California beaches attract more than just year-round tourists — they are also a common destination for many migrating birds and birding enthusiasts. Some species make the California coast their final stop; others rest here for a day or two before continuing on. Fall and spring offer opportunities to see birds passing through on their way further south or back home. However, the lack of beach-going crowds in the winter months can make December, January, and February prime time for birders, with some beaches providing habitats for more than 430 recorded bird species.
Depending on location, some of the more commonly seen birds are the golden-crowned sparrow, whimbrel, and varied thrush, along with native California species, like the California condor, common loon, Western grebe, and the Merlin falcon.
These are our top 10 beaches to catch a glimpse of migrating birds on the California coast, listed North to South:
Trinidad State Beach, Humboldt County
This picturesque beach is a short walk from the parking lot, keeping crowds at a minimum. Gray Jays, common murres, and Black Oystercatchers are just a few species that dwell here.
Ten Mile Beach, Mendocino Coast
Home to the endangered Snowy Plover, Ten Mile Beach is connected to nearby MacKerricker State Park Beach by the Haul Road Trail and backed by a chain of pristine sand dunes. More than 90 species of birds live or visit the beach and nearby cliffs.
Point Reyes National Seashore, Marin County
Just north of San Francisco, this state preserve is noted in many guidebooks for the fact that more than 400 species of birds have been documented here. The beaches here are natural and untouched, with amazing vistas of the rugged coastline. Top spots include Abbotts Lagoon, Drakes Estero, and Limantour Beach.
Cowell Ranch Beach, San Mateo County
Consisting of two pocket beaches, Cowell Ranch State Beach is a secluded, peaceful destination for birding. Access to the northern beach is by a steep staircase. Just south of here is Seal Beach, a harbor seal protection area closed to visitors. If you don’t want to hike down to the beach, you can following the Cowell-Purisima Trail, a segment of the California Coastal Trail, which begins at this location and follows the bluff all the way to another parking lot 3.6 miles away.
Elkhorn Slough, Monterey Bay
In the middle of Monterey Bay about 20 miles from both Santa Cruz and Monterey you’ll find one of the best ecosystems to support large bird populations. Elkhorn Slough is a vast wetland with over 300 bird species that live there for at least part of the year. You’ll find many different access points and they not far from Moss Landing State Beach.
Morro Strand Beach, San Luis Obispo County
Located at the north end of Morro Bay, Morro Strand State Beach is part of California’s protected state beaches. The famous Morro Rock is visible from here, as well as a regular contingency of sea lions basking near the shore and many kinds of birds.
Ormond Beach, Ventura County
More than 200 migratory bird species have been documented at this remote beach. Visitors can follow a trail through the wetlands leading to the beach. The Ormond shoreline and wetlands provide homes for more shorebirds than any other beach in Ventura County.
Malibu Lagoon State Beach, Malibu
Malibu Lagoon is at the mouth of Malibu Creek near Surfrider Beach and the Malibu Pier. Because this state beach is popular, the birds that frequent the lagoon are less skittish. This makes photography easier without fancy zoom lenses. The birding activity is highest here during the spring and fall migrations.
Playa del Rey Beach, Los Angeles
Just south of Santa Monica, this easily overlooked beach sits just west of the protected Ballona Wetlands Nature Preserve and Del Rey Lagoon Park. Bird species are plentiful in this area and the beach is rarely crowded.
Bolsa Chica State Beach, Orange County
This beach is located near the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, which attracts numerous birders trying to spot its more than 300 bird species. It is a known stop on the Pacific Flyway, the route many birds take to and from Central and South America during migration.
San Onofre State Beach, San Diego County
A tidal wetland combined with native vegetation creates a perfect habitat for many migratory and native bird species. Trestles Beach which is a well-known surfing area is also a lesser-known birding destination. This protected beach is popular year round.