Here I present a comprehensive list of the best San Diego birding hotspots. I will include all of San Diego County, starting first to the north and going south. Each site will have a link to an address and habitat type, amenities, tour information (if available), and any notable birds of Interest.
Did you know many free San Diego birding tours are offered all over San Diego County? I will also include any insider information in my research, such as prime locations within each site.
Table of Contents
San Diego and the Pacific Flyway
Did you realize that 515 species of birds have been observed in San Diego County? That sure is a lot of different species of birds! San Diego is often called the “birdiest county” in the United States.
First, you should note that San Diego County is part of the Pacific Flyway, the north-south migration many birds utilize yearly.
San Diego’s High Biodiversity
Did you know that San Diego County has the highest biodiversity of plants and animals in any other county in North America?
Along with California, did you also know that San Diego County is in the top ten biodiversity regions on Earth?
All I can say is wow, and I sure have my work cut out for me!
Why So Much Biodiversity?
It all concerns the mild Mediterranean climate (hot summers and cool nights) and diverse habitats. These two factors make San Diego County a prime location for birds to stop, rest, and gather food.
San Diego County Has Six Coastal Lagoons
Another great feature 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, we must 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 and 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 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 see all 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 the fabulous places to go bird-watching in San Diego?
Trestles at San Onofre State Beach
I have written extensively about Trestles Beach and San Onofre State Beach. There are two ways to get here, but I suggest you come here via the Beach Trail. Please see the links above for additional info and other ways of getting here.
The Wild Wonder of San Onofre State Beach
I wanted to quickly add that San Onofre State Beach is one of the most beautiful natural beaches in San Diego County. Only Torrey Pines State Beach can give it any competition regarding its “naturalness.”
San Onofre State Beach is the Trestles Wetlands Natural Preserve, which includes the San Mateo Creek. A sandbar often cuts the creek off from the ocean (except with intense storms.) And where it ends (its terminus) is known as the San Mateo Lagoon.
So if you factor in the “wildness” of this beach and 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, and this beach has some of the most famous surf breaks in Southern California.
Tours– I could not find any tours per se, but if you want to explore more inland, the Trestles Beach Trail turns into the Panhe Nature Trail, 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 hundred yards pointing out native plants and other formations.
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 photographing the northwestern corner of Oceanside Harbor one day, I turned into the parking lot for the Jolly Roger restaurant. Once exited my car, I heard the strangest sounds above in the trees.
Outside the Jolly Roger restaurant parking lot are numerous trees with many nests belonging to Great blue herons, double-crested cormorants, and snowy egrets. They all have the most strange and unusual vocalizations, eerie. I recommend experiencing something 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, many birds are on the rocks and trees inside the harbor. 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 river’s terminus 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 see rare shorebirds and gulls during the fall and winter.
Birds of Interest– least Bell’s Vireo, yellow-breasted chat, American coot, killdeer, western snowy plover
*On the last inspection of my old photos, I found one from May 2015 with several species of shorebirds present. If you look closely, several terns exist among the gulls and pelicans.
Loma Alta Creek/Slough
Loma Alta Creek/Slough is a 7-mile-long wildlife corridor surrounded by development in south Oceanside.
Even though this site does not boast the number of sightings listed here, I want to include the short but quaint Loma Alta Creek nature trail. It is a great place where you can sit and watch birds.
Habitats– Freshwater marsh, riparian willow scrub, coastal sage scrub, coastal grassland.
Amenities– There is a short nature trail with informative signs on the native birds and plants. There is the Buccaneer Cafe near the parking lot and 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 information, benches, and trail.
Tours– Monthly bird counts are held on the last Saturday of every month from 9:00 am to 11:30; all are welcome to join.
Birds of Interest-Belding’s savannah sparrow, marsh wren, breeding waterfowl, geese, terns
For more information- Buena Vista Audobon
Agua Hedionda Lagoon
Habitats– tidal salt marsh, 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 in the south has a short trail and several benches.
Tours-Every third Sunday of the month at eight 8 am, 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 so remarkable 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 suggest checking out Hubb’s Trail, right next to the lagoon. 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 specially made for shorebirds to nest.
Tours– A self-guided tour pamphlet at the Nature Center highlights relevant information on the trail. Click on the above link if you would like to get an idea of what the trail is all about.
On Friday, Nov 9, 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 –9 –11 am, the foundation volunteer leads a free public walk. 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 for these ground-nesting birds. Belding’s savannah sparrow, snowy egrets, cliff swallow, Black skimmer
Additional information – Batiquitos Lagoon Foundation.
San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve
Habitats – salt marsh, freshwater marsh, mudflats, and riparian scrub; coastal sage scrub and maritime chaparral are in the south.
Amenities– San Elijo Lagoon Nature Center with trails
Tours– Every second Monday of the month, a lagoon-wide bird count with Avian Biologist Robert Patton from 7:30 am 12 12 pm every first Saturday of the month, offered from 10 – 11 11 am Lagoon Discovery Tour.
Also, Wildlife Walks are offered from 9–11 am each month on the second Saturday of every month, and a different trail is explored. For more information-San, Elijo Lagoon Conservancy
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 south of the Del Mar Race Track and Del Mar Dog Beach. An overlook preserve-the North Bluff Preserve at the Del Mar Dog Beach, 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 to 11:30
Birds of Interest– breeding least terns, geese, ducks, loons, grebes, egrets, killdeer, Whimbrel
If interested, I found the most recent Sept 2018 bird census for the San Dieguito Lagoon. Have a look!
Los Penasquitos Lagoon
The Los Penasquitos Lagoon is part of the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve.
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; free public walks every Saturday at 10 am and again at 2 pm.
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 chaparral, 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; above, Peregrine falcons, ospreys, swifts, thrushers, woodpeckers, and Wrentits.
A Peregrine falcon nesting site is south of lifeguard tower #1, high above the cliffs. The best time to observe the nest is in the late afternoon. At low tide, look for a Torrey pine tree on the slope; underneath it, there is a large opening and ledge on the bluff. Also, you can see the site clearly from the Guy Flemming Trail, which is above.
La Jolla Point
The rocky coast terrain of the La Jolla bluffs is a fantastic place to come and watch the shorebirds out on the rocks 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 close to shore to feed in the coastal upwellings from the La Jolla Submarine Canyon. Black-vented Shearwater, jaegers, tattlers, turnstones. Also, look at the rocky shore for roosting birds, such as Pacific Brown Pelican and Brandt’s Cormorant.
Mission Bay Park
Mission Bay is a man-made lagoon located 12 miles north of Downtown San Diego, and 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!
Many birds are everywhere here, but I want to concentrate on the spots yielding the most species.
Habitats– open saltwater, saltwater marsh (N, NE, and S Misson Bay), alkali flats, rocky intertidal, riparian, coastal strand, terrestrial, recreational.
Amenities: There are restrooms throughout the park and benches and picnic areas, docks, launch ramps, and BBQ pits. There are also a few restaurants in the Harbor section, as well.
Tours– no tours here, but I suggest you start your adventure at the northernmost 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, and numerous gulls.
Kendall-Frost Mission Bay Marsh Reserve
As noted above, the Kendall-Frost Reserve is 21 acres of salt marsh owned and maintained by UCSD and is adjacent to the Northern Wildlife Preserve, owned by the city of San Diego, 19 acres. This critical habitat represents what Mission Bay used to look like long before the dredging and construction of Mission Bay Park.
Habitats– coastal salt marsh, tidal channels, sand spit, mudflats, eelgrass beds
Amenities– Interpretive kiosks and the park show examples of the different bird species and migration patterns. An observation deck is located 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
Please go here for more in-depth information about the Kendall-Frost Reserve and the Northern Wildlife Preserve.
Stoney Point-Fiesta Island
Located on the southern point of Fiesta Island, there is a fenced-in area within the dog park that the Califonia least tern utilizes as a nesting site.
From April to September, these birds mate, nest, and raise their chicks until they fly.
San Diego River Channel
The San Diego River runs parallel to Mission Bay Park and is an excellent spot to check migrating shorebirds! In fact, during the 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– I have given you the location on the north side of the channel near Quivira Way. There is an open parking lot that you may drive along and a bike path that will take you further east. Restrooms are available west of Quivira Park.
Tours– There are no tours I can find, but many volunteer projects are offered to the public to help with the San Diego River Mouth Estuary habitat restoration. For more information, go to SanDiegoRiver.org.
Birds of Interest– Numerous gulls, California brown pelicans, snowy egrets, ducks, osprey, grebes, cormorants, and belted kingfishers.
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. Ocean Beach City Beach has a restroom about 1/2 a mile away.
Tours– No tours exist, but low tide is the best time to see the birds.
Birds of Interest– Numerous ducks, great blue heron, California least tern, black-necked stilt, Whimbrel, American avocet
The Famosa Slough was initially part of the Mission Bay salt marsh and adjacent to the San Diego River Channel. Located between Ocean Beach and the San Diego Sports Area, the slough is surrounded by urban development.
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 and benches scattered about the area. There is also an observation area near the most extensive salt ponds.
Tours– Nature and Bird Walk every third Saturday of each month at 1 pm -meet at the kiosk corner of Famosa Blvd and W. Point Loma Blvd.
Birds of Interest– Looking out at the main island in South Famosa Slough, 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, adjacent to the Cabrillo National Monument. Here you have the number one San Diego birding site in San Diego County, with over 280 species 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.
Near the ficus trees, many rare birds are seen in the NE corner. Also, looking for birds outside the wall’s perimeter is a good strategy.
You can not go wrong at this site, as it has the best views in San Diego County.
Cabrillo National Monument
The Cabrillo National Monument is located at the Point Loma Peninsula’s very end and overlooks the San Diego Bay entrance.
Habitats– coastal sage scrub, rocky intertidal, open ocean
Amenities– The Cabrillo National Monument visitor center and restrooms 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. The events calendar is outside the auditorium or at the Visitor Center.
Birds of Interest– chipping sparrows, Warblers, Hammond’s flycatcher, gray catbird, American redstart
Shelter Island-North San Diego Bay
Shelter Island is one of our favorite places 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, a boat launch, free parking
Tours– There are no tours here, but it is an excellent spot to watch for rare species of shorebirds in the winter area. It is important to note that the North San Diego Bay channel is very deep, and 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 parrots (yes, parrots!)
Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge
The address above is for the Living Coast Discovery Center, located within the Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, 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 San Diego Bay’s two remaining saltwater marshes. The other, South San Diego Bay Marsh, is found in the southern part of Imperial Beach. I have yet to visit, but I will 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. Here is the only place in the world with Ridgeway’s rail on public display as a special note. There is a fee to get in here.
Below the highlights are the birding hut located on Gunpowder Point. Here you have a 270-degree view of San Diego Bay.
Birds of Interest– Ridgeway’s rail, hooded merganser, black-necked stilt, western screech owl, California least tern
Tijuana River Valley
At the border, there are several 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
One of the best places to park is 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 and the Visitor Center to investigate. Benches are set up within the park to 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. The meet-up is at the Tijuana Estuary Visitor Center (see the above address.)
I have to confess that I have not yet been all the way south in the Tijuana River Valley, and I am planning a trip down there this winter to check out all the migrating birds. I found the most popular spots to go birding while researching the area.
#Check back later, as I will be reviewing these sites soon!
I have always had a deep-seated passion for the Ocean Environment which ultimately led me to receive a degree in Marine Biology. Living in the San Diego area for over 30 years, I have extensively explored the 70 miles of San Diego’s coastline, and I am here to share! Please use my website to your advantage and have a look around at all the wonders that the beaches of San Diego can offer you!