Birdwatching in Southern California: Everything You Need To Know

Male Zebra finch standing on wire

The sunny state of California is a popular tourist location and a haven for all sorts of wildlife. More than 660 distinct species of birds have been recorded in the “golden state.” This is more than any other state in the US. (1) This is hardly surprising considering the massive size of California and the striking variety of climates, landscapes, and habitats that span the state.

California is a hub of biodiversity that dazzles birdwatchers and nature lovers. Because the state is so vast, though, when planning a birdwatching expedition in California it is advisable to focus in on a specific region. In this article, we will take a closer look at the Southern half of California and the plentiful opportunities to experience the joy of birds contained therein.

Why Go Birdwatching in Southern California

As stated above, one of the greatest draws for birdwatching in Southern California is the biodiversity that this region has to offer. Marshes, deserts, forests, and beaches provide habitats for birds of all sorts. There are also plenty of rare and beautiful birds that are unique to this region.

Southern California is host to a number of state parks. The state of California boasts 280 state parks with 340 miles of coastlines, 5,200 miles of trails, and 970 miles of lake and riverfronts. (2) Even outside of designated parks and wildlife recreation areas, Southern California’s suburban and urban areas boast an array of visitors. For birdwatchers living in Southern California, birdfeeders can provide an easy opportunity to get close to the many birds that live in the region as year-round residents and as seasonal migrants.

Birds of Southern California

Some of the more unique birds that Southern California has to offer include some of the rarest birds on the planet as well as some unique migrant visitors and a stunning variety of shorebirds along the coasts.

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California Condors

California Condors are the largest wild birds in North America. (3) Critically endangered, these birds were previously thought to be extinct in the wild. They have slowly been reintroduced to the wild and are bolstered by extensive conservation efforts. Today, over 300 condors call Arizona, Utah, and California home. (4) Because of their sparse, but growing, numbers and their massive range these birds can be difficult to spot. This elusive quality, and the resultant rush when seen, means the condor features prominently on the “life lists” of many birdwatchers.

California Condors
Photo by NOAA on Unsplash

There are a number of places to spot these magnificent raptors in Southern California. Note, however, that due to their rarity sightings in the wild are never a guarantee.

The Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge in Kern County, California is a hub for California Condor recreation efforts. The refuge’s release areas for captive bred condors are closed to the public to preserve the species and limit human interference. There are, however, hiking trails available in the neighboring Los Padres National Forest that can offer California Condor sightings from safe viewing distances. A nonprofit organization known as The Friends of California Condors Wild and Free also conducts twice yearly tours of the restricted Bitter Creek facilities. (5)

Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owls are small ground-dwelling owls that live in open grasslands and prairies. (6) Due to habitat loss and damage from control programs for pests, these owls are considered at risk or endangered in some areas. They are charismatic animals who have been nicknamed “howdy birds” because they seem to nod at passersby from their burrows. These owls are often active during the day. This is a unique trait for an owl species which makes them an especially popular sight for birdwatchers.

Burrowing Owls
Photo by Jhoneil Centeno on Unsplash

Birdwatchers in Southern California can spot Burrowing Owls by visiting the Salton Sea. This shallow saltwater lake is located about a three hour drive East of Los Angeles. The Salton Sea is an important stop along the Pacific Flyway migration route, and as such, is a fantastic birdwatching location for a number of shorebirds. Visitors looking to spot Burrowing Owls should also keep an eye out for American White Pelicans, Eared Grebes, Northern Shovelers, American Avocets, and Ruddy Ducks. (7)

Pasadena Parrots

When planning a birdwatching expedition to Southern California, parrots are likely to be far from your mind. Strangely, though, there is one SoCal town in which wild parrots are rather easy to spot. Pasadena, California boasts robust populations of wild or feral parrots. Identified as a number of species flocking together, but largely comprised of Yellow-headed Amazons. Mysteries abound as to how and why this parrot population blossomed in Pasadena. (8)

A likely result of a breeding population of former pets generations ago, the parrots of Pasadena have spread and prospered with reports of parrots in suburban neighborhoods in Bakersfield and Los Angeles as well. Though some residents consider these birds to be a bit of a nuisance, others treasure this vibrant population. Spotting the parrots of Pasadena is not difficult as they are incredibly noisy and numerous throughout the city.

Best Locations for SoCal Birdwatching

Along with the previously mentioned locations for spotting unique Southern California birds here are some of the best birdwatching spots in SoCal.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is located in San Diego County, California. Just thirteen miles from the previously discussed Salton Sea, this gorgeous state park boasts an enviable list of birds to see. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is one location in which California Condors can sometimes be seen. It’s also home to ten species of hawks, seven species of hummingbirds, the Greater Roadrunner, the California Quail, twenty-four species of warblers, more than twenty species of sparrows, dozens of woodpeckers, and a slew of wading birds. (9)

American Avocets Wading
Photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash

El Dorado Nature Center in Long Beach, California is another fantastic birdwatching spot. Featuring Western Scrub Jays, Black-crowned Night Herons, Great Blue Herons, and Snowy Egrets, the appeal of this lovely park is multiplied by the availability of audio tours courtesy of the “El Dorado Park Winged Wonders” program. (10) The El Dorado chapter of the Audubon society also embarks on field trips to the El Dorado Nature Center.

The Mojave National Preserve is located in between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Over 200 different species of birds have been spotted within this desert park. Most of these birds, however, are migrants who pass through the park for a short time. A much smaller number of birds are able to withstand the harsh desert conditions year-round. (11) Horned Larks, Cactus Wrens, Red-tailed Hawks, and Golden Eagles can all be spotted at this park. A species checklist of all the birds of the park can be found on the National Parks Service’s website.

Best Seasons for SoCal Birdwatching

Seasons are a very important factor when planning a birdwatching expedition in Southern California. Depending on the location, there are often dozens of species that only visit during the appropriate time of year. California’s extremely hot summer weather can also endanger birdwatchers who are inexperienced or unprepared.

Generally, the best seasons for birdwatching in Southern California are autumn and spring. This is because migratory birds often pass through during these seasons en route to their summer and winter homes. Southern California’s weather is also notably mild throughout spring and autumn. When visiting locations along the Pacific Flyway migration route, a treasure trove of migrating birds can be spotted if the date is correct. If you are planning your outing with a particular bird in mind, be extra careful to research the best times to spot your target.

Birdfeeder Watching in Southern California

hummingbird with purple flower
Photo by Bryan Hanson on Unsplash

Although spring and fall are clear winners when it comes to spotting migratory birds, there is still plenty to see during the summer and winter months. Southern California boasts year-round hummingbird populations and an impressive array of permanent residents belonging to many different avian families.

For birdfeeder watching, winter is often the most eventful season. During the winter, other food sources become less available and wild bird populations become much more inclined to visit feeders. For Southern California residents looking to birdwatch from the comfort of their own homes, establishing a feeder and keeping it stocked through the winter months can be an excellent strategy. Just be sure to disinfect your feeders regularly to prevent the spread of harmful germs.

To make the most out of a birdfeeder birders should provide multiple different types of foods. For hummingbirds, sugar water or nectar is a good choice. Sparrows, tits, and finches are often attracted to sunflower seeds. Jays can easily be drawn in with unshelled peanuts. All of these species can be spotted at feeders year round. But only if the appropriate menu is served!

Packing for SoCal Birdwatching

Birdwatching in Southern California is relatively low intensity most of the time. Birders can usually get by with just the basics, assuming that they don’t go off trail into any rugged terrain. Whether you’re looking to birdwatch at your local Southern California park or marina or you’re planning a birdwatching adventure in one of SoCal’s amazing state parks, the following are some of the necessities that you should bring.

  • Sunscreen: Sunscreen is number one on this list because, although it may not help you spot any birds, sunscreen is essential year-round for outdoor recreation in Southern California. Even in the winter months the California sun is intense and can do serious skin damage.
  • Water: To state it simply: birdwatchers should always have water. Heat and dehydration are common dangers on hiking trails and Southern California can be punishingly hot. For any outdoor activity off the beaten path having enough water for an emergency situation is essential.
  • First Aid: In case of emergency it is always advisable to have a basic first aid kit when hiking or exploring the outdoors.
  • Binoculars: Many species of birds are shy or easily startled. Others perch in high or unreachable locations. In any case, it is typically quite difficult to get a really close look at these birds without the assistance of binoculars. Without the detail of binoculars it can also be quite difficult to identify the birds you’re seeing.
  • Field Guides: Many rugged areas that provide access to wildlife have limited cellular service. In these cases it is advisable to have a field guide on hand. Field guides are useful tools for identifying new birds, providing information to help locate potential habitats for birds, and listing species that are commonly sighted in the area. Regional field guides are more general, but many parks have their own field guides for the specific birds that reside there.
  • Writing Implements: It is common practice for birdwatchers to carry writing implements to ensure they do not miss an important detail. You never know when a bird is going to take flight, so a bit of note taking can sometimes be the difference between a confirmed sighting and a frustratingly unidentifiable encounter.
  • A Companion: Birdwatching with a companion can be very rewarding. A companion offers an extra set of eyes and ears to search for birds. Having another person along on your trip also means that there is someone to assist you in an emergency. Birdwatching tours are a great way to birdwatch with companions of various experience levels. As with any outdoor expedition, as a safety precaution you should make sure that somebody knows your location and the timing of your itinerary.

There are many more useful tools and items to bring birdwatching, but the above items are indispensable for ensuring a safe and rewarding trip.

Conclusion

Southern California is a unique and thrilling birdwatching destination with an abundance of beautiful and diverse wildlife. From the endangered California Condor, to the parrots of Pasadena, to the shorebirds of the Pacific Flyway the birdwatching opportunities afforded by the Southern half of the Golden State are rich and plentiful. Residents of the region can watch as the seasons change and avian visitors come and go.

Birdwatchers interested in visiting Southern California should dive into researching the migration patterns of the birds that they would like to see, as well as the breath-taking parks and preserves they would like to visit. California is far too big to see everything in just one visit, but a bit of research and planning can make it much easier to see as many of the birds that you’re most interested in as possible.

To experience the majesty of this SoCal’s birds can be an extremely moving adventure. For birdwatchers of all experience levels, Southern California is an excellent destination. When it comes to birds, it is certainly true that Southern California has something for everyone.

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