9 Great California Coastal Birding Sites

A Brandt’s cormorant near Monterey, California. Photo: Franco Folini/Flickr Creative Commons

This guest post is written by Jennifer Savage, of the Ocean Conservancy.

Whether novice or expert, birdwatchers in California delight in the avian abundance along the state’s coast. California also boasts the nation’s only statewide network of marine protected areas, providing not only gorgeous places to seek out a stunning diversity of birds but insurance that their most important breeding and feeding grounds have extra protection. Below is a list of the top bird-watching spots at these “ocean parks,” plus highlights. Additionally, there is information about visiting, plus a link to where you can learn more.

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

Crescent City

Viewing site, interpretive panel on Pebble Beach Drive, just south of Point St. George

Originally inhabited by the Tolowa Dee-ni’, California’s northernmost coast boasts some of the most dramatic scenery in the state and is dotted with Audubon-designated Important Bird Areas. A wide range of bird species live and migrate around nearby Lake Earl, and the profusion continues at sea, where exposed rocks and underwater ledges make up the St. George Reef. Reaching the protected area requires a boat, but visitors can experience similar conditions from the safety of the shoreline just south of the point, where Castle Rock National Wildlife Refuge sits.

The refuge is a modest 14 acres, yet it supports several hundred thousand seabirds each year. Take a spotting scope to Pebble Drive from February to mid-April to catch the dawn fly-off of Aleutian cackling geese. Observe one of the largest breeding populations—100,000—of common murres making their nests along the island’s cliffs. Castle Rock is also home to three species of cormorants, pigeon guillemots, Cassin’s and rhinoceros auklets, Leach’s and fork-tailed storm-petrels, and tufted puffins. More info: fws.gov/humboldtbay/castlerock.html

2. South Humboldt Bay State Marine Recreation Management Area


Park along the South Spit or at the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge

Visitors come from all over the world to watch the birds of Humboldt Bay. More than 250 species—and world-class views—make the bay, a global IBA, endlessly enjoyable. Peak season for most species of waterbirds and raptors is late fall through mid-spring. Aleutian cackling geese, Pacific brant, and migratory shorebirds have a shorter window, peaking from March to late April. In summer birders can find terns, cormorants, and pelicans as well as resident egrets, herons, and migratory songbirds, including various warblers, sparrows, and swallows.

The very best way to birdwatch on the bay is by kayak (for rentals, check with Hum-Boats, on Woodley Island). Close to the protected area is the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, in southern Humboldt Bay, offering an interpretive center that describes local Humboldt Bay habitats and wildlife. Visitors can also view birds from the South Spit, one of the two peninsulas separating Humboldt Bay from the Pacific. Because tides have great influence on which birds are seen when, make sure to check the tides before going. More info: blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/arcata/south_spit.html and fws.gov/humboldtbay/

3. Point Reyes State Marine Reserve

Marin County, between Tomales Bay and Bolinas Lagoon

Travel via Highway 1, Sir Francis Drake Boulevard or Point Reyes/Petaluma Road

Guidebooks refer to Point Reyes as a little piece of “civilized wilderness.” The point, a global IBA, is just 35 miles north of San Francisco, but the sense of remoteness is a world away from the bustle of the city. Approximately 470 bird species have been noted in Point Reyes National Seashore, a unit of the National Park Service. Many of those have been very rare visitors, far off course during their spring or fall migrations, but the birding can be rewarding at any time of year. The Point Reyes Bird Observatory is located in the southern portion of the park and offers mist-netting demonstrations, a nature trail, and monthly trips to various locations around Marin County. Additionally, visitors can fish, kayak, ride horses, camp, or stay at the park hostel. More info: nps.gov/pore/index.htm

4. Southeast Farallon Island State Marine Reserve

27 miles west of San Francisco Bay

Tours depart from Pier 39, San Francisco

The famed Farallon Islands serve as one of the most vital seabird breeding locations in the United States south of Alaska. While the Farallones are closed to visitors, whale watching, shark cage diving, and other tour boats regularly offer cruises to and around the islands. Although the Farallones’ total land area is only 0.16 square miles, 13 different species—250,000 individual birds—breed here, including the largest colonies of Brandt’s cormorants and western gulls found anywhere. These islands also contain 40 percent to 50 percent of the world population of ashy storm-petrels, a declining species with a breeding range restricted to California and Baja. More info: farallones.org/ and http://www.sanfranciscowhaletours.com/

Greater yellowlegs near Elkhorn Slough. Photo by Franco Folini/Flickr Creative Commons

5. Elkhorn Slough State Marine Reserve

Moss Landing

Access reserve via Highway 1

Some of the very best birdwatching in the western United States happens in Elkhorn Slough, located on Monterey Bay near the charming town of Moss Landing. Thousands of bird lovers visit this IBA each year to see the more than 340 species that stop or reside here year-round, including several rare and endangered species, such as the western snowy plover. At the north end of the reserve, Kirby Bay offers a boat ramp, plus a wheelchair- and stroller-accessible boardwalk for continued exploration along the slough. Rarities spotted here have included the white-faced ibis, tufted duck, long-eared owl, and yellow-billed loon. More info: http://elkhornslough.org

6. Point Lobos State Marine Reserve

Carmel Bay

Enter 3 miles south of Carmel

Known as a place of spectacular beauty that inspires art and poetry, Point Lobos juts out south of Carmel Bay on California’s Central Coast and offers varied habitats, including oaks and pines, coastal scrub and meadows, rocky cliffs, sand coves, and offshore islands. Park enthusiasts know that the diversity of habitats at Point Lobos means that it has a long and diverse checklist of birds. However, all of the rocky shores and islets of Point Lobos offer an especially good place to view migrant and wintering shorebirds, such as wandering tattlers, surfbirds, and black turnstones, as well as black oystercatchers, which nest there. More info: http://pointlobos.org/

7. Morro Bay State Marine Recreation Management Area/State Marine Reserve

Morro Bay

Access from Highway 1, exit Los Osos – Baywood Park offramp

Another prime birdwatching location is the Morro Bay Estuary, in San Luis Obispo County. A worldwide highlight for avian lovers takes place every January during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, when the Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival celebrates myriad species of birds returning to the area. Easily sighted birds include a variety of pelicans, gulls, terns, and shorebirds, including western snowy plovers along Morro Strand State Beach. Visit Morro Rock where two pairs of peregrine falcons nest annually, alongside gulls and even canyon wrens. Just south of Morro Bay, stop and hike or camp at Montana de Oro State Park and walk along the spectacular bluff trail. There you can observe black oystercatchers, pigeon guillemots, loons and cormorants, tidepools, and sea otters, and perhaps a glimpse of a whale offshore. More info: http://www.mpatlas.org/mpa/sites/7641/

The island scrub-jay is endemic to Santa Cruz island. Photo: Jeff&Amy/Flickr Creative Commons

8. Anacapa Island State Marine Reserve/State Marine Conservation Area

Channel Islands

Visit via Island Packers, Ventura

This state marine reserve and Global IBA is located in the ocean channel between Santa Barbara on the mainland and the islands of Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel. The mix of coastal scrub, oak and pine woodlands makes a perfect place to see birds, including brown pelicans, western gulls, pelagic and Brandt’s cormorants, black oystercatchers, pigeon guillemots, island scrub-jays, and San Miguel Island song sparrows. Thousands of seabirds use Anacapa Island as a nesting site due to a relative lack of predators. Boats ferry visitors out to the Channel Islands at 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. daily, and the area is popular with sea kayakers. More info: http://www.nps.gov/chis/planyourvisit/anacapa.htm and http://islandpackers.com/

9. Bolsa Chica Basin State Marine Conservation Area

Huntington Beach

Pacific Coast Hwy & Warner Ave.

Wildlife photographers love Bolsa Chica for the unobstructed view of more than 300 bird species, including northern pintails, western grebes, marbled godwits and other shorebirds, egrets, American white pelicans, and the occasional peregrine falcon. Located near Huntington Beach, this global IBAis a key stop on the Pacific Flyway—terns land in the late spring and stay through summer before returning to their winter homes in South America, while ducks that nest to the north spend their winters in Bolsa Chica’s milder climate. Visit in spring for the best of all worlds: nesting and hatching least terns and, very likely, sunny days on one of Southern California’s favorite beaches. More info: http://www.dfg.ca.gov/m/MPA/Details?mpaID=51

Based in Humboldt County, California, Jennifer Savage is the North Coast Coordinator for Ocean Conservancy’s Pacific Program.

Ocean Conservancy educates and empowers citizens to take action on behalf of the ocean. From the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico to the halls of Congress, Ocean Conservancy brings people together to find solutions for our water planet. Informed by science, our work guides policy and engages people in protecting the ocean and its wildlife for future generations.


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