Mountain lions and seals get all the attention in California. But there is a smaller and livelier animal all over the Golden State and more and more tourists are trying to catch a glimpse of it. Like Pokemon Go, trying to spot this wildlife species amid California’s 16 distinct climate zones and more than 800 miles of coastline has become largely a sport. Yes, we’re talking about birdwatching – or “birding” for starters.
Birding may have become a trend early in the pandemic, and those who have broken speculums understand why. It’s like searching for a treasure for beautiful and wonderful creatures, all while watching the glorious wonders of Mother Nature in the background – in other words, all the perks of being outside for the added purpose and simply satisfying reward. Fortunately for us, nearly 600 bird species in California have been showing off their shimmering plumage and diving for centuries without caring about their popularity rankings.
Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Monterey in particular have a trio of birdlife, great scenery, and the possibility of a road trip (yes, a new word). Visitors can explore arid forests, rolling sand dunes, and towering redwood forests, all while searching for flying Easter eggs.
As the summer heat begins to subside and outdoor adventure becomes more palatable, be sure to set up your eBird account and check out this road trip itinerary for some of the best birds to be found across Lower 48.
Whether you’re taking a two-hour drive from Los Angeles or taking a trip to the SBA, Santa Barbara serves as the perfect base for starting your California birding trip. This coastal city is home to great food, drink, and hospitality, with El Encanto being one of the best places to stay. While it’s certainly a splurge, guests will be rewarded with a bird’s-eye view of the bountiful throughout the property, with no shortage of hummingbirds and other pollinators darting through the hotel’s perfectly manicured flower gardens.
For a more budget-friendly alternative, the Inn At East Beach is steps from the coast and offers plenty of opportunity for early morning birding when the animals are most active.
To kick off the festivities, be sure to head to the nearby town of Goleta to find one of Santa Barbara County’s newest success stories: the North Campus Open Space. This sprawling slice of the University of California, Santa Barbara was once home to a golf course, but long-term environmental restoration efforts have transformed this once-sterile expanse into more than 100 acres of its original wetland habitat, serving as a haven for indigenous wildlife. . Upon arrival, visitors are welcome to stroll along the Long Marsh Trail, with Anna’s crested hummingbird, pint-sized downy woodpecker, and North America’s smallest bird of prey—the American leopard—as just a few of the potential species to be found.
For those who prefer to stay close to the city center, it’s hard to find a better birding destination than Andrée Clark Bird Sanctuary. Despite its small stature, this peaceful lake is filled with a surprisingly diverse range of bird species, including colorful waterfowl like the tufted-eared grouse, black and white buffalo, and even the blackbird – a pterodactyl-like seabird known for its dangerous vulnerability. – Like some potential confrontations during the morning visit. And as an added bonus, the Santa Barbara Zoo is just a few minutes away in case your bird trip isn’t particularly successful, providing guaranteed sightings of rhinos, toco toucans, and brown frogs.
Santa Maria Valley
Once you have your Santa Barbara filled in correctly, it’s time to set sail to one of the county’s most underappreciated areas for wildlife spotting. After a short stop in the Danish town of Solvang, head to 101 to find Orcutt, a quiet town in the heart of Santa Maria Valley. Using the charming Wine Stone Inn as a base, visitors can hop on the Santa Maria wine wagon to enjoy the valley’s thriving wine scene – but don’t go overboard, as there’s plenty of birdlife to do once morning comes.
Once the sun rises above the horizon, travelers can bird watch just a few miles east at Los Flores Ranch Park. Covering more than 1,700 acres, this sprawling estate is a great place to view the valley’s native wildlife via more than 15 miles of hiking trails. Once you park your car, East La Cuesta Trail, Manzanita Trail, and Acorn Trail are just a few of the trails available. Each one offers the possibility to see classic Golden State species such as the California quail – a rounded ground inhabitant with white stripes and a dramatic plume – and the scrub bird, a dazzling blue bird found only on the west coast of North America.
While the farm is a top destination for spotting inland spies (or roosters) and birds of prey ranging from black eagles to golden eagles, nearby Lake Oso Flaco is a treasure trove for spotting shorebirds and waterfowl. Just beyond the Santa Barbara County border, this water feature forms a small part of the pristine Guadalupe Nipomo Dunes complex and comes equipped with long walkways and interpretive signs to help identify local birds.
While visiting, gushing barn swallows, bright red ducks with blue bills displayed entirely, and large swaths of gushing sander are almost guaranteed. And lucky visitors may be able to peek at two federally protected species that call the area home — the western snowy plover and the lesser California tern, to be exact. “
California Discovery Road
For those hoping to pair Avivona with a side of stunning coastal scenery, Discovery Trail is the perfect route. This picturesque stretch of Highway 1 near San Luis Obispo stretches nearly a hundred miles along the California coast, providing visitors with some of the best seals, butterflies, and bird watching in the entire state.
Before heading to your hotel, be sure to save some space on your itinerary to visit the Discovery Route’s biodiversity point: Morro Bay. This protected estuary has served as a winter haven for migratory birds for thousands of years, although there is no shortage of resident species to be found regardless of the season.
For winter visitors, black geese and long-beaked corollas are two particularly interesting migratory species to watch thanks to their long journeys – the first arriving from the far north of the Arctic and the second visiting from the interior of North America. On the other hand, black-crowned herons and belted fishermen are just a few of the many birds that call home to Morro Bay year-round.
A few minutes north of the bay, the small village of Cambria is outfitted with a plethora of picturesque accommodations, with Oceanpoint Ranch in a perfect location for early morning birding. Located just steps from Leffingwell Landing Park, guests can start the morning with the sunrise for seabirds, then head south to the 437-acre Fiscalini Ranch Preserve to spot birds, rabbits, and even the occasional sea otter paired with great views of the cliffs.
Once you’ve left Cambria (and made a quick stop at the Elephant Seal Vista stopover in San Simeon to see National Geographic-worthy pinniped seals), it’s time to enter one of the Golden State’s most picturesque spots—if not the entire country. The greater part of Big Sur is in Monterey County, and this world-famous strip of coastline is filled with the possibility of spotting native bird species.
This portion of the Monterey County coast is dominated by two reserves in particular: Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and Andrew Molira State Park, both with several thousand acres of protected wilderness. Both parks are home to several hundred bird species, but be sure to keep your eyes on the sky in hopes of spotting one of the Golden State’s most famous bird species. Known as the California condor, this massive eagle was on the brink of extinction only decades ago, and now it’s a surprising – though incredibly rare – sign to add to your life list.
Besides stunning natural beauty, the northern regions of the province are home to a wealth of charming towns and cities, with Carmel-By-The-Sea and Monterey being particularly attractive locations to visit. Although nearby Moss Landing is a paradise for shorebirds, visitors don’t need to stray far from downtown Monterey to find copious amounts of wildlife. Once you’ve checked into the plentiful cozy Vagabond’s House Inn, head to Pebble Beach for a fun cruise along 17-Mile Drive, where visitors can spot massive amounts of shorebirds at the aptly named Bird Rock, with no shortage of adorable sea otters bobbing across nearby waters.
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