Hidden Gems of Birdwatching in Northern California

Some of the best birdwatching in California can be found in the state’s north. One of area’s premier birders, John Kemper, shared in his 1999 field guide Birding Northern California that Northern California had a total of 559 birds at the time, with only two entire states having recorded more — Texas (606) and all of California (601). Today California has over 685 species of birds (that’s over two-thirds of all bird species in North America!), so rest assured the true total in NorCal has only increased from Kemper’s original catalog.

All that is to say is birdwatching in Northern California is as good as it gets.

Popular Bird Species in Northern California

While it might be a little overwhelming to list all the bird species to be found in Northern California, here are 25 of some of the most popular ones you can find throughout the region:

  • Bald Eagle
  • Golden Hawk
  • Peale’s Falcon
  • Anna’s Hummingbird
  • Acorn Woodpecker
  • Bewick’s Wren
  • California Scrub-Jay
  • California Thrasher
  • Cedar Waxwing
  • Dark-eyed Junco
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Lesser Goldfinch
  • Mallard
  • Northern Flicker
  • Osprey
  • Pacific Wren
  • Pileated Woodpecker
  • Purple Finch
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Ring-necked Pheasant
  • Sandhill Crane
  • Western Tanager
  • Hermit Thrush
  • Say’s Phoebe
  • Sage Thrasher

Where to See Birds in Northern California

Northern California is known for its vast forests and wild landscapes. After all, it’s here you’ll find most of the Sierra Nevada, including Yosemite Valley and part of Lake Tahoe, Mount Shasta (the second-highest peak in the Cascade Range), and Redwood National Forest (home to the world’s tallest trees). You really can’t go wrong anywhere in NorCal for birdwatching. With all its natural beauty to soar and explore, birds love the region.

So regardless if you’re on the shores of Humboldt County, climbing around Mariposa, cruising through Fresno or even touring around the San Francisco Bay Area, you’ll be in a great place for some excellent birding.

To help you find the right spot, below we’ll take a look at one of the most popular spots for birdwatching in Northern California — Siskiyou County — and share some of the hidden gems for birding enthusiasts to be found there.

Woman birdwatching in Norther California Siskiyou County

Why Siskiyou County is Northern California’s Top Birdwatching Destination

Siskiyou County is home to over 200 species of birds. The county’s diverse natural habitats, including lakes, valleys, marsh lands, and mountains, provide opportunities to see a wide range of species in seemingly undiscovered wilderness.

You can’t get more northern in California than Siskiyou County. It’s one of Cali’s largest counties, but with one of its lowest population densities. Imagine the entire state of Connecticut with only 4% of the population, and millions of acres of wilderness, much of which is protected — that’s Siskiyou. Suffice to say, if you’re wondering where to see birds in California, Siskiyou County is one of your best bets.

Best Birdwatching Spots in Siskiyou County, Northern California

Pretty much anywhere you go in Siskiyou you’re bound to find yourself in an amazing birdwatching spot. Seriously, you can find 100 bird species in a weekend in Siskiyou without even trying. Not surprisingly this also makes Siskiyou one of the top spots to see Northern California birds of prey.

But there are some hidden gems where if you know where to look you can be treated to a one-of-a-kind birding experience. These include:

  • Marble Mountains Wilderness
  • Shasta Valley Wildlife Area
  • Lava Beds National Monument

From the pristine forests and alpine meadows of Marble Mountains — home to the Western Tanager and Varied Thrush — to Shasta Valley’s serene wetlands and grasslands, where the elegant Sandhill Crane find sanctuary, these destinations are a must-visit for bird enthusiasts. Similarly, Lava Beds National Monument provides a unique backdrop for spotting avian species including Say’s Phoebe, Rock Wren, and Sage Thrasher amidst rugged volcanic terrain.

Let’s take a closer look at these locales.

Marble Mountains Wilderness

Marble Mountains Wilderness — a stunning 241,744-acre wilderness area within the Klamath Mountains range — stands as a testament to nature’s untouched beauty. Despite its expansive size and remarkable biodiversity, the Wilderness remains relatively secluded, offering birdwatchers a serene and uninterrupted environment to explore Northern California’s birds in their natural habitat, undisturbed by human presence.

Here, you have the chance to encounter the distinctive Western Tanager — a colorful bird with a bright yellow body and black wings, often found flitting among the branches of coniferous trees, particularly in forested areas along the trails. Also, keep an eye out for the Hermit Thrush, solitary songbirds who like to forage on the forest floor.

Birdwatching Tip

The Sky High Lakes Trail, in particular, passes through a variety of serene habitats — such as, forested areas, meadows, and lakeshores — providing opportunities to encounter species like Mountain Quail, American Dipper, and Varied Thrush. It’s a moderately difficult trail with some steep sections, offering a rewarding adventure for hikers who enjoy a challenge. Depending on your pace and how much time you’d like to spend in search of birds, completing the trail can take anywhere from a few hours to the whole day.

Shasta Valley Wildlife Area

Nestled in the northern reaches of Siskiyou County, the Shasta Valley Wildlife Area sprawls across a landscape of wetlands, grasslands, and sagebrush scrub, providing a haven for a wide variety of avian species and offering a unique birdwatching experience away from the crowds of more popular destinations.

Spotting the majestic Sandhill Crane is a true highlight here. These elegant birds, with their long legs and distinctive red caps, are often seen gracefully moving through the wetlands and grasslands, offering a truly special sight for visitors to enjoy.

Sandhill Cranes at Butte Valley in Northern California Siskyou County

You may also spot the elusive Sagebrush Sparrow amidst the sagebrush scrub. With their subtle plumage blending seamlessly with their arid surroundings, these secretive sparrows can be seen perched atop shrubs or darting swiftly between the brush, so be sure to keep a keen eye on the landscape.

Birdwatching Tip

When exploring Shasta Valley Wildlife Area, wear waterproof hiking boots and stick to established trails to minimize the risk of encountering muddy or boggy terrain. It’s also essential to prioritize the well-being of birds and their habitats — so keep a safe distance and minimize disturbances like loud noises or sudden movements.

East Siskiyou County, Lava Beds National Monument

Lava Beds National Monument

Lava Beds National Monument — located in northeastern California — is home to numerous elusive avian species like Say’s Phoebe, Rock Wren, and Sage Thrasher amidst rugged volcanic landscapes and ancient lava flows, providing an unmatched birdwatching experience.

Explore the short yet steep Schonchin Butte Trail leading to the summit of Schonchin Butte, offering amazing opportunities to spot majestic birds of prey soaring overhead, including Red-tailed Hawks and Peregrine Falcons. While Say’s Phoebes can be found throughout Lava Beds National Monument, they’re often spotted perching on rocky outcrops and cliffs along the Schonchin Butte Trail. So, keep a keen eye out for these charismatic flycatchers as you traverse the rocky volcanic terrain, where they may be seen darting out to catch insects in mid-air.

Woman hiking while birdwatching in California's Siskiyou County

Birdwatching Northern California in Siskiyou

Marble Mountains Wilderness, Shasta Valley Wildlife Area, and Lava Beds National Monument offer hidden birdwatching gems in Siskiyou County. These spots highlight the ample opportunities to connect with nature and appreciate avian beauty amidst the stunning landscapes of Northern California.

All proof positive that whether you’re an expert ornithologist or you’re just a casual birder you can’t go wrong with  birdwatching in Northern California.

If you’re looking for more birding action, tag along on a birdwatching trip around Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge in our birding podcast.


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