Californians are blessed with a staggering variety of birds so that’s why their state is considered a top destination for birding enthusiasts. The changing of the season can provide a fresh selection of avian life to explore. Hundreds of species amounting to millions of birds stop in California just during spring migration. There are also lingering winter residents as well as birds that can be found in the state year-round. It makes sense for birds to be attracted to this state when taking into account the impressive array of habitats such as coastal marshes, mountains, and forests. Here’s a collection of highlighted species of birds in California that you must see if you visit the state.
Before you embark on a new birding adventure, make sure you go prepared with some essential gear:
A solid pair of binoculars like the Bushnell Legend Ultra HD is recommended if you wish to be able to see birds clearly from a distance. This is a great lightweight model that offers solid water resistance and premium optics performance.
- California Field Guide
Don’t forget to grab a field guide for California so you can identify birds more effectively. This one by Stan Tekiela is the most comprehensive for the state of California and provides great organization by color and valuable fact-filled birding information.
- Monocular and Smartphone Holder
If you don’t want to carry around a bulky camera, maybe it’s time to jump into the digiscoping trend and invest in a monocular for your smartphone. Check out the Gosky monocular telescope that’s perfect for birdwatching.
1. Tufted Puffin
If you’re going birdwatching in the summer, you can spot tufted puffins along the Pacific Coast. Also known as crested puffins, these birds can be often found in the rocky regions of California that are close to the coast. This is the largest species of puffins that can be discovered pretty much everywhere throughout the North Pacific Ocean. Crested puffins are pelagic seabirds that form dense breeding colonies in the summer. That’s the best time to admire their colorful plumage compared to the winter period.
2. Allen’s Hummingbird
The coastal regions of California are some of the best areas in the state for birders. Allen’s Hummingbirds can be seen in these areas when the first signs of spring appear. While these birds enjoy warmer winters, they will populate coastal regions even before the cold season is completely finished. Some Allen’s Hummingbird populations can be found in Southern California to reside permanently. Look for a brilliant golden-orange throat to spot courting males. The tails of these birds can create the effect of a metallic sound.
3. Sooty Shearwater
There are many great seabirds to see in California and the sooty shearwater is one that stands out. These pelagic birds are quite common so even amateur birdwatchers should have no trouble spotting them in their natural coastline habitats. While there’s been a decline in the numbers of sooty shearwater birds, these birds can be found in large gatherings at sea. They’re adept at flying low over the ocean or you can notice them resting on the water. These birds tend to concentrate around upwellings and prefer cooler waters.
4. California Scrub-Jay
With a lanky appearance and striking blue color, the California scrub-jay can be found everywhere in the state except for southeastern regions. You have a greater chance to spot them in northern and central California areas regardless of the season. The California scrub-jay is a relatively new bird that’s very similar to the western scrub-jay. This songbird is often seen in a hunched-over posture and it stands out thanks to its long and floppy tail. Adults are also characterized by the presence of a partial blue necklace.
5. California Condor
The California condor is an impressive raptor bird that has managed to make a comeback thanks to solid conservation efforts. It’s truly a breathtaking moment to get a glimpse of this huge vulture. The southern and central areas of California are ideal for spotting this bird. Keep in mind that this condor prefers more isolated regions so it may take some extra work to spot it. You may have to check out some particular birdwatching hotspots but it’s worth it considering the spectacular look of the California condor’s broad wings.
6. Cedar Waxwing
A fruit-loving bird, the cedar waxwing is always searching for abundant crops. It’s often found in areas populated by trees and shrubs with lots of berries. This is a nomadic songbird that moves its breeding grounds according to available food resources. The best chance to spot the cedar waxwing in California is to search for it in the winter season. It’s often enough to just have a lot of fruit-producing plants in the backyard to attract this bird. The name of the bird refers to a special characteristic, namely the presence of red droplets on the feather wing that can help you recognize it.
7. Band-Tailed Pigeon
Pigeons are commonly found throughout California but this bird stands out much more compared to the typical city dwellers. The band-tailed pigeon lives in the foothills of mountain ranges. Your best bet for finding this type of wild pigeon is in central areas of California or along the coastline. As opposed to the common pigeon, this large bird shows off a white crescent on the back of its neck. There’s also some iridescent coloration while the pale tail tip sets it apart as well. The band-tailed pigeon can be found foraging for fruits and nuts.
8. Greater White-Fronted Goose
As this bird’s name suggests, this is a type of heavy-bodied goose with a distinctive white feathering around its orange bill. Central California regions are populated by greater white-fronted geese in the winter. You might have some trouble distinguishing this type of goose from domestic breeds, especially considering how juveniles lack the striking white feathering. When flying, this goose shows off a white “U” in the tail area. Groups of greater white-fronted geese tend to fly in “V” formation when migrating.
9. Pelagic Cormorant
Here’s a rare bird that you can watch in California. The pelagic cormorant offers a unique visual display through its iridescent plumage in the breeding season. Another distinctive feature is the little red patch right underneath the bird’s bill. While it’s not a common sight, this type of cormorant can be spotted together with more common species of cormorants. It’s recommended to look for these slender waterbirds on the coasts of California, in regions with steep cliffs. Flying pelagic cormorant show white patches at the wing’s base during the breeding season.
10. Northern Pygmy-Owl
Owls are not as easy to see in their natural habitats compared to other birds. However, some types of owls can be easier to spot. The Northern pygmy-owl is a good example if we’re talking about California state regions. These birds can be discovered in mountain forests everywhere in California but some areas have larger populations. You can increase your chances to see these owls by going along the coast in western areas. This tiny bird hunts during the day and features dark brown and white feathers with a particularly long tail.
11. Costa’s Hummingbird
Check out this exotic-looking hummingbird that’s widespread in many dry territories in the southern part of the state. The Costa’s hummingbird can also be found in western California in the summer season which coincides with the breeding time. Male birds are the most distinctive as they feature a bright purple gorget. This is a tiny and compact hummingbird that usually sits in a hunched posture. Female Costa’s hummingbirds are less remarkable as they have a greenish color on their backs and whitish underparts.
12. Dark-eyed Junco
Californians can enjoy an impressive diversity in terms of bird species. Dark-eyed Junco songbirds are very widespread in North America. You can also admire their lovely song in many parts of California, especially in mountainous regions and coniferous coastal areas. The bird has a habit of making an appearance in the winter period, especially in southern and central California. One particular variety of dark-eyed Junco that’s abundant in California is called Oregon Junco that has a dark black hood and a brown back.
13. Tundra Swan
Anyone who’s into winter birdwatching won’t be disappointed when finding tundra swans. This large waterfowl can be seen in central and northern California parts. The bird has a distinctively black bill that contrasts with the completely white plumage. If you look real closely, you can notice a tiny yellow patch close to the eye area. That can help you recognize the tundra swan more easily. Further confirmation of the bird’s species is provided by a thin reddish grin patch. Tundra swans can be seen on estuaries and coastal waters during the cold season.
14. Surf Scoter
With its sloping orange bill and almost complete black appearance, the surf scoter represents a great bird to watch in California. This is a medium-sized sea duck that’s relatively simple to identify even if you’re far away. Similar to other scoter birds, the surf variety can be found along the California coast during the winter season. Keep in mind that only the male birds show off the distinctively-shaped bill while the females have a plain dark brown appearance.
The whimbrel is an elegant-looking shorebird that makes characteristic piping calls. It has a curved bill that’s useful for extracting crabs or other invertebrates from the mud. While it’s found primarily in the tundra and other open habitats, whimbrels can be commonly located in coastal regions of California in the cold season. This bird tends to migrate from the arctic nesting areas to southern parts of the North American continent. Sometimes you can discover these large shorebirds as far as South America. Whimbrels can travel over the open ocean.
16. Acorn Woodpecker
A funny-looking bird, the acorn woodpecker makes an appearance in western and northern California parts throughout the duration of the year. Oak woodlands act like ideal settings for these woodpeckers. They live in numerous groups and build complex networks of acorn storage through holes in trees. This is definitely a fascinating bird to watch considering its eye-catching appearance and interesting social life. The head of the bird resembles the look of a wide-eyed clown due to a bright red patch at the top.
17. Mountain Plover
Despite its name, this is a small shorebird that can be found in open spaces in western US regions during the nesting period. As the cold season comes, the mountain plover winters in southern and central parts of California as well as the north of Mexico. This bird has an understated look with sandy plumage. It can be more difficult to spot in its natural environment that consists of dry plains. The mountain plover is quite elusive as it can quickly disappear when it senses danger. It’s recommended to get a reliable spotting scope like the Celestron Ultima 80 to catch this bird in action.
18. California Towhee
Some birds can be found almost exclusively in the state of California. It’s the case of the California Towhee that’s usually present only in this state, except for a few small populations in southwest Oregon. This bird is well adapted to urbanization and rural development so it’s not surprising to see it in city parks or gardens. The California Towhee has a simple brown appearance but it stands out through its metallic call notes. You can notice its bright chipping as the bird can frequently challenge its own reflection in a window.
19. Cooper’s Hawk
Stealthy and skillful fliers, Coopers’ hawks show off a widespread distribution in California. They can be commonly sighted throughout the US in woodland regions but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re easy to find or identify. This is a bird-hunting hawk that maintains a relatively secretive profile. Cooper’s hawk can resemble the look of the sharp-shinned hawk but you can differentiate it from other predatory birds by looking for distinctive characteristics. The small size of the hawk is an important aspect together with the flap-flap-glide flight style and particularly long tail.
20. Blue-Footed Booby
This a fascinating seabird that has a more impressive mating display involving the distinctive appearance of its blue feet. Even though it could be a rarer sight in California, the blue-footed Booby can be considered a vagrant bird. You can spot it in the southern parts of California. Your chances of finding it can increase in the summer. The blue feet will clearly stand out and help with the identification but you can also easily notice the unique shape of this bird. Blue-footed Boobies are known to attract human attention through spectacular dives into the ocean in the search for fish.
21. Heermann’s Gull
There are many different types of gulls and most of them can be quite hard to identify. Fortunately, Heermann’s gull is an exception. You can easily recognize it by its smoky-looking plumage and fiery red bill. The coloration of the bird makes it stand out even in large groups with mixed species of gulls. After the breeding season is over, Heermann’s gull makes an appearance on the sandy beaches of the California coast. If you want to spot this bird, it’s recommended to look for brown pelicans feeding as these gulls will often stay close to pirate fish.
22. Oak Titmouse
While some birders won’t be very impressed by the appearance of the oak titmouse, this bird can grab the attention through their vocal performances. The oak titmouse is capable of bringing some life to many dry oak woods throughout the California state. The simple gray plumage of this bird can make it a bit hard to identify at a first impression. You can distinguish it by checking for a crest. Oak titmouse mates are known to form partnerships for life. They’re highly territorial birds so you will easily be able to hear their specific vocalizations.
23. Mountain Quail
With a beautifully patterned look in shades of gray, reddish-brown, and white, the mountain quail is known to be simple to hear but hard to spot. This is because the bird inhabits remote mountainous areas in California. Backcountry hikers should be able to hear the specific whistle of the mountain quail that has been described as loud and squeaky. It will take some extra effort to get a glimpse of this quail’s dramatic head plume. It’s recommended to search roadsides or trail edges to increase your odds of finding this elusive bird.
24. Yellow-rumped Warbler
Identified by the sharp chips and characteristic brown and yellow streaks, this bird has a fairly widespread habitat. The yellow-rumped warbler is a common sight in California during the winter season. You shouldn’t have too much trouble spotting some flocks visiting trees and shrubs. Whereas other warbler birds prefer eating insects, this species has an expanded diet because the birds can also digest berries. When the spring comes, yellow-rumped warblers travel towards mountainous regions in California to use as their breeding grounds.
25. Snowy Plover
The snowy plover is widespread on multiple continents, including North America. This small bird resides along the California coast as well because of its preference for dry beaches. The breeding season makes the snowy plover depart to eastern parts of the state but you can find this bird in California any time of the year. To help you recognize the bird in the wild, it’s important to check for the characteristic broken necklace markings. The snowy plover sits in a horizontal posture and breeding adults are noted for their black crown stripe.
26. Black Oystercatcher
A stout shorebird with distinctive all-black plumage, the black oystercatcher can be found foraging on rocky parts of California’s beaches. Identifying the bird is easy when looking for a gleaming reddish bill that contrasts with its dark body. The black oystercatcher is often seen searching for food on falling tides but you can also spot the bird on jetties and breakwaters. Adult birds stay paired year-round and create pleasant whistling calls. The black oystercatcher is not easy to observe from a close distance so a spotting scope could be required.
27. Spotted Dove
Although spotted doves are usually inhabiting various regions of the Asian continent, this bird has managed to spread in southern California as well thanks to a successful introduction. Compared to other types of doves, this bird features a spotty patch at the base of the neck. That’s pretty much the unique characteristic of this species that will help you identify it correctly. Aside from the patch, spotted doves are brown overall with some rosy coloration on the breast. Western birds can look a bit different compared to Asian spotted doves as they show darker feathers.
28. Nuttall’s Woodpecker
Showing off black and white stripes, Nuttall’s woodpecker can be commonly encountered in the oak woodlands of California. The bird is a year-round resident of the state and its appearance resembles other woodpeckers such as the Ladder-backed species. It’s not necessary to visit oak forests in remote areas to see this bird because it can sometimes be spotted in city parks and suburban areas. It’s recommended to look for oak trees to increase your chances of discovering the Nuttall’s woodpecker. These birds can be attracted to bird feeders.
29. Red-shouldered Hawk
The red-shouldered hawk is a noisy raptor bird that has adapted to various parts of California. It can be found sometimes in suburban parks as well whereas eastern US populations prefer hunting in forests. Compared to their eastern cousins, the red-shouldered hawks in California have darker plumage and the reddish color appears more vibrant. Birders should note that these birds are highly territorial so this is one reason why they will create high and piercing calls. The bird is very loyal to its territory as it’s been known to reside in the same zone for many years.
30. California Thrasher
This is a lanky songbird that’s related to mockingbirds. As you can expect from its name, the California Thrasher is found in various areas of this state. You can spot it year-round on western parts of California where the bird forages on the ground using its deeply curved bill. Due to its unremarkable brown-gray color and dense chaparral habitat, the California Thrasher can be difficult to see. It’s more easily recognized by its characteristic long song that’s often performed in the early morning.