20 Beach Birds You’ll See in California – A Guide

California’s coastline offers a spectacular theatre for birdwatching enthusiasts like yourself. With more than 800 miles of varied terrain, from sandy shores to rocky cliffs, your binoculars are in for a treat. The beach birds of California comprise a wide range of species, that you’ll want to document in your birding notebook or app!

Seabirds have adapted perfectly to their coastal habitats here. The Western Gull, for example, is a staple of the California seascape, often lumbering across the beach or soaring near the waves. Another frequent sight is the Brown Pelican, gliding over the ocean surface with its impressive wingspan and diving sharply for fish.

When you explore beaches in California, you’ll likely encounter the Snowy Plover, a small and delightful bird often found scuttling along the shore. Due to habitat threats, these birds and the federally protected California Least Tern are species of particular concern.

Watch for the elegant Black Oystercatcher, with its distinctive red beak and haunting calls. These California beach birds use their substantial bills to pry open shellfish along rocky coasts.

Remember, while observing these captivating bird species, your respect for their environment contributes significantly to their preservation. Enjoy your birdwatching adventures along the stunning California coastline!

Common Coastal Bird Species

beach birds california

California’s coastline offers a rich tapestry of avian life, where you can observe many bird species in their natural habitats. From elegant flyers to skilled hunters, the avian diversity is a birdwatcher’s delight, not to mention the crucial importance of these birds to ecological balance.

Black-bellied Plover

black bellied plover california beach birds
black bellied plover california beach birds

These medium-sized shorebirds are characterized by their round bodies and short tails. During the breeding season, you’ll recognize them for their dramatic black-and-white coloring—black-bellied Plovers frequent sand and mud flats along the coast.

How to Identify

  • Breeding Plumage: Distinct black and white coloring during the breeding season.
  • Non-breeding Plumage: More subdued, grayish-brown upper parts and white underparts.
  • Habitat: Prefers sand and mud flats, often seen along the coast.

Western Snowy Plovers

Western Snowy Plovers

The Western Snowy Plover is a small shorebird with a pale brown back and white underparts. It often blends seamlessly into the sandy beaches it calls home. These birds are of significant conservation interest because their habitat preferences overlap with popular recreational beach areas.

How to Identify

  • Size and Color: Small and compact with pale brown upperparts and white underparts, making them blend into the sandy background.
  • Nesting Behavior: Look for shallow scrapes in the sand, which serve as nests, often marked by bits of shell or debris.
  • Habitat: Prefers sandy, saline environments such as beaches, alkali flats, and salt ponds, especially areas with little vegetation.

Brown Pelicans

Brown Pelicans are beach birds in california

The California Brown Pelican, an icon among coastal species, is easily spotted by its large size, long bill, and distinctive throat pouch. You’ll commonly see these birds diving for fish, a testament to their resilience after having been on the threatened species list due to pesticide exposure.

How to Identify

  • Physical Traits: Large body, long bill with a large throat pouch, and distinctive flying pattern.
  • Behavior: Known for spectacular diving from heights to catch fish.
  • Habitat: Common along coasts and in bays, especially near fishing areas or piers.

Long-billed Curlew

Long-billed Curlew

You might spot the Long-billed Curlew probing sand and mud for invertebrates with its notably long, curved bill. This bird’s sizable wingspan is also a sight as it takes flight from the coastal wetlands.

How to Identify

  • Bill: Very long and distinctly curved downwards. (sickle-shaped)
  • Size and Color: One of the larger shorebirds with brownish cinnamon coloring.
  • Habitat: Favors coastal wetlands, mudflats, and beaches. But also breeds on plains and prairies.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Standing tall on the shoreline, the Great Blue Heron is a majestic sight with its blue-gray plumage and poised hunting stance. Look for them in salt and freshwater habitats as they hunt for fish and amphibians. They are often mistaken for the sandhill crane, but the Heron flies with its neck folded.

How to Identify

  • Color: Blue-gray body with a broad black stripe over the eye.
  • Stance: Often standing still, waiting to spearfish with its long bill.
  • Habitat: Frequents both freshwater and saltwater environments, often near the shore.

Common Loon

Common Loon

With its haunting calls and striking black and white plumage in the breeding season, the Common Loon is mesmerizing around quiet bays and coastal waters. To spot these divers, look for them riding the ocean swells.

How to Identify

  • Plumage: Striking black and white in the breeding season; more subdued in winter.
  • Calls: Notable for their haunting and variable calls.
  • Behavior: Excellent divers, often disappearing below the surface to catch fish. Their number one food is fish!

Black-necked Stilts

Black-necked Stilts a cool beach bird in california

These shorebirds stand out with their striking black-and-white feathers and impossibly long, red legs. Black-necked Stilts frequent salt ponds and shallow lagoons, where they pick and probe for aquatic prey. They tend to winter along the Pacific coast in northern California, so they are on our beach birds of California list!

How to Identify

  • Legs: Bright red and disproportionately long compared to the body.
  • Coloring: Black upper body and head with white underparts.
  • Habitat: They prefer shallow water like salt marshes and lagoons.

Storm Petrels

Ashey Storm Petrels in california

Tiny but tenacious, Storm Petrels dance across the water’s surface on their relatively long wings. There are 21 species of storm petrels, but not all of them grace the shores of California! One of the popular California beach birds is the Ashy storm petrel.These seabirds spend most of their lives over open water, coming to land only for breeding on islands and rocky coasts.

How to Identify

  • Size: Small with long wings for their body size.
  • Behavior: Often seen “walking” on water as they feed.
  • Habitat: Open ocean, coming ashore only to breed on islands and coastal areas.

Red-necked Phalarope

Red-necked Phalarope

Spotting a Red-necked Phalarope spinning in circles on the water is delightful. This unique behavior stirs up food from the seabed. They migrate through California; you might see them in estuaries and along the coast. 

How to Identify

  • Behavior: Spins in circles on the water to bring up prey.
  • Plumage: Notable for their striped black and white back and red neck during breeding season.
  • Habitat: Coastal estuaries and open ocean waters. They spend all of their non-breeding life out at sea!

American Oystercatcher

American Oystercatcher

The American Oystercatcher is unmistakable with its all-black plumage and bright reddish-orange bill. Look for them prying open mollusks on rocky shores. You’ll often see them in pairs or small groups along the west coast.

How to Identify

  • Bill: Bright orange and strong, used for prying open shells.
  • Color: Entirely black plumage, making them easy to spot against the rocky shore.
  • Behavior: Often found in pairs, loudly calling to each other. They don’t breed in colonies but do gather in flocks!

Double-crested Cormorant

Double-crested Cormorant

Equally at home in the water and the air, Double-crested Cormorants are often spotted drying their wings on rocky outcrops. Their breeding colonies are usually found on offshore islands, a critical habitat for many bird species.

How to Identify

  • Appearance: Dark waterbirds with a small head, orange throat pouch, and long neck.
  • Behavior: Frequently seen with wings outstretched to dry after diving.
  • Habitat: Coastal areas, especially near rocky islands where they breed.

American Avocet

American Avocet

With their long, upturned bills and elegant legs, Graceful American Avocets wade through shallow waters in search of crustaceans and insects. Watch their heads and necks turn a striking rusty color during the breeding season. They feed like spoonbills by sweeping their bills from side to side along the water surface. 

How to Identify

  • Bill: Long and slender, curving upwards.
  • Color: White and black body with a variable head color, from white to rusty.
  • Habitat: Shallow waters of wetlands and coastal lagoons.

Long-billed Dowitcher

Long-billed Dowitcher

You’ll find these shorebirds with long, straight bills probing mudflats for food. The Long-billed Dowitcher’s methodic foraging is common during migration along California’s coast.

How to Identify

  • Bill: Very long and straight, ideal for probing in mud.
  • Plumage: Brownish above with barred underparts.
  • Habitat: Mudflats and shallow waters along the coast, especially during migration.

Western Sandpiper

Western Sandpiper

Small but numerous, the Western Sandpiper is a key player in the migratory spectacle along the Pacific coast. It is identifiable by its short legs and long, drooping bill. The western sandpiper will usually feed in deeper waters than the smaller sandpipers.

How to Identify

  • Bill: Long and slightly drooping at the tip.
  • Size: Among the smaller shorebirds, with brownish-gray plumage.
  • Habitat: Favors mudflats and sandy beaches during migration.

Heermann’s Gull

Heermann's Gull

With its slate-gray body, red bill with a black tip, and white head, Heermann’s Gull stands out among the gulls along the California coastline. It often follows Brown Pelicans to scavenge fish.

How to Identify

  • Color: Unique among gulls for its dark gray body and red bill.
  • Behavior: Often seen following larger birds to scavenge leftovers.
  • Habitat: Coastal environments, especially near pelican feeding areas.

Marbled Godwit

Marbled Godwit

This crow-sized bird, the marbled Godwit, has a long, slightly upturned bill. Its marbled brown plumage makes it a distinctive sight as it forages through wet sands and mudflats.

How to Identify

  • Bill: Long and slightly upturned, perfect for probing the sand.
  • Plumage: Warm brown with a marbled appearance.
  • Habitat: Sandy beaches and mudflats, especially tide pools during low tide.



The Willet is easily recognizable by its loud, piercing calls and the striking white and black pattern displayed during flight. It is a medium-sized shorebird that adapts well to various coastal habitats. It has grey legs and a thicker bill, which help distinguish it from the Greater Yellowlegs bird. 

How to Identify

  • Calls: Loud and distinctive, you’ll often hear them before you see the bird.
  • Flight Pattern: Shows a striking black and white pattern on wings.
  • Habitat: From sandy beaches to salt marshes, a versatile habitat range.


Sanderling cute beach birds california

Sanderlings are energetic little birds (starling-sized) that chase waves on sandy beaches. They are recognizable by their pale plumage and frantic feeding behavior as they search for marine invertebrates.

How to Identify

  • Behavior: Runs along the beach, following the waves in and out.
  • Color: Ashen, almost white in non-breeding plumage.
  • Habitat: Prefers open sandy beaches, often seen in small flocks.

Caspian Tern

Caspian Tern

You can identify the largest of the terns, the Caspian Tern, by their large size, bright red bill, and deep, raucous calls as it dives for fish from high above the water.

How to Identify

  • Bill: Bright red and significant, distinctive among terns.
  • Size: The largest tern with a robust build.
  • Habitat: Coastal waters, estuaries, and large inland lakes.

Surf Scoter

Surf Scoter

The Surf Scoter, a sea duck, is notable for its colorful bill and preference for coastal waters, where it dives for mollusks and crustaceans, a winter visitor to California’s coast. Hunters dislike eating these birds because they consume very little plant material.

How to Identify

  • Bill: Large, brightly colored, and distinctive. While the black scoter is one of the black birds with yellow bills, surf scoters have orange and white bills.
  • Plumage: Mostly black with white patches on the head.
  • Habitat: Coastal waters, often seen in large flocks offshore.

These 20 species represent just a fraction of the avian diversity found along California’s coastline. Armed with this guide, you’re well-prepared to explore the state’s beaches and the remarkable birds that inhabit them. Bring your binoculars and respect wildlife regulations to ensure these birds thrive for generations.

Bird Habitats and Nesting Sites

California’s coastline offers rich and varied habitats for beach birds, with areas spanning from the northern reaches near Oregon to the Mexican border. Whether observing from the bustling estuaries of San Francisco Bay or the secluded coves of the Channel Islands, you’ll find these environments teeming with avian life, each supporting unique species throughout their breeding cycles.

Coastal Islands and Breeding Grounds

Channel Islands:

  • San Miguel Island: A prime nesting habitat for seabirds, including the Least Tern.
  • Farallon Islands: Offering isolated breeding areas for many species, minimizing human disturbance.

Note: Castle Rock National Wildlife Refuge, off the coast of Humboldt Bay, is essential for seabird breeding, especially for the Ashy Storm-Petrel.

Wetlands and Estuaries

  • Monterey Bay and Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge: These estuaries provide critical habitats for migratory shorebirds and waterfowl between Alaska and Mexico.
  • Birds rely on these areas for feeding and nesting, finding sanctuary in diverse environments, from salt marshes to freshwater sloughs.

Urban and Developed Areas

  • San Francisco: Despite development, birds adapt to urban settings, using spaces that mimic natural habitats.
  • Human Disturbance: Intense development pressure can impact breeding and foraging, emphasizing the importance of careful urban planning.

Protected Areas and Reserves

  • Protected areas along the coast sustain bird populations by offering consistent, undisturbed nesting habitats.
  • Castle Rock and the adjacent Refuges are vital to the Pacific Flyway, safeguarding bird populations from Oregon to Mexico.

Backyard and Urban Birdwatching

  • Become a birdwatcher in your own backyard. Cities provide surprising opportunities to observe a variety of bird species. Check out the beginners’ guide to birdwatching!
  • Birding hotspots can be found even in urban areas, allowing you to discover local birds and contribute to citizen science projects.

Migration Patterns and Flyways

As you explore California’s coastlines, you’ll observe various migratory species passing through the Pacific Flyway. This central north-south flyway stretches from Alaska to Patagonia, guiding birds along their migration routes.

  • Barnacle Goose: A remarkable sight during winter months.
  • Western Sandpiper: Often spotted in abundance as they forage on mudflats.
  • Brown Pelican: Residents year-round, with numbers increasing during migration periods.

During migration, these species utilize a variety of habitats, from wetlands to estuaries, and the presence of the Channel Islands offers a crucial rest stop. Spring and autumn are peak times when you witness a flurry of avian activity as feathered friends journey to breeding grounds or warmer climates.

Primary Stopover Spots:

  • Bolinas Lagoon
  • Tijuana River Estuary
  • Humboldt Bay

Keep an eye out for the elegant choreography of shorebirds in motion, a testament to the intricate patterns woven by nature’s navigators. Be prepared with your binoculars during these seasons, as the Pacific Flyway serves as a birding spectacle, unveiling these winged travelers’ incredible stamina and resilience.

Feeding Ecology

When you watch beach birds in California, you’ll notice they have varied diets and fascinating feeding behaviors. Their feeding ecology is intricately linked with environmental health and human activities.

Dietary Preferences

Beach birds in California, including shorebirds and seabirds, show a range of dietary preferences that align with their habitats. Your typical shorebird might feed on small fishcrustaceans, and mollusks. Meanwhile, seabirds often prefer a diet that includes fishkrill, and squid. For instance:

  • Shorebirds: Sandpipers, plovers, and avocets
    • Small invertebrates: worms, crustaceans
  • Seabirds: Pelicans, seagulls, albatrosses
    • Larger prey: fish, krill, squid

Foraging Strategies

These birds employ various foraging strategies based on their physical characteristics and food availability. For instance:

  • Wading and probing: Shorebirds with long legs and beaks, like herons and egrets, wade into waters to probe for food.
  • Diving and surface feeding: Seabirds like cormorants dive underwater, while gulls and terns may catch prey right at the surface.

Some species are opportunistic feeders and may adjust their strategies with changes in tide or weather conditions.

Human Impact on Food Sources

Human activities have a considerable impact on the food sources of California’s beach birds:

  • Overfishing reduces the number of small fish, disrupting the food chain.
  • Pollution and oil spills can contaminate the water and coastal areas, directly affecting the food supply and birds.
  • Climate change alters the distribution of species like krill and fish, which can cascade effects on beach birds’ predation patterns.

Your actions can also have positive effects. Supporting sustainable seafood and reducing pollution can help protect these birds’ food sources.

Conservation and Environmental Threats

In California, the conservation of beach birds is intertwined with addressing environmental threats that impact their survival. Your understanding of these issues can help in supporting conservation efforts.

Endangered Species and Conservation Efforts

Your awareness of endangered beach birds in California is vital. Beach bird species such as the Western Snowy Plover and the California Least Tern are on the endangered species list, primarily due to habitat loss and human activities. Conservation groups are actively engaging in protection efforts by setting aside critical habitats and implementing breeding programs to increase population numbers.

Impact of Climate Change

Climate change, manifesting as rising sea levels and increased storm frequency, poses significant threats to beach bird habitats. The erosion of nesting areas and coastal zone flooding directly influence these birds’ reproductive success and survival rates. You can help by supporting policies aimed at mitigating the effects of global warming.

Non-native Species and Habitat Loss

Invasive species introduced by human activities, such as the red fox and domestic cats, prey on native beach birds and compete for resources. Additionally, coastal development leads to habitat destruction, disrupting the delicate balance of the beach ecosystems. You can contribute to preserving bird habitats by advocating against unsustainable development and supporting native species restoration initiatives.

Pollution and Human Disturbance

Pollution poses a grave threat to beach birds, with oil spills and plastic waste leading to mortality and habitat degradation. Human disturbance, including recreational beach activities, can lead to nest abandonment and reduced breeding success. You can protect these birds by engaging in responsible beach practices and participating in cleanup events.

Birdwatching Tips and Ethics

When you set out for birdwatching in California’s coastal areas, being prepared can enhance your experience. Begin by equipping yourself with a pair of binoculars, a field guide, and perhaps a notepad to jot down observations or add to your life list—a record of all the bird species you’ve seen.

Before You Go

  • Research: Familiarize yourself with local species through books or apps.
  • Dress Appropriately: Neutral-colored clothing helps you blend into the environment.
  • Tide Times: Check them before you visit, as they can affect bird activity.

While You’re There

  • Keep a respectful distance from birds to avoid disturbing them, especially during nesting season.
  • Walk slowly and quietly to increase your chances of observing more bird behavior.
  • Use your field guide to identify species and update your life list if you’re a keen birdwatcher.

Respecting Wildlife and Environment

  • Refrain from feeding the birds, which could alter their natural foraging habits.
  • Stay on designated trails to protect both the habitat and yourself.
  • Using a zoom lens is suitable for birding to maintain a safe distance if you photograph birds.

Birding Ethics

Adhering to ethical practices ensures that you conserve the environments you enjoy. As a responsible birdwatcher:

  • Avoid playing recordings to lure birds, as this can stress them.
  • Abide by local regulations and private property signs.
  • Share your knowledge with fellow birdwatchers, but do so in a way that promotes these ethical standards.

Local Birding Hotspots On The California Coast

If you’re a birding enthusiast, California’s coast offers some exceptional spots for observing a myriad of bird species.

Monterey Bay is renowned for its diverse marine life and equally impressive bird population. Be sure to check out the Monterey Bay Festival of Birds! The area is rich with shorebirds, seabirds, and migratory species. At Elkhorn Slough Reserve, you can find a variety of waterfowl and wading birds. Bring your binoculars, and watch for snowy plovers along the beaches.

Heading north, San Francisco has several prime locations for bird watching. Crissy Field and Ocean Beach provide opportunities to see Brown Pelicans, Western Gulls, and the occasional Peregrine Falcon. You’ll appreciate the Golden Gate backdrop as you spot birds in their natural habitat.

Farallon Islands, accessible via guided boat tours, are a birder’s paradise, especially during migration seasons. The California islands are home to the most significant seabird nesting and breeding colony in the contiguous United States, including species like Tufted Puffins and Western Gulls. Remember, access is restricted to protect the wildlife, so book a tour in advance.

In the north, the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge is a sanctuary for birds and bird watchers. Located near Eureka, the refuge supports migratory birds and local species. Among the tidal flats and marshes, look for the distinctive black oystercatcher and the great egret.

Here’s a compact guide to start your birding adventure:

LocationNotable SpeciesBest Viewing Seasons
Monterey Bay, Elkhorn Slough Reserve Snowy Plovers, WaterfowlYear-round
San Francisco, Crissy Field Brown Pelicans, Western Gulls Spring, Fall
Farallon Islands Tufted Puffins, Western Gulls  Spring, Summer
Humboldt Bay National Wildlife RefugeBlack Oystercatcher, Great EgretAll Seasons


These hotspots are ideal for experiencing the splendor of California’s coastal birds in their natural environments. Happy birding!

Birds and California Culture

When you think of California, images of sandy beaches, rolling waves, and the iconic California Quail may come to mind. The California Quail, designated as the state bird since 1931, symbolizes the state’s wildlife and has deeply embedded itself in California’s culture.

State Bird: California Quail

  • Scientific Name: Callipepla californica
  • Appearance: Recognizable for its plump shape and distinctive plume
  • Habitat: Found throughout coastal regions and foothills
  • Cultural Significance: The quail symbolizes resourcefulness and adaptability, which resonate with Californians.

California’s coastline is a haven for bird enthusiasts. With your visit, you might spot the vibrant Western Gull or the stealthy Brown Pelican, integral to beach ecosystems. Their presence is celebrated in local art and folklore, portraying their roles in coastal life and the community’s connection to nature.

Conservation Efforts

  • Beach Cleanup: Protecting bird habitats from pollution.
  • Legislation: Laws to safeguard migratory birds along the Pacific Flyway.
  • Education: Campaigns to increase public awareness.

Your awareness of California’s feathered friends contributes to their preservation. Every time you volunteer for a beach cleanup or support local conservation initiatives, you become part of the state’s cultural tapestry that honors and protects these avian inhabitants.

California’s birds are not just a part of its natural landscape; they are woven into its cultural identity, inspiring conservation efforts that ensure they thrive alongside the people who admire them.

Remember, your actions positively impact the state’s avian ambassadors and the cultural heritage they represent.

Photography and Citizen Science

Your passion for photography can greatly contribute to the fields of research and conservation in California, especially those related to beach birds. Many organizations and research groups rely on citizen science projects involving individuals like you who provide valuable data through photography.

When you capture images of beach birds, you’re creating a record that can help scientists monitor species populations, behavior, and habitats. Here’s how you can get involved:

  • Join a Project: Look for local citizen science initiatives focusing on beach birds. Projects like eBird and the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count are great places to start.

  • Document Your Sightings:
    • Where? Note the location of your sightings.
    • When? Record the time and date.
    • Which Species? If possible, identify the bird species.

This information, alongside your photographs, enriches databases used by researchers. Here’s a simple format to organize your data:

(e.g.,) 12/19/2023 (e.g.,) Malibu Beach(e.g.,) Snowy Plover (e.g.,) Foraging at the shoreline


Using hashtags like #BeachBirdsCalifornia when sharing your photos on social media can also boost the reach of your contributions.

Remember, every photo you share can serve a purpose beyond aesthetics; it’s a snapshot in time that can inform conservation efforts. So next time you’re at the beach, camera in hand, know that you’re not just capturing beauty—you’re aiding crucial environmental research.