Here I present to you a comprehensive list of the best San Diego birding hotspots. I will be including all of San Diego County starting first to the north and making my way south. Each site will consist of a link to an address; as well as, habitat type, amenities, tour information (if available,) and finally any notable birds of interest.
Did you know that there are many free San Diego birding tours offered all over San Diego County? I will also be including any insider information that I turn up in my research; such as prime locations within each site.
San Diego and the Pacific Flyway
Did you realize that 515 species of birds have been observed in San Diego County? San Diego is often referred to as the “birdiest county” in the United States. That is a lot of different species of birds!
First, it should be noted that San Diego County is part of what is called the Pacific Flyway which is the north-south migration that many species of birds utilize every year.
San Diego’s High Biodiversity
Did you know that San Diego County has the highest biodiversity than any other county in North America? That is right! Along with the rest of California, did you also now that San Diego County is in the top ten biodiversity regions on Earth? All I can say is wow and that I sure have my work cut out for me!
Why So Much Biodiversity?
It all has to do with the mild Mediterranean climate that we have here (hot summers and cool nights) as well as the many diverse habitats. These two factors are what make San Diego County a prime location for birds to stop at, rest and gather food.
San Diego County Has Six Coastal Lagoons
Another great feature that we have here on the San Diego County coast is a plethora of lagoons, salt marshes, and two huge bays. Over the years, it has been estimated that up to 90% of the coastal wetlands in Southern California have been destroyed through land development. Therefore, it is vital that we protect the remaining wetlands that we still have!
How To Identify Birds
There are many types of birds found in San Diego County, and these various birds can be grouped mostly on feeding behaviors are divided into five groups:
- swimming divers-brown pelicans, grebes, diving ducks and others
- surface swimmers- dabbling ducks
- flight feeders-terns, skimmers and others
- walkers/runners-plovers and most sandpipers
- waders/fishers-herons, egrets and others
Additional Resources– San Diego Audobon Society that might come in handy. E-bird.org lists the most popular San Diego birding sites according to the number of species observed. Click on a site, and you will be able to see all of the different species of birds that have been seen there!
#Click on any photo to see a larger version.
San Diego Birding Hotspots You Must Visit!
Are we ready to see all of the fabulous places to go bird watching in San Diego?
Trestles at San Onofre State Beach
I have written extensively about Trestles beach as well as San Onofre State Beach. There are two ways to get here, but for now, I will be suggesting that you come here via the Beach Trail. Please see the links above for additional info as well as other ways of getting here.
The Wild Wonder of San Onofre State Beach
I wanted to add real quickly, that San Onofre State Beach is one of the most beautiful and natural beaches in all of San Diego County. In my opinion, only Torrey Pines State Beach can give it any competition regarding its “naturalness.”
Located within San Onofre State Beach is the Trestles Wetlands Natural Preserve which includes the San Mateo Creek. The creek is cut off from the Ocean most of the time by a sandbar(except with strong storms.) And where it ends (its terminus) is known as the San Mateo Lagoon.
So if you factor in the “wildness” of this beach as well as having a water source, you have an ideal spot for migrating birds to visit!
Habitats– open water, coastal strand, coastal brackish and freshwater marsh, coastal sage scrub, riparian woodland
Amenities– There is not much here as everything is natural. There are porta-potties though. This beach has some of the most famous surf breaks in all of Southern California.
Tours– I could not find any tours per se, but if you are interested in exploring more inland, the Trestles Beach Trail turns into the Panhe Nature Trail at the point of where you park. If you go west, this will be the Beach Trail.
The Panhe Nature Trail to the east is a self-guided trail with stations posted every couple of hundred of yards pointing out native plants and other formations. Please click on either “trails” for more in-depth information.
Birds of Interest– western snowy plover, numerous gulls, California brown pelican, willet, black-belly plover
Oceanside Harbor, Jetties and Beaches
The Jolly Roger Parking Lot
I found this next spot by complete surprise. While out photographing the northwestern corner of Oceanside Harbor one day, I turned into the parking lot for the Jolly Roger restaurant. Once I exited my car I heard the strangest sounds coming from up above in the trees.
Right outside of the parking lot for Jolly Roger restaurant, there are numerous trees with a large number of nests belonging to Great blue herons, double-crested cormorants, and snowy egrets. They all have the most strange and unusual vocalizations, eerie in a way. It is something I would recommend experiencing for yourself, but do not stand under the trees too long.
Oceanside Jetty and Harbor
Habitats-open water, rocky intertidal
Amenities-parking fee, restrooms, Oceanside Harbor Village is nearby
Tours– No tours but sitting on the jetty you can see all of the action in the inlet, especially when fishing boats are coming in. Also inside of the harbor, many birds are on the rocks and in trees. There is a bait barge in the middle of the harbor that birds like to hang out on as well
Birds of Interest– Great blue heron, snowy egret, great egret, numerous gulls, double-breasted cormorants, California brown pelicans
San Luis Rey River Estuary
The San Luis Rey River Estuary is found right next to Oceanside Harbor. The terminus of the river is usually blocked off from the ocean but opens up for a few months in winter.
Habitats– freshwater/saltwater marsh, coastal strand, riparian scrub
Amenities– there is a 9-mile bike trail running parallel to the river with signs pointing out native plants and animals
Tours– no tours here but the river mouth is an excellent spot to go during the fall and winter to see rare shorebirds and gulls.
Birds of Interest– least Bell’s Vireo, yellow-breasted chat, American coot, killdeer, western snowy plover
*On later inspection of all of my old photos, I found one from May of 2015 that has several species of shorebirds present. If you look closely, there are several terns among the gulls and pelicans.
Loma Alta Creek/Slough
Loma Alta Creek/Slough is a 7-mile long wildlife corridor that is surrounded by development in south Oceanside.
Even though this site does not boast the number of sightings compare to the others that I have listed here, I want to include the very short, but quaint, Loma Alta Creek nature trail. It is a great place where you can sit and watch birds.
Habitats– Freshwater marsh, willow riparian scrub, coastal sage scrub, coastal grassland.
Amenities– There is a short nature trail with informative signs on the native birds and plants seen here. There is the Buccaneer Cafe near the parking lot as well as restrooms.
Tours– No tours here, but there is a self-guided tour.
Birds of Interest– snowy egret, Great blue heron, American coot, black-necked stilt
Buena Vista Lagoon
Habitats– Freshwater lagoon, coastal sage scrub, riparian woodland, coastal strand near the weir (lacks an outlet to the Ocean)
Amenities– Buena Vista Audobon Society and Nature Center with copious amounts of information, benches, trail.
Tours– Monthly bird counts held the last Saturday of every month from 9:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m and all are welcome to join.
Birds of Interest-Belding’s savannah sparrow, marsh wren, breeding waterfowl, geese, terns
For more information- Buena Vista Lagoon Foundation
Agua Hedionda Lagoon
Habitats– tidal saltmarsh, eelgrass beds, freshwater marsh, coastal sage scrub, riparian, 330 acres with 186 acres are an Ecological Reserve.
Amenities– The Agua Hedionda Lagoon Discovery Nature Center located in on the south side, has a short trail along with several benches
Tours-Every third Sunday of the month at 8 am, free public bird walks are offered. The walks are led by an expert birder-Rick Grove. Meet in the Agua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation parking lot. What is cool is that you will be using a phone app-The Agua Hedionda Bio-Survey application which allows users to identify flora and fauna at the Agua Hedionda Lagoon. You will be given a full tutorial before the walk.
I also suggest checking out the Hubb’s Trail which is right next to the lagoon itself. Here you will have a chance to watch wading and shorebirds in action.
Birds of Interest– On the west side of the lagoon- terns, ducks, belted kingfisher, California quail, great blue heron, cormorants, cliff swallows, California thrasher, California gnatcatcher
Click here for more information on the Agua Hedionda Lagoon.
The Batiquitos Lagoon
Habitats-Estuarine open water, coastal salt marsh, mudflats, man-made nesting islands
Amenities-Batiquitos Lagoon Foundation Nature Center, 3.2-mile trail with benches set up every 1/8th of a mile. There are man-made islands especially made for shorebirds for nesting.
Tours– There is a self-guided tour pamphlet available at the Nature Center that points out relevant information that is on the trail. Click on the above link if you would like to get an idea about what the trail is all about.
On Friday, Nov 9th at 7:30 am there is a free bird walk offered, Meet at the Gabbiano Lane trailhead (the address that I have provided)
Also on the third Saturday of every month from 9 -11 am there is a free public walk led by a foundation volunteer. For more information click on the link below.
Birds of Interest– nesting Forster’s terns, least terns, and the western snowy plover all take advantage of the man-made sand island especially made for these ground-nesting birds. Belding’s savannah sparrow, snowy egrets, cliff swallow, Black skimmer
Additional for information – Batiquitos Lagoon Foundation.
San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve
Habitats– salt marsh, freshwater marsh, mudflats, riparian scrub; on the south side is coastal sage scrub and maritime chapparal
Amenities– San Elijo Lagoon Nature Center with trails
Tours– Every second Monday of the month there is a lagoon-wide bird count with Avian Biologist Robert Patton from 7:30 am to 12 pm.
Every first Saturday of the month, from 10 – 11 am a Lagoon Discovery Tour is offered.
Also, on the second Saturday of every month, from 9-11 am, Wildlife Walks are offered. Each month a different trail is explored. For more information-San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy
On December 22 there is a Winter Solstice Wildlife tour with an emphasis in birding from 10-11 am. Click here to save yourself a spot!
Birds of Interest– Belding’s savannah sparrow, western snowy plover, California brown pelican, Ridgeway’s rail, Black-necked stilts, California gnatcatcher, yellow-breasted chat.
San Dieguito Lagoon
Habitats-salt marsh, freshwater marsh, mudflats, agriculture
Amenities– The river mouth is located just south of The Del Mar Race Track and Del Mar Dog Beach. There is an overlook preserve-the North Bluff Preserve at the Del Mar Dog Beach which has an excellent vantage point to watch seabirds flying around.
Tours– Every third Saturday of the month, the Buena Vista Audubon Society offers a free bird walk at the San Dieguito River Park from 8:30 am -11:30 am
Birds of Interest– breeding least terns, geese, ducks, loons, grebes, egrets, killdeer, Whimbrel
If you are interested, I found the most recent Sept 2018 bird census for the San Dieguito Lagoon. Have a look!
Los Penasquitos Lagoon
Habitats– salt marsh, freshwater marsh, alkali flats, mudflats, riparian scrub, coastal sage scrub,
Amenities– Torrey Pines Nature Center is nearby, up on the hill.
Tours-Up above at Torrey Pines Nature Center there are free public walks every Saturday at 10 am and again at 2 pm. Go here for more information.
Birds of Interest-Ridgway’s rail, least Bell’s vireo, western snowy plover, Belding’s savannah sparrow, and numerous migratory fowl and shorebirds.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Starting point-Torrey Pines State Beach North Beach Parking Lot
Habitats-coastal sage scrub, coastal strand, maritime chapparal, Torrey Pine trees
Amenities– Nature Center, hiking trails, restroom, benches
Tours– Free public walks every Saturday at 10 am and again at 2 pm. Tours may be tailored to what you are interested in seeing/learning.
Birds of Interest-Gulls and terns on the rocky shoreline; while up above, Peregrine falcons, ospreys, swifts, thrushers, woodpeckers, Wrentits.
South of lifeguard tower #1, high above on the cliffs there is a Peregrine falcon nesting site. At low tide, look for a Torrey Pine on the slope and underneath it, there large opening and ledge on the bluff. The best time to observe the nest in the late afternoon. Also, you can see the site clearly from the Guy Flemming Trail which is up above.
La Jolla Point
The rocky coast terrain of the La Jolla bluffs is an outstanding place to come and watch the shorebirds out on the rocks down below.
Habitats-rocky intertidal, open ocean
Amenities– there are benches situated along the pathway as well as restrooms.
Tours– the San Diego Audobon Society offers a 3-hour free birding tour every so often. The next tour is on Dec 2, 2018, with only 25 open spots. For more information call Stan Walens at (858)450-2058
Birds of Interest-Pelagic birds come in close to shore here to feed in the coastal upwellings from the La Jolla Submarine Canyon. Black-vented shearwater, jaegers, tattlers, turnstones. Also, take a look on the rocky shore for roosting birds.
Mission Bay Park
Mission Bay is a man-made lagoon located 12 miles north of Downtown San Diego. The Bay is part of what is called Mission Bay Park. Here we have the largest man-made water park in the country, spanning over 4235 acres with 27 miles of shoreline!
There are many birds, to be seen everywhere here, but I would like to concentrate on the spots that yield the most species.
Habitats– open salt water, saltwater marsh (N, NE, and S Misson Bay), alkali flats, rocky intertidal, riparian, coastal strand, terrestrial, recreational.
Amenities-There are restrooms throughout the park as well as benches and picnic areas. There are also a few restaurants in the Harbor section as well. Docks, launch ramps, BBQ pits.
Tours– no tours here, but I suggest that you start your adventure at the most northern point of Mission Bay at the Northern Wildlife Preserve and the Kendall-Frost Reserve (see below.)
Birds of Interest– willet, whimbrel, spotted sandpiper, elegant terns, Western snowy plovers, snowy egrets, numerous gulls
Kendall-Frost Mission Bay Marsh Reserve
As noted from above, the Kendall-Frost Reserve is 21 acres of saltmarsh owned and maintained by UCSD and is adjacent to the Northern Wildlife Preserve which is owned by the city of San Diego that is 19 acres. This critical habitat is a representation of what Mission Bay used to look long before the dredging and construction of Mission Bay Park.
Habitats– coastal salt marsh, tidal channels, sand spit, mudflats, eelgrass beds
Amenities– Interpretive kiosks along the park show examples of the different species of birds that are seen here as well as migration patterns. There is also an observation deck located a bit south of the Reserve which overlooks the Northern Wildlife Preserve.
Tours– No tours here, but many volunteer opportunities are available. See the link below for more information.
Birds of Interest– light-footed Ridgeway’s rail, long-billed curlew, Western snowy plover, lesser yellowlegs, Black-crowned night heron
For more in-depth information about the Kendall-Frost Reserve as well as the Northern Wildlife Preserve, please go here.
San Diego River Channel
The San Diego River runs parallel to Mission Bay Park and is an excellent spot to check out migrating shorebirds! In fact, during migration season, thousands of birds are seen here on the tidal flats in the middle of the channel. It even has the nickname “San Diego’s Mile of Birds!”
Habitats– Open water, rocky intertidal, tidal flats
Amenities– The location that I have given you in on the north side of the channel near Quivira Way. Here there is an open parking lot that you may drive along, as well as a bike path that will take you more east. Restrooms are available west at Quivira Park.
Tours– There are no tours that I can find, but there are many volunteer projects offered to the public to help with habitat restoration of the San Diego River Mouth Estuary. For more information go here.
Birds of Interest– Numerous gulls, California brown pelicans, snowy egrets, ducks, osprey, grebes, commorants, belted kingfisher
San Diego River Mouth Estuary
Located right behind Ocean Beach Dog Beach is the San Diego River Mouth Estuary where many birds are seen throughout the year.
Habitats-open water, coastal salt marsh, brackish marsh, tidal flats, mudflats, coastal strand
Amenities-Through a coordinated effort, there is a spectacular native garden adjacent to the San Diego River Mouth Estuary that is roped off. There is a restroom about 1/2 a mile away at Ocean Beach City Beach.
Tours– There are no tours but the best time to see the most birds is during low tide.
Birds of Interest– Numerous ducks, great blue heron, California least tern, black-necked stilt, whimbrel, American avocet
The Famosa Slough was initially a part of the Mission Bay saltmarsh and is found adjacent to the San Diego River Channel. Located between the city of Ocean Beach and San Diego Sports Area, the slough is surrounded by urban development. For more information, click on the link above.
Habitats-salt pools, salt pannes, alkali flats, salt marsh, brackish/freshwater marsh, disturbed riparian and Willow scrub, mudflats
Amenities-There is a trail at both parts of the lagoon as well as benches scattered about the area. There is also an observation area near the largest salt ponds.
Tours– Nature and Bird Walk every third Saturday of each month at 1 pm. Meet at the kiosk on the corner of Famosa Blvd and W. Point Loma Blvd.
Birds of Interest– Looking out at main island in South Famosa Slough there are American Avocet and black-necked stilts nests. The rare yellow-crowned night heron, kingfisher, great egret, osprey, Forster’s tern.
The Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery is located on the Point Loma Peninsula and is adjacent to the Cabrillo National Monument. Here you have the number one San Diego birding site in all of San Diego County with over 280 species having been seen here over the years.
Habitat– Maritime ornamentals, coastal sage scrub (outside of perimeters)
Amenities-Not too much regarding amenities here, except a restroom. There are many trees, so that is a great place to start looking for the birds.
Birds of Interest– Black-vented shearwater, surf scoter, black swift, black-crowned night heron, gulls, ducks.
Through a bit of research, I found that the NE corner, where the ficus trees are, is the best spot for rare birds to be seen. Also looking for birds outside the perimeter of the wall is a good strategy. You really can not go wrong at this site, as it has the best views in all of San Diego County. Have fun!
Cabrillo National Monument
The Cabrillo National Monument is located at the very end of the Point Loma Peninsula and overlooks the entrance into the San Diego Bay.
Habitats– coastal sage scrub, rocky intertidal, open ocean
Amenities– The Cabrillo National Monument visitor center as well as restrooms down below at the tide pools. There is a fee to get into the park.
Tours-The park is self-guided, but each day there are tours given. Please check the calendar of events outside of the auditorium or at the Visitor Center to see what is offered that day.
Birds of Interest– chipping sparrows, Warblers, Hammond’s flycatcher, gray catbird, American redstart
Shelter Island-North San Diego Bay
One of our favorite places to go is Shelter Island which is located at the top of San Diego Bay. Here you can sit and watch the boats and ships go in and out of the Bay.
Habitats– open water, rocky intertidal, maritime ornamental trees, terrestrial
Amenities– There is a beautiful pathway to walk, a pier with a cafe and snack bar, restrooms, hotels, boat launch, free parking
Tours– There are no tours here, but it is an excellent spot to watch for rare species of shorebirds that are in the area for the winter. It is important to note that the North San Diego Bay channel is very deep. Because of this, it is not uncommon to see pelicans and cormorants diving for food at a very close range.
Birds of Interest– loons, grebes, ducks, surf scoter, bufflehead, auklets, murres, lilac-crowned parrot (yes, parrots!)
Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge
The address above is for the Living Coast Discovery Center which is located within the Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge which is part of the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge.
Last Remaining Salt Marshes in San Diego Bay
The Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge is one of the two last remaining saltwater marshes in San Diego Bay. The other, South San Diego Bay Marsh is found at the most southern part of the Bay in Imperial Beach. I have yet to visit, but check back soon as it is on my “to-do list!”
Habitats-coastal salt marsh, wetland/upland transition, coastal uplands, coastal sage scrub, alkali flats, mudflats, eelgrass beds, maritime succulents
Amenities-The Living Coast Discovery Center is an internationally recognized zoo/aquarium that showcases the native plants and animals of the area. As a special note, here is the only place in the world that has the Ridgeway’s rail on public display. There is a fee to get in here.
Down below highlights the birding hut that is located on Gunpowder Point. Here you have a 270-degree view of the San Diego Bay.
Birds of Interest– Ridgeway’s rail, hooded merganser, black-necked stilt, western screech owl, California least tern
Tijuana River Valley
Down at the border, there are quite a few prime San Diego birding sites. So many that I will be listing each spot individually, starting from the most northern location and finally making my way down the border.
Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center and Trails
Here is one of the best places to park as well as being next to the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Center.
Habitats– salt marsh, fresh-brackish marsh, coastal sage scrub, mudflats, open tidal channels, vernal pools, dunes, beaches, riparian
Amenities– There are many trails to explore here as well as the Visitor Center to investigate. Many benches are set up within the park so you may sit and watch at various locations.
Birds of Interest– Ridgeway’s rail, western snowy plover, California gnatcatcher, California least tern, Belding’s savannah sparrow, least Bell’s vireo
Tours– Every second and fourth Saturday from 11 am to 12 pm there is a free public nature walk to explore and learn about the native wildlife. Meet up is at the Tijuana Estuary Visitor Center (see the above address.)
I have to confess that I have not been all the way south in the Tijuana River Valley as of yet. I am planning a trip down there this winter to check out all of the migrating birds. Here are the most popular spots to go birding that I found while researching the area.
#Check back later as I will be reviewing these sites soon!
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