By Michele Roest
Winter birdwatching on the Central Coast offers opportunities to see old favorites and spot new ones
When the days grow short and the weather turns cool, bird watchers look for migrating songbirds, shorebirds, and raptors to appear along California’s central and southern regions. Some remain for the winter, while others stay for just a few days before continuing further south to even milder climes. They need safe places to rest and feed while they gain strength for the next stretch of their migration. Some migrations are hundreds of miles in distance, while others may reach thousands of miles.
“The first sign of winter is the arrival of white-crowned sparrows with their very pretty song and large numbers,” observes Don Klabunde, Conejo Valley Audubon Society. “The other early arrival is the yellow-rumped warbler, mostly gray and yellow. Mallard ducks are here all year, but winter is also the time for other duck species.”
California is located in one of four major migration routes for birds, called flyways. At the western edge of North America, we are part of the Pacific Flyway, extending from Alaska, down along the Canadian shoreline, the length of California, through Mexico and all the way to the southern tip of South America. Heading south when winter temperatures plummet, millions of birds have traveled these routes year after year, century after century to make best use of the abundant food supplies of the northern summers. Flyways are considered Important Bird Areas (IBAs), and they are essential for preserving biodiversity and ecosystem health. California’s reputation as a global biodiversity hotspot is due in part to our location in the center of a major flyway. It’s difficult to imagine how such small and seemingly fragile animals are capable of such incredible feats of physical stamina. It’s one of many reasons for preserving diverse habitats: different birds need different kinds of places to rest and feed.
Winter is the best time to see a variety of species in coastal and inland habitats. There are many bird books and apps available that can help with identification. It helps to bring a pair of binoculars to get a better look at birds in the distance. Plan your next birding adventure to some of these locations.
Coastal Habitats: Beaches, Estuaries, Wetlands, and Lagoons
Estuaries are places where freshwater rivers and creeks flow into the sea, forming brackish shallow-water lagoons. As the ocean tides ebb and flow, the mixing of fresh and salt water stirs up an abundance of nutrients. Aquatic plants, insects and small fish thrive in the briny marshes, providing food for millions of birds that come to the wetlands to rest and feed. Wintering bird areas support a colorful mix of seabirds and shorebirds, including brown pelicans, grebes, gulls, cormorants, willets, whimbrels, curlews, and plovers. Migrating geese include brant, Canada geese, and the occasional cackling or Ross’ goose. In the shallow waters, look for waders such as herons and egrets and migratory duck species including widgeons, teals, pintails, buffleheads, and mergansers.
Wintering waterbirds can be seen in coastal waterways at Point Mugu on the Pacific Coast Highway, Ormond Beach Wetlands in Oxnard, the Santa Clara River Estuary, and the Ventura Ocean Shore Trail. In Santa Barbara, plan your visit to include Coal Oil Point and Devereaux Slough, Santa Ynez River Estuary and Santa Barbara Harbor. In San Luis Obispo County, look for shorebirds at Port San Luis and San Luis Obispo Creek mouth in Avila Beach, the Morro Bay Estuary, and Sweet Springs Nature Preserve in Los Osos.
Inland Habitats: Riparian, Chaparral, Woodland, Lake, and Reservoir
Migrating songbirds seek grasslands, woodlands, and areas that provide abundant food to eat, protective vegetation where they can hide from predators, and fresh water. Parks and wildlife refuges offer this perfect blend for many species. With foliage thinner in winter, birds can be easier to find. Western meadowlarks stand out with vibrant yellow breasts, bifurcated with a sharp black ‘V’ accompanied by their melodic song. Say’s phoebes sit on fence posts, catching insects in midair and flitting back to their vantage spots. Grasslands also provide abundant feeding areas for raptors, including red-tailed hawks, ferruginous hawks, and white-tailed kites.
Bald eagles and osprey hunt for dinner over lakes and reservoirs, using their sharp curved talons to snag fish from the water’s surface. Woodlands provide abundant habitat for the colorful northern flicker and acorn woodpecker. Regal cedar waxwings may be seen nibbling on the red berries of native toyon bushes.
Good inland places to look for birds in Ventura County include Santa Paula Canyon and Steckel Park, Lake Casitas and the surrounding areas, and Heritage Park in Thousand Oaks. In Santa Barbara County, Nojoqui Falls County Park is considered a birding hotspot, as are Cachuma Lake Recreation Area and Waller Park in Santa Maria. In San Luis Obispo County, Oso Flaco Lake State Park, Laguna Lake County Park and El Chorro Park offer great opportunities for seeing annual inland migrants and a few unusual ones.
Local Audubon Chapters
For more than 100 years, the National Audubon Society has embraced the mission of protecting birds and the places they need. Audubon bird counts use volunteers to collect and record every species of bird they see, from backyards to barnyards and beyond. It’s the nation’s longest-running community science bird project, and anyone can participate.
Local chapters of The Audubon Society can be found throughout the US and provide comprehensive and accurate information about where to see and learn about birds. Local chapters offer opportunities for people of all ages and skill levels to learn about local and migrating species and participate in habitat restoration projects. Websites usually offer maps and directions to birding hotspots and advice on what to look for.
To learn more about winter birding areas, visit these Audubon Society Chapter websites and affiliates:
- Ventura Audubon Society: venturaaudubon.org/birding
- Conejo Valley Audubon Society: wp.conejovalleyaudubon.org
- Lake Casitas Eagles: facebook.com/LakeCasitasEaglesOjai/
Santa Barbara County
- Carpinteria Bird Watchers: carpbirdwatchers.org
- Goleta Coast Audubon: goletacoastaudubon.com
- Santa Barbara County Birding: sbcobirding.com
- Santa Barbara Audubon Society: santabarbaraaudubon.org
San Luis Obispo County