Finding birds in California

White-tailed Kite

The White-tailed Kites we saw in California’s Coyote Hills were a treat for us. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Dec. 5, 2007, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “How to find birds in strange places.”

2014 Update: The best way to find where to bird at your travel destination is now Besides a map of hotspot locations, you can see lists of recent observations.

By Barb Gorges

Travel is a good way to add bird species to your life list. Conversely, birding is a great way to enrich your travels—even if it’s as simple as watching brown pelicans at sunset across the street from your nephew’s apartment in late October, and that street happens to run alongside San Francisco Bay (pre-oil spill).

Serendipity is nice, but birders like to improve their chances. Mark took a look at the map and noticed another park on the bay, Coyote Hills, managed by the East Bay Regional Park District. Water is always a good place to look for birds.

With Mark’s brother Mike showing us the way, we found the park and a bird list in the visitor center, but the list didn’t have any indication of species seasonality or abundance.

One of the rangers put us on alert for golden eagles. I suppose the white-tailed kites were too common a raptor for him to be excited about, but they made our day—and our life lists.

Another way to find birds in an unfamiliar locale is by recommendation from someone who has already been to the area. Taking the auto tour through the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge with our longtime friends Pam and Dave was a great way to spend the day together.

The refuge has the perfect bird checklist. After each bird name is a space divvied up by month and if a species appears on the refuge during a particular month of the year, there is a horizontal line. If it shows up in great abundance, it is a very thick line. It was easy to see that the thousands of ducks, geese and coots we saw were going to be spending the winter at the refuge.

Following another outdoor pursuit usually produces bird sightings. We chose to hike where one of the nephews is a ranger, the Sunol Regional Wilderness, also managed by the park district.

A hot, weekday morning left us pretty much alone with the cows as we trudged the water department’s access road. But it was inspiring to be in the middle of 6800 acres of hill country that wasn’t decorated with houses or other buildings, something the City of Cheyenne should keep in mind as it looks to “develop” its own ranch.


Acorn Woodpecker

The Acorn Woodpecker was one of the interesting birds we found in California. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Our favorite observation was the seven acorn woodpeckers disappearing one after the other into the top of a dead snag. There was such a ruckus of squeaks before they popped out through side openings.

If you were traveling an area without the benefit of friends and family, you could look for a local to give advice. I am that local half a dozen times a year because I allow my phone number and email address to be published in the American Birding Association directory.

While some members indicate that they charge for giving tours, sometimes I have time to invite a birding friend along to meet the visitors at Lions Park, one of our local hotspots.

It’s always surprising what visitors get excited about. Two women from California were entranced by the only bird we could find on a windy day, a yellow-headed blackbird. The man and wife from Texas this spring were excited to see migrating birds in their breeding plumage–birds they otherwise only see in their dull-colored winter feathers.

People visiting the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society Web site,, make inquiries. A man calling from Britain asked if he and his friend could join us for the spring sharp-tailed grouse field trip the next week. Certainly. And so they did, and after ticking off that bird on their list of most wanted species, they drove off to find another.

Occasionally, travelers find the Wyobirds elist,, and post a request for information on finding a particular species or birding a particular area. If I can be of help, I reply and invariably, I get a report later about what birds they saw and how much they enjoyed the trip.

Many states have a similar list. If you search “Wyoming bird” instead of “Wyoming birds” however, you may get references to the University of Wyoming coach’s recent notorious hand signal.

If you are too shy–or in a hurry–there’s another way to find birding destinations. Go to It’s a great place to store your personal birding records for free.  It’s also a great resource for planning a trip. Observer information is not available to anyone looking at the data, but the lists of hotspots and the corresponding bird lists are almost as good as meeting one of the locals.

While the list of 1400 names of hotspots in California is probably not meaningful to visitors, a new map feature does allow you to see where they are. At this time you can access the maps by pretending you are going to enter data and choosing the option to select a pre-existing hotspot. Those areas that are parks or sanctuaries probably have more information on the Internet about hours and access.

Since eBird is relatively new, the checklists generated may be a little sketchy, but at least you can see where the local birders like to go.

Many birds are great travelers themselves, some migrating thousands of miles. I wonder how they pass on information about good places for wintering, eating and breeding. With their bird’s-eye view of the world, perhaps it’s easier for them to recognize a bird-friendly spot than it is for us.

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