesque strip of country. I started my life list in Santa Barbara when I was going to college and the first bird to go in my field book was a Brown Pelican. I have travelled across California many times since then and still find new and exciting spots to visit and birds to see. The coastline has some of the most diverse ecosystems from desert to lush estuaries and from pelagic trips to mountains. Being on the Pacific flyway there are lots of migrants as well as rarities that come both north and south. Most of these habitats are only a couple hours apart making birding a real treat. I will outline the general areas from Santa Barbara south and the birds that you can find there.
The Coastal Mountains
Some days if you are Oceanside of the coastal mountains, the sun will be obscured by the marine layer until the late morning and sometimes into the early afternoon keeping the temperature relatively low. One of the wonderful things about this attribute is the moisture found on this side of the mountains. This changes the vegetation and habitat slightly, allowing for birds that you wouldn’t normally find on the leeward side of the mountain. Sycamore trees are the dominant tree of the wetter valley’s while Live Oak is found mostly on the dryer steeper areas of the mountains and in the higher elevations you find pine trees. Some of the birds that can be found in these areas include Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Red-shouldered Hawk, Spotted Towhee, California Quail, Lesser and Lawrence’s Goldfinch and Turkey Vultures riding the thermals. If you travel high enough, you are also likely to see Mountain Quail, White-Throated swift, and Stellar’s Jay. If you are lucky, you may catch a glimpse of a Golden Eagle or even more spectacular is the California Condor which was once on the brink of extinction. If you are really interested in seeing a California Condor, head north towards Monterey.
The Deep Blue
California is well known for its gorgeous ocean vistas and coastal islands. The sea and shore birds love this diverse coast. There are lots of places to rest on the Rocky shorelines and hundreds of miles of sandy beach for the flocks to feed. It is very common to see the once threatened Brown Pelican in processions riding the sea breeze on large wings following each other as if on an invisible and undulating rope. There are masses of gulls, terns and cormorants as well, hunting just off shore for food. My favorite gull is the Heermann’s Gull which is different from normal gulls in that their overall body color is gray swapped putting the white head and the bright red beak in striking contrast. Off shore on a trip to beautiful Catalina Island are the sea going birds like Cassin’s Auklet, Pink-footed Shearwater and Pelagic Cormorants. Another wonderful chance to see pelagics is if you take a tour to the Channel Islands. There were once Pygmy Mammoths that roamed the islands, but now all that is left are bones. The island holds another species only found here and nowhere else in the world, however this islander is alive and well and called the Island Scrub Jay. This bird is the only insular endemic land bird species in the continental US and Canada. This is fancy talk for “live critter or plant that lives on one specific island or island chain and found no where else.”
One of the most productive areas I have found are the estuaries, or the place where the rivers meet the ocean. There is usually a bay of some sort with a sandy beach at its head. I always wondered how the water got from the river to the ocean, but there is no big secret. The water percolates through the sand and the nutrients in the sand bring insects and crustaceans which in turn bring the birds. One of my favorite estuaries is where Malibu Creek meets Malibu Beach. There are hundreds of species found here throughout the year which you can find at this link. Other locations that are very “birdy” are, Santa Clara River, Santa Ana River and San Diego River. All of these location will bring Gulls like Heermann’s, Western and Ring-billed as well as the terns like, Royal, Caspian and Forster’s. The shorebirds are usually abundant in the winter months and you can see Red Knots, Willets and Least’s Sandpipers. The waders and ducks are excellent in these slow moving bodies of waters as well. Some of these birds include Great Egrets, Black-crowned Night Herons, Gadwall and Bufflehead.
The Parks and Rec
There are many beautiful parks along the coast of Southern California with many different habitats. Some are quite natural while others are groomed and well used by the millions that live in and visit the California coast. Birds still abound, even in the metropolitan areas with bits and pieces of land that have been put aside in which the birds can make a living. These locations are surprisingly full of species and birding them bring fantastic surprises right in the mass of people. Huntington Beach Central Park is one such park that eBirders have listed seeing 308 species over the years. Those kind of numbers are reserved for entire countries let alone ten blocks of parkland in the middle of Orange County just south of Disneyland. Other fantastic parks or reserves I have visited are Bolsa Chica Reserve with a nesting populations of Least’s terns and Belding’s Savannah Sparrow. There is also Pt. Dume State Park where there are opportunities to see passing sea birds and birds of the chaparral all in one sitting. Another favorite of mine is Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego. You can get right down on the water or view from above, the Brown Pelicans and Brandt’s Cormorants along with the shorebirds that love the rocky shoreline, like Surfbirds or Wandering Tattlers.
The Urban Connection
Even with all the commotion in one of the largest cities in North America, the birds seem to thrive. In fact, some of these birds owe their good life to that same massive population. There are countless escapees that live in this very warm climate with the thanks of back yard fruit trees and water features. There are parrots of every kind that make raucous noises as they fly by in their small flocks looking for their next meal. There are at least 10 species of birds in the parrot family that have found a foothold in So Cal, like the Red-Crowned Amazons, the Nanday Parakeets and the smaller Yellow-chevroned Parakeet. Some of the more common places to find these birds are as a canyon widens out at the foot of the mountain where there are large sprawling properties with fruit trees. Zuma Canyon in Malibu, Pt. Fermin in San Pedro and Famosa Slough in San Diego are all reliable spots for parrots. All you need to do is listen for the loud squawks as they fly in to the Sycamores and Eucalyptus trees. There are other escapees that have made out quite well like the finches from Africa, including the Orange Bishop and the Pin-tailed Whyda.
Southern California’s coast is one of the most beautiful places on earth and it just so happens to be an excellent birding destination too. The different ecosystems along this coast allow for a wide variety of birds even in the metropolitan areas. If you want to plan a trip that is immersed in civilization but allows for some amazingly beautiful escapes as well, the strip of shoreline along the Golden State is where you want to be.