35 Best Birds to Watch for in California

California offers abundant and diverse birdwatching opportunities. From coastal wetlands to inland mountains and deserts, dedicated birders can find hundreds of resident and migratory species across the state. Here are 35 of the best birds to watch for during a visit to California:

American Dipper

The American dipper is a unique bird that actually walks underwater along streams looking for aquatic insects and larvae. Their feathers are specially adapted to repel water. Dippers can be found year-round along fast-moving streams in northern California and the Sierra Nevada mountains. They constantly bob up and down near the water, giving them their descriptive name.

American White Pelican

With their large size, bright orange bill, and striking black and white plumage, American white pelicans make for an imposing sight. These birds can have wingspans over 9 feet wide! They breed in colonies at saline lakes scattered across southeastern California. Pelicans work together to herd schools of fish into the shallows for easy feeding.

Anna’s Hummingbird

Males of this diminutive hummingbird species have gorgeous iridescent throats that shimmer in shades of fuchsia and emerald. Anna’s hummingbirds are year-round residents throughout much of coastal and southern California. They aggressively defend feeding territories centered around nectar-producing flowers.

Bald Eagle

Once an endangered species, bald eagles have made a remarkable comeback across North America, including in California. These powerful raptors can be found along lakes, rivers, and coastal areas statewide during the winter months. Look for their distinctive white heads and tails. Bald eagles mainly eat fish but will also hunt mammals and waterfowl.

Black Oystercatcher

The rocky intertidal zones along the California coast provide the perfect habitat for noisy, gregarious flocks of black oystercatchers. Their jet black heads and long, bright red bills make them unmistakable. Watch for oystercatchers using their specialized bills to pry open mussels and other shellfish.

Black Skimmer

Black skimmers have a uniquely uneven bill that allows them to skim just below the water’s surface with the lower mandible underwater to snap up small fish. They nest in colonies on secluded beaches and islands along the southern California coast. These tern relatives have striking black and white plumage with orange legs and a red and black bill.

Black-Chinned Hummingbird

This small hummingbird species is a common summer resident in gardens, parks, and backyards across southern California. The adult male’s purple throat patch and dark, forked tail make him unmistakable. Black-chinned hummingbirds dine on nectar and insects, and they are not particularly territorial compared to other hummingbirds.

Black-Necked Stilt

These thin shorebirds get their name from their extremely long black legs and neck. Black-necked stilts can be found year-round at fresh and saltwater wetlands across California. They wander shallow waters hunting for insects, crustaceans and fish. During breeding season, females lay speckled eggs right on floating mats of vegetation.

Blue Grosbeak

The colorful plumage displayed by male blue grosbeaks makes them a favorite among birdwatchers. Their deep indigo heads, necks, and breasts contrast sharply with reddish-brown wings and tails. Look for these chunky seedeaters in weedy fields, thickets, and scrublands across southern California.

Bullock’s Oriole

The striking orange and black plumage of Bullock’s orioles makes them easy to identify as they flit through tree canopies. Listen for their flute-like warbling songs. This species is common in parks, gardens, and groves of palms and deciduous trees throughout central and southern California. They weave pendulous nests at the tips of branches.

Burrowing Owl

As their name implies, these small, long-legged owls nest underground in abandoned burrows dug by mammals like ground squirrels and prairie dogs. Burrowing owls inhabit grasslands and agricultural areas throughout California. They can often be spotted standing sentry outside of their burrows or perching on fence posts.

California Condor

With a wingspan over 9 feet wide, California condors are North America’s largest flying land bird. By 1982, habitat loss and poaching reduced their numbers to just 22 wild birds. Captive breeding and reintroduction programs pulled the condor back from the brink of extinction. There are now nearly 500 total birds, including around 300 flying free in California.

California Quail

These rotund, ground-dwelling birds are marked by a bold, feather plume sprouting from their tops. Their “chi-ca-go” call is a familiar sound emanating from chaparral habitat across California. California quail gather in communal coveys and prefer to walk or scurry through brush rather than fly.

Clark’s Nutcracker

This mountain-dwelling member of the crow family lives up to its name – it adores pine nuts! Clark’s nutcrackers use their strong bills to crack into pine cones and excavate the seeds. They cache thousands of seeds each fall. Their amazing spatial memory allows them to recover the seeds months later.

Costa’s Hummingbird

Males of this desert hummingbird species have a brilliant purple crown and throat. Their preferred habitat is desert washes, chaparral, and palo verde-cactus communities in southeastern California. Costa’s hummingbirds aggressively defend nectar-rich flowers and water sources. They are less active in the hottest midday hours.

Elegant Tern

Elegant terns breed in noisy colonies numbering in the thousands on a handful of isolated islands off of southern California. Watch for their steep dives as they plunge into schools of fish. In summer, adults have full black caps and bright orange-red bills. They migrate far down the coasts of Mexico and South America each winter.

Golden Eagle

With wingspans stretching over 6 feet wide, golden eagles are a powerful, acrobatic raptor. They breed and nest on remote cliffs and canyons across California. Golden eagles subsist mainly on rabbits and other small to mid-sized mammals. They soar high on mountain thermals scanning for prey below.

Greater Roadrunner

This long-legged, quail-like bird inhabits scrublands and chaparral across Southern California. Roadrunners can run up to 20 mph to chase lizards and snakes! They often forage along dirt roads and field margins. Listen for their distinctive cooing song and keep an eye out for their distinctive crest.

Greater Sage-Grouse

Male greater sage-grouse perform one of the most spectacular mating rituals of any North American bird species. Each spring they gather to strut, inflate vivid yellow air sacs, and make popping sounds to attract females. Sage-grouse depend on healthy sagebrush ecosystems mainly found in northeastern California.

Hooded Oriole

The bright yellow and black plumage of male hooded orioles makes them a striking sight as they weave hanging nests on the underside of palm fronds. Females are more yellowish-green overall. Hooded orioles summer across central and southern California before migrating to western Mexico each winter.

Horned Lark

Given its relatively dull brown plumage, this species may be easily overlooked. Look for the horned lark’s black “horns,” a tuft of feathers on each side of its head. They inhabit open grasslands, agricultural fields, and desert flats throughout California. Horned larks run and fly low, rather than hopping like many other small songbirds.

Lawrence’s Goldfinch

This brightly-colored finch species favors arid oak woodlands and chaparral in southwestern California. Males have vivid yellow underparts and olive green backs. Females are dull brown overall. Lawrence’s goldfinches breed later in summer than other goldfinch species and mainly eat seeds from thistle and other weedy plants.

Least Tern

Weighing barely over an ounce, least terns are North America’s smallest tern species. They nest in scattered colonies just above the high tide line along the California coast. If disturbed, expect to hear their piercing alarm calls as they try to divert perceived threats away from their nests. Least terns plunge into shallow waters to catch tiny fish.

Long-Billed Curlew

With a bill that measures up to 8 inches long, the magnificently curved bill of long-billed curlews is adapted for probing deep into mud for crabs, worms, and other invertebrates. Their loud, ringing calls carry over marshes and mudflats. Look for long-billed curlews along both coastal and inland wetlands of California.

Mountain Bluebird

The dazzling blue plumage of male mountain bluebirds brightens mountain meadows and forest openings in the Sierra Nevada range. Females are grayer overall with a pale blue wash on their wings and tail. These high elevation birds mainly eat insects snatched out of the air or picked off vegetation.

Northern Flicker

Northern flickers probe ground litter with their curved bill, searching out ants and other insects. In flight, watch for their bold white rump patch and undulating flight pattern. Males have a distinctive black “moustache” mark along their bill. Northern flickers are common year-round statewide, frequenting both forests and backyards.

Nuttall’s Woodpecker

This black and white woodpecker is a year-round resident of oak woodlands throughout most of California. Nuttall’s woodpeckers forage on tree trunks but also makes short flights out to catch insects in mid-air. Listen for their harsh, nasal calls as they declare territory and attract mates.

Oak Titmouse

As their name suggests, oak titmice thrive among oak woodlands throughout California. They hammer seeds out of acorns and use their sturdy bill to excavate insects from crevices in bark. Oak titmice are social and travel in mixed flocks with other chickadees and bushtits outside of breeding season.

Peregrine Falcon

When hunting, peregrine falcons can dive at speeds over 200 mph, making them the fastest members of the animal kingdom. They nest on tall cliffs and urban towers and can be observed year-round throughout California. Watch for peregrines chasing down other birds in flight or feasting on captured prey.

Red-Shouldered Hawk

This medium-sized, forest-dwelling hawk is marked by translucent crescents on the underside of its wings when in flight. Red-shouldered hawks perch patiently before dropping down to capture reptiles, amphibians, small mammals, and birds. Listen for their piercing calls echoed through wooded areas.

Red-Tailed Hawk

Perhaps the most widespread and familiar North American hawk, red-tailed hawks occupy diverse habitats across California. Look for broad, reddish bands on their tails. Red-tailed hawks scan open terrain from elevated perches before swooping down on prey like small mammals and snakes. Their shrill, descending screams are unmistakable.

Ross’s Goose

Smaller and more delicate than our familiar Snow Geese, Ross’s Geese breed in remote Arctic regions but migrate down the Pacific Flyway each winter. Some stray into the Central Valley and coastal wetlands of California, mingling with large flocks of Snow Geese. Look for Ross’s Geese smaller black “grinning patches” at the base of their bills.

Rufous Hummingbird

These feisty hummingbirds migrate up the Pacific Coast each spring and summer from wintering grounds in Mexico. Male rufous hummingbirds have brilliant orange plumage on their backs, sides, and bellies. They aggressively defend nectar-rich flower patches from other hummingbirds and insects.

Sandhill Crane

Standing nearly 4 feet tall with gray feathers and bright red caps atop their heads, sandhill cranes are unmistakable, majestic birds. Many migrating cranes winter in agricultural fields and wetlands of California’s Central Valley, mixing with wintering waterfowl flocks. Sandhill cranes mate for life and perform elaborate dances as part of their breeding rituals.

Short-Billed Dowitcher

Look for fast-probing dowitchers along the muddy margins of coastal estuaries, salt marshes, and freshwater wetlands across California. As their name indicates, short-billed dowitchers have a relatively shorter bill compared to the similar long-billed dowitcher. They breed in subarctic wetlands and winter along the Pacific Coast.

Snowy Plover

Snowy plovers nest in scraped depressions in the sand along beaches up and down the California coastline. They have pale brown upperparts and bright white undersides. Snowy plovers are endangered by human disturbance, pets, and predators. Observe them from a distance and avoid marked nesting areas.

Swainson’s Hawk

These slim, graceful raptors summer across California before migrating in large numbers to wintering grounds in South America. Swainson’s hawks hunt rodents, rabbits, and insects in open grasslands, fields, and agriculture areas. Watch for them soaring on thermal updrafts or perched on telephone poles scanning for prey.

Tricolored Blackbird

Almost entirely restricted to California, this species forms the largest breeding colonies of any North American songbird, with clusters numbering over 100,000 birds. Colonies nest in flooded agricultural fields, mainly in the Central Valley. Each bird has distinctive bright red and white markings on black plumage.

Violet-Green Swallow

The only North American swallow species with extensive white markings on its rump, Violet-green swallows are aerial acrobats that nest in mountain forests of the west. Watch for them swooping low over meadows, lakes, and streams as they pick insects out of the air. Their brilliant green backs shimmer in the sunlight when observed up-close.

Western Bluebird

The blue upperparts and rusty breasts of male western bluebirds seem to match the open sky and earth of the mountains and foothills they inhabit along the Pacific Coast. Breeding pairs nest in tree cavities and boxes. After rearing a brood, western bluebirds gather to form large migratory flocks heading south for winter.

Western Grebe

Distinguished by its long, swan-like neck, western grebes breed at fish-rich lakes across northern California. They build floating platform nests anchored to emergent vegetation. To feed, western grebes dive underwater to capture small fish and invertebrates. Their young ride on their backs after hatching.

Western Meadowlark

This ground-dwelling songbird inhabits grasslands and meadows west of the Rockies. Its cheery, flute-like song carries across open spaces. Western meadowlarks have a distinctive black “V” mark across their bright yellow breasts. As they flush, watch for bold white tail feathers. Meadowlarks spend most of their time walking through vegetation searching for seeds and insects.

White-Faced Ibis

Watch for elegant, crimson-colored white-faced ibises wading in shallow wetlands and irrigated fields throughout California. They use their long, curved bill to probe for invertebrates. In breeding season, white-faced ibises grow shaggy plumage along their necks. These sociable birds forage in flocks numbering in the dozens or even hundreds of individuals.

White-Tailed Kite

With brilliant white bodies contrasting against gray wings and deeply forked tails, white-tailed kites are unmistakable raptors of open country across coastal and interior California. Watch for their aerial hunting technique of hovering in mid-air while scanning for small mammal and reptile prey below.

Wild Turkey

After near extinction in the early 1900s, wild turkeys have expanded their range dramatically across North America following extensive reintroduction programs. These large, wary gamebirds are now common in oak woodlands and chaparral across much of California. Watch for turkey flocks strutting and foraging on the ground. Males have colorful faces that can change from blue to red.

Wilson’s Warbler

Among the smallest and most energetic of North American warblers, Wilson’s warblers breed in dense thickets across northern California before migrating south to winter in Mexico. Watch for these birds busily foraging close to the ground or low in bushes. Males have distinctive small, black caps atop their yellow faces.

Yellow-Billed Magpie

With flashy black and white plumage and a long, blue-gray bill, yellow-billed magpies are easy to identify as they bound across the ground in the open oak woodlands of California’s Central Valley and coastal ranges. Highly intelligent birds, they may also come boldly into yards and picnic areas in parks.


As this list shows, California provides ample opportunities to observe a remarkable diversity of resident and migratory birds species – from tiny hummingbirds to enormous condors. Plan a trip soon to start exploring California’s abundant birdlife! The best spots offer a variety of habitat types like coastal wetlands, inland lakes, mountain forests, open desert, and urban parks. Pack your binoculars, field guide, and some patience and you’re bound to encounter many amazing birds!