Staying, playing, and bird watching in Santa Cruz!

For a growing number of people, bird-watching in Santa Cruz is an ideal past-time. As a destination, Santa Cruz boasts enormous biodiversity – with over 250 species of birds to be seen all year round. Located along the Pacific Flyway – a well-known migratory path that stretches from Alaska to Patagonia – Santa Cruz has amazing natural habitat, along with hand-curated trails to help you explore and passively engage with the local wildlife. 

When bird watching in Santa Cruz you’ll come across a variety of species like blue jays, hawks, owls and quails. Some rare birds also reside in Santa Cruz, like the Rufous-crowned Sparrow, the Red Knot, and the Burrowing Owl, so keep your eyes peeled and your binoculars ready!

Best season for birding in Santa Cruz

Bird watching in Santa Cruz is a year round activity, so any time you decide to visit you are still bound to encounter some great birds. However, local birders claim the best time for bird watching is in fact late April to June. This is due to the high number of migrant birds arriving in Santa Cruz. As a side benefit, Spring in full bloom, bringing with it comfortable, warm weather and more daylight hours to enjoy outside.

Some migratory birds you’ll find nesting in the Santa Cruz mountains in Spring are the Rufous Hummingbird, Olive-sided Flycatcher, and the Black-chinned Sparrow. Interestingly, what all these birds have in common is their own unique call or song, so you might hear them before you see them. Like many places, dawn to mid-morning is the best time to go bird watching as you’ll see them catching their breakfast.

Come Winter time, most of the fall migratory birds have moved on but you are still left with some interesting, rare birds like the Swamp and White-throated Sparrow. Winter time also gives way to many ducks and shorebirds such as ring-necked ducks and many more. So no matter the time of year, Santa Cruz is home to many species which gives bird lovers plenty of opportunities to bring out the binoculars.

Best bird-watching spots in Santa Cruz

Natural Bridges State Beach

Natural Bridges State Park’s dramatic scenery is a must-see when visiting Santa Cruz, especially for bird lovers. This amazing park is a bird watcher’s heaven with its wide range of local habitats to explore. At the park, you will find seasonal creeks, oak, and eucalyptus woodlands, as well as a wide sandy beach that plays host to an extraordinary number of birds. With so many habitats situated around the park, you have the opportunity to see so many birds, like Shearwaters, Cormorants, Loons, and Snowy Egrets. The park also has picnic areas and a nature center.

UC Santa Cruz Arboretum and Botanic Garden

The Arboretum and Botanic Garden is a beautiful spot to go bird-watching in Santa Cruz. Located on the grounds of the campus of the University of California, Santa Cruz, the Arboretum and Botanic Gardens has 135 acres and is home to an array of rare plant species and birds. In particular, the grounds are known to be home to a congregation of hummingbirds, which are attracted to the nectar-rich blossoms of the gardens. 

When visiting the Arboretum, keep a close eye out for Anna’s hummingbird, which is resident. The males begin their courtship flights in December/ January. By the end of February, they are joined by Allen’s hummingbirds, who dominate the scene through until May. You can tell them apart by the color of their neck, the male Anna’s hummingbird has a bright pink neck, whereas the male Allen has a coppery orange neck. 

The Arboretum and Botanic Gardens is a great way to bird watch because it is actively acting as a safe haven for birds. Supporting the Arboretum means helping them with the upkeep of the gardens, which acts as a home to many bird species, which encourages breeding and wards off extinction. Some other birds you may spot on your trip to the Arboretum are California Quails, Red-tailed Hawks, Golden-crowned Sparrows, and Bluebirds.

Neary Lagoon

Don DeBold from San Jose, CA, USA
CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Just a 10-minute walk from the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, Neary Lagoon is an oasis for wildlife. Perfect for a relaxing day of bird watching, the lagoon runs parallel to a walkway so you can view the wildlife up close and personal. Some of the birds you can expect to see on your trip to the lagoon are mallard and wood ducks, pied-billed grebes, a multitude of coots, the world’s meanest geese, and the occasional great blue heron or hawk.

Whether you’re an experienced birder or just looking to explore the local wildlife, the Neary Lagoon is the perfect place. And with so many luxury villas and beachfront vacation rentals right in the heart of Santa Cruz and Capitola, you’re just a stone’s throw away from the Neary Lagoon. 

Tips for Bird Watching in Santa Cruz

  • You can’t go bird-watching without a good set of binoculars. Binoculars can vary in price and come in all sizes, weight and optical quality. The better quality of your binoculars, the crisper the image. Most birders commonly use binoculars with a magnification of 8 or 10x.
  • The early bird gets the worm! You’re more likely to see the birds earlier rather than later in the day as they will be out feeding and exploring, so set your alarm clocks early.
  • Know what you’re looking for. Field guides can be the best way to help you identify and name the bird that you’re seeing and give you more information on it. A great book that helps you compare similar birds is ‘The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America’. For beginners, the ‘American Birding Association Field Guide to Birds of California’ is good as it’s less complex and contains the most commonly found birds in California.
  • No matter how cute the birds are, you should always resist feeding them. Any chunks of bread or food that is not a part of their natural diet can harm the birds, and in turn harm the ecosystem. If you’re staying in a vacation rental, you can leave out a bird feeder with seeds and attract some backyard birds such as an Acorn Woodpecker, Northern Flicker or even a Western Screech-Owl.

3 Commonly Asked Questions About Bird Watching in Santa Cruz

Where can I see birds in Santa Cruz?

Birds can be seen everywhere in Santa Cruz, but if you want to see an abundance of birds you can visit nature reserves, like Neary Lagoon, the Santa Cruz Arboretum and Botanic Gardens and Natural Bridges State Park.

Is there a bird watching club in Santa Cruz?

Yes, there is a bird watching club in Santa Cruz. The Santa Cruz Bird Club was founded in 1956 and has a great website filled with information about birding in the area. With informative bird atlas’, recent bird sightings and organized field trips, the Santa Cruz Birding Club is a great place to start your bird watching journey.

What is the rarest bird found in Santa Cruz?

A rare Red Footed Booby was recently spotted at the Santa Cruz Wharf, bringing bird watchers from far and wide to see the unique bird. The tropical bird rarely migrates through California and its appearance has left many in awe.