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Coastal Birds in Southern California

Jun 3rd, 2024

Birds of all kinds call California’s beaches home, and they’ve been feeding and nesting around the rocks, dunes and shores for far longer than humans have been around.

Here are some of the shore birds you’re likely to see here on the beaches around our Southern California apartments. 

Common birds seen on SoCal beaches


Plovers are found all over the world in fields, meadows, beaches and wetlands, and chances are that you’ve seen them plenty of times before! 

These sweet little birds are characterized by their long legs, plump bodies and short beaks. They spend a lot of their time on the ground where they probe the ground for bugs and worms, and their method of scurrying and squawking leads predators away from their hidden nests and young. 

Several species of plover live here in California, though their habitats are threatened by recreation and shore development. If you do see plovers while out and about, be careful to stay on pathways and keep a close eye out for their little nests!

The western snowy plover is one of the plover species found on our sandy beaches, though it’s a tough one to spot. Not only is the tiny bird barely visible against the gray sandy shores, but its population has been listed as endangered since 1993. 

Other plover species here include the black-belied plover, which is identifiable by its dark belly and dappled back, and the semipalmated plover, which has a bright white belly and a thick white band around its neck. Both are only seen in the winter, while the western snowy plover is here year-round. 


Willets are another species of long-legged shorebirds that meander along the sandy SoCal beaches. Their gray legs and gray feathers are fairly unassuming on the ground, but in flight their wings pop with bright flashes of black and white. They’re similar in shape to a plover or sandpiper, but their beaks are longer and they’re much larger.


Seagulls are a common sight on most beaches, and Southern California’s are no exception!

Five different gull species live here in California. The California gull, Western gull and glaucous-winged gull all have similar colorings — gray wings, white breast and head, webbed feet and yellow beak — while the ring-billed gull also features a black ring around its beak. The Heermann’s gull is almost entirely gray and has a red beak, making it much easier to identify!


Pelicans are easy to identify, thanks to their large size and characteristic beak. Only two species live in California, and their markings make it pretty easy to identify which is which.

The American white pelican is white all over with a yellow beak, though while in flight its black-tipped wings are visible. It feeds by dipping its beak into water as it floats on the surface.

The brown pelican, on the other hand, has dark plumage and a red beak. If you get a chance to watch it feed, then watch closely! It feeds by plunging into the water and diving up to 65 feet to catch its prey!

Black oystercatchers

This crow-sized bird really stands out with its jet-black plumage, bright orange beak and red eye ring — a striking figure on the rocky shores! Black oystercatchers pry open mussels and limpets among the rocks with their strong bills, all while defending their territory and returning to the same rocky outcroppings year after year to raise their chicks. They’re feisty birds, for sure!


Terns are almost like seagulls, but with longer, pointed beaks, short legs and a longer tail. They’re easy to identify by their forked tails and their pointed wings, both of which make them extremely agile in flight. 

There are five species of tern here in California: the Caspian, elegant, Forster’s, least and royal terns. They’re all roughly the same size and have similar colorings — gray wings, white breast, orange or yellow bills and a bit of black on their heads. The Caspian tern, with its black cap and bright red beak, is the largest tern in the world at a whopping 21 inches long!


These sweet little birds are the ones you’ll see skittering away from the water on the beach before running back and probing the sand for invertebrates. Sanderlings are only around in the winter, but they’re quite the sight as they scatter around the beach chasing the waves back and forth all day long. 

Long-billed curlew

This is an easy one to spot, as it really does live up to its name. The long-billed curlew is a large bird with long legs, brownish feathers and a long, looooong beak. As in, almost as long as its legs! It can be seen on beaches and shorelines where it uses its long beak to catch invertebrates, insects and small crustaceans.

How to care for shorebird habitats

Shorebirds are especially vulnerable to habitat loss due to human recreation and development. Invasive plants threaten their nesting areas and predators like cats, racoons and rats threaten them and their chicks. 

Caring for birds’ habitats can be easy if you know what to look for! Pick up any trash that you see and keep pets on leashes when walking through environmentally sensitive areas. Take apart any driftwood statues that predatory birds can perch on, and leave any seaweed and driftwood on the beach for baby birds to take shelter under. Stay away from protected nesting sites and walk on wet sand so as to avoid crushing any camouflaged nests.

Shorebirds are an important part of California’s coastal habitat, and they only have a short piece of land to live, feed and nest on. Take care of them by practicing Leave No Trace principles and following any posted signage, and we can all enjoy the birds for generations to come!

Happy birdwatching!

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Featured photo by Noah Boyer on Unsplash

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives on Oahu in Hawai'i. She loves to travel, camp, spearfish and hike. She's also part of a super cool canoe club and is pretty decent at it. Colleen enjoys Star Wars and also not being cold ever.

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