Santa Cruz takes its birdwatching seriously, with a Bird Club that has been active for over half a century, and more than 250 species of birds to be seen throughout the seasons. The diversity is fueled by the wide range of habitats locally—the wetlands host an entirely different group of birds than the forests, or the coast—and there are several spots known for their excellent birdwatching opportunities.
Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve
1700 Elkhorn Road, Watsonville
This 1,400-acre estuary, which drains the Pajaro Valley, lies in a large, shallow swale between Santa Cruz and Monterey. Quiet, wild and picturesque, Elkhorn Slough offers world-class birding and is the focal point of the Monterey Bay Birding Festival in late September each year. Expect to see over 340 species throughout the year, including herons, falcons, hawks, owls, cranes, titmice and hummingbirds.
Twin Lakes State Beach
East Cliff at 7th Avenue, Santa Cruz
Park at Twin Lakes Beach in Santa Cruz (East Cliff at 7th Avenue) and cross the street to find the path to Schwann Lake. This scenic estuary, located smack in the middle of Santa Cruz, is a quiet, fragrant sanctuary for walkers and nature lovers. Expect to see gulls, ducks, grebes, oystercatchers, herons, egrets, robins, sparrows and woodpeckers.
Natural Bridges State Beach
West Cliff Drive and Swift Street, Santa Cruz
At the farthest end of scenic West Cliff Drive, abutting old agricultural fields, lies Natural Bridges State Beach. It’s mostly known for its fantastic sunset views, unusual offshore rock formation and vast beach, but the wetlands behind it are home to a healthy avian community, and the eucalyptus groves house wintering Monarch butterflies. Look for gulls, flycatchers, oystercatchers, herons and red-necked phalaropes.
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
101 North Big Trees Park Road, Felton
The coastal redwood forest houses an entirely different bird population from the coast and the wetlands. From Santa Cruz travel north on Highway 9 toward Felton; the park entrance is on the right, just before town. Expect to see thrushes, ruby-crowned kinglets, warblers, towhees, woodpeckers and rare finches in the winter.