Urban Birding in San Diego

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San Diego has a lot going for it. There are beautiful beaches, a plethora of amazing food and drinks, a multitude of family fun locations, a world-renowned zoo, and one of the biggest birding festivals in the US. My family visited San Diego every year as part of a Disneyland-SoCal Road trip to escape the rainy Christmases at home near Portland, Oregon. We would walk the Pacific Beach promenade, see Shamu at Sea World (this is before Blackfish, mind you), and sample delicious Mexican food in Old Town San Diego.
My relationship with San Diego has evolved since becoming a birder. In our early birding days, Erik and I had one of our most hilarious bird-related fights while looking at a flotilla of ducks in Mission Bay yelling at each other about field marks before realizing we were looking at two different ducks. On another trip, a few birders accidentally woke us up as they were staking out a vagrant Prothonotary Warbler which happened to be last seen in a tree just above our tent. So, it has gone from a beautiful place for a brief respite from the Pacific Northwest to a premier birding location that we were lucky enough to weasel a recurring guiding spot at the San Diego Birding Festival, securing our chance to get a little vitamin D when we need it the most.

Birders biking around Mission Bay

Each year, the San Diego Audubon Society hosts their annual birding festival in the third week of February. With a wide variety of field trips, excellent guides, and a solid vendor expo, it is no wonder that it attracts so many birders. The festival headquarters is located on the southwest side of Mission Bay, overlooking a marina with nearby Black-crowned Night Herons and frequently plays host to several falcon species, and a short walk to the San Diego River. This makes it a prime spot for bicycle-birding, our niche at the festival. Riding around Mission Bay and back to the headquarters along the San Diego River can garner us about sixty-five species over the 10-mile bike ride. Granted, it is a large county spanning many different habitats, but San Diego County garners 515 species.

Black-crowned Night Heron

A few things that I love about San Diego is that the organization could not be better. There is a major airport near downtown AND that major airport happens to be one of the easiest airports to navigate. It is in a major metro area with many restaurants and hotel options. Lastly, fantastic birding sites are not a huge distance away. The Salton Sea is probably one of the furthest places you might consider visiting while there and it is approximately a 2 ½ hour drive from San Diego – which many birders might consider a day trip.

Although my birding is usually limited to a bike ride around Mission Bay on my annual trip to San Diego, we manage to squeeze in some visits to other birding sites, eat tasty food, and sample the cocktail and beer scene. Here are a few of my favorite gems that you might consider checking out.

Mission Bay offers over a dozen miles of pedestrian access along its shores. Historically, it was a vast marshland filled with shallow waters, a plethora of waders and shorebirds, and tall grasses. Humankind has since modified the landscape into a recreational wonderland with open water for boating, fishing, and jet skis with an expansive spoils pile on the south side called Fiesta Island that has access for off-leash dogs, beach recreation, and more. Efforts have been made to return Mission Bay to its wildlife roots which can be witnessed from the Kendall-Frost Marsh Preserve on the northwest corner with several agencies working to replant and manage for wildlife, including the Ridgway’s Rail. We regularly find Snowy Egrets, scope out Brant, and shorebirds.


By bicycle, the route around Mission Bay could take hours with regular stops for birding. One of my favorite stops is along the San Diego River where you can see Little Blue Heron, all three regularly occurring teal species, and a variety of shorebirds depending on the tide level. Recently, there has been a Burrowing Owl hanging around that is easy to spot amongst the riprap near the river mouth.

Digiscoped Burrowing Owl

San Elijo Lagoon is a county park north of San Diego and is one of the region’s largest wetlands. At just under 1,000 acres of reserve property with several habitat types, it hosts a diversity of plants and animals. The trails vary from boardwalks along the tidally influenced estuary to narrow canyons to hikes through scrub. As it flows into the Pacific Ocean, the twice-daily tide combats the freshwater drained through the rain-fed creeks and other drainage. Although the property has seen human impacts, there have been recent efforts to improve water quality and restore this important habitat.

Whether you want a short walk or a longer hike, San Elijo Wetland can offer that. When I visited, it was rainy and a trek through a potentially slippery canyon sounded like I would end up in the hospital, so we ventured along the raised boardwalk. A few rain showers passed which caused us to run for the nature center and cover. In between showers, we were able to go investigate a bit and we found a few Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, fishing Osprey, and chickadees.

Osprey carrying a fish

La Jolla Cove has a lot going on. Multi-million-dollar homes, fancy restaurants, rugged swimming, California sea lions, and close-up looks at some birds. The cove itself is a small beach surrounded by sandstone cliffs and a natural platform where the sea lions haul out. As you approach, the combined odor of seabird excrement and sea lions fills the air.

La Jolla Cove with nesting cormorants on the cliff

The La Jolla Cove is a great hotspot for all. Not only can you see cormorants, turnstones, and pelicans up close and personal, but as it is on a point, it is a good spot to scope out pelagic species. Besides birds, there is interesting geology, easily viewable wildlife, and a multitude of other attractions that will interest the non-wildlife lovers at your party.

San Diego has so much to see and do. There is a diversity of urban birding sites that give you a glimpse of the wild in amongst the hustle and bustle of one of California’s most diverse cities and offer you the ease of doing a little birding on non-birding trips. Every time I visit, there is something new to explore, and keeps me coming back for more. What are some of your favorite San Diego urban birding sites?

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