With the superstardom of Hollywood, the magic of Disneyland, the rivalries of dozens of professional sports teams, the beauty of so many natural wonders, and much more, it is no surprise that California is a dream destination for millions of tourists each year. But with 840 miles of coastline, nine national parks, nearly 300 state parks, and a diverse array of habitats that range from deserts and scrub to mountains, grasslands, wetlands, coastal marshes, forests, and tidal flats, California is equally alluring to birds. More than 650 species have been recorded in California, and any birder visiting the Left Coast is sure to spot a fantastic variety of birds. These top 35 birds to watch for in California are just the first of the flock of amazing California birds to see.
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The surf scoter (Melanitta perspicillata) is a stunning bird to see off the California coast each winter. Their distinctive bill shape makes these sea ducks easy to identify even at a distance, though many of them stay close to piers and jetties. Look for the brightly colored bill and the white patch on the back of the neck to distinguish these birds from white-winged scoters and black scoters that will also winter along the California coast.
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Large and distinctive with its dark, smoky plumage and bold red bill, the Heermann’s gull (Larus heermanni) is found year-round along the California coast. These birds are often mixed with other gull species, but their unique coloration helps distinguish them easily, making identification a breeze even for birders who struggle with identifying gulls.
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Greater White-Fronted Goose
The greater white-fronted goose (Anser albifrons) is a heavy-bodied, distinctively colored goose with a pale peach-pink bill, bright orange legs, and ragged black streaks across the breast and belly. These geese spend winters in central California but may be difficult to tell from some breeds of domestic geese, especially when escaped geese may have hybridized with other geese.
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Central and northern California is one of the largest traditional wintering grounds for the tundra swan (Cygnus columbianus). These large waterfowl are easy to spot with their all-white plumage, and the black bill with a small yellow spot before the eye and a thin reddish grin patch helps confirm the identification. Juvenile tundra swans are grayish or brownish in late fall and early winter, but are much whiter by late winter and spring.Continue to 5 of 35 below.
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The tufted puffin (Fratercula cirrhata) is widespread along the Pacific Coast in summer, including off the rocky coast of northern California. Summer is the best time to see these birds, when they’re sporting the bold, sleek plumes and colorful bills of their breeding plumage. In winter, tufted puffins are much plainer and stay much further offshore.
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Smaller than other cormorants and rare to see, the pelagic cormorant (Phalacrocorax pelagicus) is stunning with its iridescent breeding plumage and small red patch under the bill. These birds are found year-round off the California coast, preferably around steep cliffs, and may be seen with more common cormorants, including the double-crested cormorant and the Brandt’s cormorant.
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The black oystercatcher (Haematopus bachmani) is distinctive not only for its all-black plumage and bright orange-red bill, but also for its industrious foraging on rocky beaches. These birds are typically found in pairs or small groups and may be seen along any part of the California coast, though they’re less common in the southern part of the state.
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With so much coastline, it is no surprise that California is an ideal place for spotting seabirds, and the sooty shearwater (Puffinus griseus) is one of the easiest and most common to see. These pelagic birds are common off the California coast year-round, though their numbers are higher in late summer when millions of sooty shearwaters may be soaring, fishing, and floating along the coast.Continue to 9 of 35 below.
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While not often seen in California, the blue-footed booby (Sula nebouxii) is nonetheless a regular, if rare, vagrant to the area, particularly in summer and generally in southern California. The bird’s unique shape and characteristic bright blue legs and feet make it easy to identify and a popular target bird whenever it does appear, drawing birders from throughout the state and even much further afield to add it to their life lists.
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A year-round resident along the California coast, the snowy plover (Charadrius alexandrinus) prefers dry, sandy beaches. Some of these birds can also be found on alkali flats in central California, and they are seen further east during the summer breeding season. Note the bird’s broken necklace markings and grayish leg colors for proper identification.
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A type of shorebird not often found near the shore, the mountain plover (Charadrius montanus) isn’t found in mountains, either. Instead, these large plovers prefer dry, short, grassy plains, and central California as well as the state’s extreme southern region are perfect for mountain plovers. These birds can be elusive, however, and aren’t always easy to see.
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A relatively new bird to California’s records, the California scrub-jay (Aphelocoma californica) was only split from the western scrub-jay in 2016. These bold blue corvids are found year-round in the northern, central, and coastal areas of the state, but are absent from southeastern California. They are most common in forests where oak trees are present, but also readily visit feeders where nuts are offered.Continue to 13 of 35 below.
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The whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) is the most widespread curlew species, and is a common visitor to California’s coast in winter. They can be seen in a variety of habitats, including shores as well as mudflats and flooded fields. Their long, curved bill is distinctive, though it is somewhat shorter than the bill of the long-billed curlew, which may also be seen in the same areas.
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While the red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) is common in the eastern United States, these stocky buteos are also found throughout western California all year. These western birds are notably darker and even more reddish than their eastern cousins, and birders should take note that the California subspecies could one day be split into a different species from other red-shouldered hawks.
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The state’s namesake raptor, the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) is one of the best known bird conservation success stories in the world, though there is still a long way to go to protect these huge vultures from extinction. For now, they are found in southern and central California in isolated areas, and hiring a birding guide or visiting specific birding hotspots is the easiest way to ensure amazing sightings.
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The white-tailed kite (Elanus leucurus) has a fierce glare with its hooded red eyes, and its elegant pale plumage and ability to hover briefly also set this bird of prey apart. These raptors are found year-round throughout coastal and central California, typically in open country with scattered high perches. White-tailed kites prefer to perch and scan for their prey, making them easy to spot.Continue to 17 of 35 below.
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A California specialty, the yellow-billed magpie (Pica nuttalli) is only found in central California and nowhere else in the world. These large corvids have glossy plumage and a long tail, and their bright yellow bills are distinctive even from a distance. They are generally found in rural areas with pastures and fields, as well as scattered oak groves.
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While owls can be secretive, one of the easier owls to spot in California is the northern pygmy-owl (Glaucidium gnoma). These small but ferocious owls are found year-round in mountain forests throughout the state, mostly concentrated along the coast, in the north, and in western California, and they are often actively hunting even in daylight hours.
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The acorn woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorous) is a comical bird with its clown-like masked appearance, and it is seen year-round in western and northern California. Because these birds are nut specialists, they are most common in oak forests, where they form family-oriented colonies and tend large granary trees where they store hundreds of nuts at once.
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Pigeons are no strangers in California, but the band-tailed pigeon (Patagioenas fasciata) is much different than the typical city pigeon or widespread mourning dove. These pigeons are found in the foothills of California’s mountain ranges, particularly along the coast and in the center of the state. They prefer fruits, nuts, and berries, and are distinctive with their yellow bills and the broad iridescent patch on the back of their necks.Continue to 21 of 35 below.
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The spotted dove (Streptopelia chinensis) is an unexpected bird to see in southern California typically from San Diego to Bakersfield, but that is the range where these Asian birds have spread after their introduction to the state. They are generally found in parks and gardens in cities and suburbs, and are easy to identify by the spotty patch on the side of the neck.
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This tiny dove can be confusing, but the common ground-dove (Columbina passerine) is easy to identify by its small size alone. Also look for the scaly appearance on the breast, the reddish bill, and the spotted wings to feel confident about this bird. The common ground-dove is found year-round in southeastern California, along with the much larger Inca dove.
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Easy to confuse with the more widespread and common downy woodpecker, the Nuttall’s woodpecker (Picoides nuttallii) lacks the white patch on the back and is slightly larger than most downies. These woodpeckers are common in oak groves and canyon areas of western California, and they will occasionally visit feeders offering seeds, suet, or peanut butter.
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Classic birds to see in large urban parks in California, different species of feral parrots are often beloved birds in backyards, even if they don’t officially count on birders’ life lists. Different species seen in California, including on San Francisco’s famous Telegraph Hill, are the red-crowned parrot, red-masked parakeet, mitred parakeet, yellow-headed parrot, and blue-crowned parakeet.Continue to 25 of 35 below.
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The Lawrence’s goldfinch (Carduelis lawrencei) is distinctively colored and can be a bright patch of golden color in the dry, scrubby habitats and weedy fields it prefers. These birds are usually found in small groups, and their year-round range stretches throughout central California. Lawrence’s goldfinches may be seen with lesser goldfinches and American goldfinches as well, and occasionally use mimicry in their songs, making them even more confusing.
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Though a relatively bland bird with plain gray plumage, the oak titmouse (Baeolophus inornatus) is still stunning to see as it flits about in woods and suburban areas throughout central and coastal California. Its short crest can help describe its mood, as these feisty birds use their crest to indicate emotion and strength when defending their territories or wooing mates.
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The Anna’s hummingbird (Calypte anna) is a year-round resident of coastal California, as well as more widespread in southern California. These beloved hummers prefer drier desert habitats but easily come to botanical gardens and yards where nectar-rich flowers are present. They also readily visit nectar feeders, much to the delight of backyard birders.
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The costa’s hummingbird (Calypte costa) is a desert specialty hummingbird and is fairly widespread throughout the driest parts of southern California year-round. During the summer breeding season, these birds spread slightly further north, particularly in western California, and males are easily recognized by their bright purple gorget with its deep, pointed corners.Continue to 29 of 35 below.
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A bold and aggressive hummingbird, the Allen’s hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin) is a summer visitor to coastal California from Santa Barbara to the northern border. These birds can be easy to recognize by their orange plumage and green back, but some rufous hummingbirds can also have a green back and where these birds’ ranges overlap great care must be taken for proper identification.
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California has a number of major mountain ranges, including the Sierra Nevada range, the Cascades, and the San Bernardino range, any of which can be a good place to spot the elusive mountain quail (Oreortyx pictus). These birds prefer brushy foothills and dense thickets, but their bright coloration and unique body patterns can be seen year-round in the northern and central mountains of the state.
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A fairly common bird within its range, the California thrasher (Toxostoma redivivum) can still be difficult to see because of its neutral plumage and skulking behavior in dense chaparral thickets. These birds perch in open areas to sing, however, giving birders better viewing opportunities. California thrashers are year-round residents in coastal and central California, but are absent from the northern part of the state.
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Another relatively plain bird, the wrentit (Chamaea fasciata) is large but still difficult to see as it stays hidden in low thickets. These birds have a loud voice, however, and are commonly seen before they are spotted. Wrentits are year-round residents of western California, but are not found in the most mountainous regions.Continue to 33 of 35 below.
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The white-headed woodpecker (Picoides albolarvatus) is aptly named for the white heads that both male and female birds show, and birders in northern and central California may spot these woodpeckers in mountain pine forests throughout the year. They can be common within their range, but rarely stray far from their preferred forest habitats.
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Small and relatively quiet, the black-chinned sparrow (Spizella atrogularis) can be easy to miss. Its pale bill and dark face, however, gives it a distinctive appearance, while the streaked back is immediately recognizable as a sparrow. These birds are found during the summer breeding season in central and southern California.
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No visit to the Golden State would be complete without seeing a California quail (Callipepla californica), the official state bird. These plump, chicken-like birds prefer brushy woods and chaparral habitats, though they can also be seen in suburban areas or large, natural parks. They are found year-round throughout most of California, but are absent from the southeastern part of the state.