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30 Incredible Birds You Can See at Elkhorn Slough

Last Updated on July 2, 2024 by Jess Grigsby

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birds to see elkhorn slough

Elkhorn Slough is a go-to destination for many things, but it’s especially well-known for birdwatching.

With hundreds of species of migratory and native birds, this special area is world-renowned among birding novices and experts alike.

If you’ve ever wanted to see the birds at Elkhorn Slough, our team is here to offer expert guides and comprehensive tours.

In this blog, we’ve compiled everything you need to know about the bird species in the Slough and the best ways to catch a glimpse of them.

Why Is Elkhorn Slough Such A Great Bird-Watching Destination?

Elkhorn Slough is one of California’s top spots for birdwatching, attracting birding enthusiasts from all over the globe thanks to its rich biodiversity and beautiful landscapes.

The slough features a mix of salt marshes, tidal creeks, and mudflats, which – together with the abundance of different food sources — create the ideal habitat for various bird species.

This diverse environment supports a large population of migratory and resident birds, allowing visitors to see more than 340 species throughout the year.

Elkhorn Slough is also critically important for bird conservation and preserving Pacific Flyway migratory routes.

As one of California’s most extensive tidal wetlands, the Slough offers essential habitats for many bird species, including those that are threatened or endangered. 

This area is also a crucial feeding and resting spot for migratory birds traveling from their northern breeding grounds to their southern wintering areas.

What Birds Can You See at Elkhorn Slough?

Large Wading Birds

1. Great Egret

Description: The Great Egret is a large, elegant wading bird with all-white plumage, a yellow bill, and black legs and feet. In the breeding season, it displays long, feathery plumes.

Where to See Them: Commonly found in wetlands, marshes, and along the shores of rivers and lakes.

When to Visit: Can be seen year-round, with increased numbers during migration periods.

2. Snowy Egret

Description: The Snowy Egret is a small, graceful wading bird with striking white plumage, a black bill, and black legs with yellow feet. During the breeding season, it sports delicate plumes on its head, neck, and back.

Where to See Them: Often seen in shallow coastal waters, marshes, and estuaries.

When to Visit: Present year-round but more frequently observed during the breeding season in the spring and summer.

3. Great Blue Heron

Description: The Great Blue Heron is the largest North American heron, easily recognizable by its bluish-gray plumage, long legs, and distinctive folded neck. It has a slow, deliberate flight pattern with outstretched wings.

Where to See Them: Commonly found in freshwater and saltwater habitats, including lakes, rivers, marshes, and coastal areas.

When to Visit: Can be seen throughout the year, with peak activity during the breeding season in spring and summer.

Shorebirds and Small Wading Birds

4. Long-Billed Curlew

long billed curlew
Image: Jerry Kirkhart / CC by SA 2.0

Description: You can identify this shorebird by looking for its long, downward-curving bill and mottled brown feathers.

Where to See Them: Long-billed curlews are often seen probing the mudflats for food.

When to Visit: Most commonly observed during the fall and winter months.

5. Western Sandpiper

Description: The Western Sandpiper is a small, active shorebird with a short, fine bill. It has grayish-brown upperparts and a white belly.

Where to See Them: Frequent the mudflats and marshy areas.

When to Visit: Typically seen during their migration periods in spring and fall.

6. Least Sandpiper

Description: The smallest member of the sandpiper family, the Least Sandpiper is characterized by its yellow legs and slightly curved bill.

Where to See Them: Often found foraging in the mudflats and shallow waters.

When to Visit: Most commonly seen during migration in spring and fall.

7. Dunlin

Description: The Dunlin is a medium-sized shorebird with a distinctive black belly patch during the breeding season and a slightly down-curved bill.

Where to See Them: Commonly found in mudflats and tidal creeks.

When to Visit: Abundant during the winter months.

8. Sanderling

Description: Sanderlings are small, plump shorebirds known for their pale, almost white plumage and their habit of running along the waves on beaches.

Where to See Them: Along sandy shores and mudflats.

When to Visit: Best seen during winter.

9. Long-Billed Dowitcher

Description: The long-billed Dowitcher is a robust and stocky shorebird recognized by its long, straight bill and mottled brown plumage.

Where to See Them: Frequently seen in mudflats and marshes.

When to Visit: Most commonly observed during migration in spring and fall.

10. Black-Bellied Plover

Image: Jason Crotty / CC by SA 2.0

Description: The black-bellied Plover features striking black-and-white breeding and a distinctive black belly during the breeding season.

Where to See Them: Often seen on mudflats and tidal creeks.

When to Visit: Typically seen during winter.

11. Willet

Description: The Willet is a large, stocky shorebird with gray-brown plumage and distinctive black and white wing patterns visible in flight.

Where to See Them: Commonly found in mudflats, salt marshes, and tidal creeks.

When to Visit: Present year-round but more common during the winter months.

12. American Avocet

Description: The American Avocet is a striking shorebird with a slender, upturned bill, distinctive black and white plumage during the breeding season, and rusty-red plumage on the head and neck.

Where to See Them: Commonly found in shallow freshwater or saltwater wetlands.

When to Visit: Most often observed during the spring and summer breeding season.

13. Marbled Godwit

Description: The Marbled Godwit is a large shorebird distinguished by its long, slightly upturned bill and mottled brown plumage.

Where to See Them: Often seen in tidal mudflats, marshes, and estuaries.

When to Visit: Typically observed during migration in the fall and spring.

Ready to learn more about our tours or book your birdwatching experience today? Check out our tours page to learn more.

Waterfowl

14. Northern Pintail

Image: Aardwolf6886 / CC by SA 2.0

Description: The Northern Pintail is a graceful duck known for its slender neck and pointed tail. Males have a striking chocolate-brown head and a white neck stripe, while females are more subdued in color.

Where to See Them: Commonly found in the slough’s mudflats and tidal creeks.

When to Visit: Best observed during winter, when they migrate to Elkhorn Slough.

15. Mallard

Description: Mallards are a familiar duck species, with males displaying a distinctive emerald-green head and females sporting mottled brown plumage.

Where to See Them: Typically seen in the salt marshes and tidal creeks.

When to Visit: Year-round residents, but more numerous during the winter.

16. Brown Pelican

Image: Elizabeth Nicodemus / CC by SA 2.0

Description: Recognizable by its large body, enormous bill, and characteristic throat pouch, the Brown Pelican is often seen gliding gracefully over waves or diving spectacularly for fish.

Where to See Them: Frequently observed along coastal waters, beaches, and near piers.

When to Visit: Can be seen all year round, with greater numbers during the summer months.

17. Western Grebe

Description: The Western Grebe is known for its long neck, sharp bill, and distinctive black-and-white plumage, as well as for its elaborate courtship dances performed on water.

Where to See Them: Typically found on open bodies of water where they can dive for food, especially during migration.

When to Visit: Best observed during winter and migration seasons in the fall and spring.

18. Bufflehead

Description: Small diving duck characterized by its compact, rounded body and striking white and black plumage. Male Buffleheads have a large white patch on the back of their heads.

Where to See Them: Commonly seen on small ponds, lakes, and protected coastal waters.

When to Visit: Most frequently sighted during the winter months.

19. Double-Crested Cormorant

Description: Medium-sized waterbird with a long neck, hooked bill, and distinctive double crests on its head during the breeding season.

Where to See Them: Double-crested cormorants are often found in coastal habitats, frequently seen perching on trees or rocks after fishing, with their wings spread to dry.

When to Visit: Can be seen year-round but are more abundant during the winter and breeding seasons.

Raptors

20. Osprey

Image: Aardwolf6886 / CC by SA 2.0

Description: This fish-eating bird of prey has a distinctive white head with a dark eye stripe and brown upperparts.

Where to See Them: Ospreys can be seen flying over the slough or perched near water bodies.

When to Visit: Can be observed year-round but often seen during the spring and summer breeding seasons.

21 Northern Harrier

Description: Known for its owl-like face and low, gliding flight, the Northern Harrier has a grayish body and white rump patch.

Where to See Them: Often flying low over the Slough’s salt marshes in search of prey.

When to Visit: Sighted mainly during the fall and winter.

22. Peregrine Falcon

Description: Famous for being the fastest bird in the world, the Peregrine Falcon has a slate-gray back, barred underparts, and a distinctive black “mustache” mark on its face.

Where to See Them: Can often be seen perched on high vantage points such as cliffs, tall buildings, or telephone poles, and hunting over open fields.

When to Visit: Can be observed year-round, but sightings peak during migration periods in the spring and fall.

Songbirds

23. Marsh Wren

Description: The Marsh Wren is a small, highly active bird with brown plumage streaked with white, known for its melodic songs.

Where to See Them: Frequently found in dense vegetation near water.

When to Visit: Seen year-round, but more vocal during the spring breeding season.

24. Common Yellowthroat

Image: Becky Matsubara / CC by SA 2.0

Description: This small songbird is easy to identify with its bright yellow throat and distinctive black mask.

Where to See Them: The Common Yellowthroat is commonly seen darting through the reeds and brush.

When to Visit: Best observed during spring and summer.

25. Savannah Sparrow

Description: Small, well-camouflaged songbird with brown-streaked plumage and a distinctive yellow spot above the eye.

Where to See Them: Typically found in open fields, meadows, and grasslands.

When to Visit: Savannah Sparrows can be spotted year-round, with greater visibility during the breeding season in spring and summer.

26. Western Meadowlark

Description: Western Meadowlarks are medium-sized songbirds with a bright yellow belly, black ‘V’ on the chest, and patterned brown upperparts. They are known for their flute-like melody.

Where to See Them: Prefers open grasslands and prairies.

When to Visit: Most often seen during the spring and early summer breeding season, but present year-round.

27. Black Phoebe

Description: Black Phoebes are small flycatchers with a sooty black body and contrasting white belly. Often seen perching conspicuously.

Where to See Them: Commonly found near water bodies, including streams, ponds, and marshes.

When to Visit: Can be observed throughout the year, often more active during the warmer months.

Gulls and Terns

28. California Gull

Description: The California Gull is a medium-sized gull with gray wings, a white body, and a distinctive black ring on its yellow bill. During the breeding season, adults display a red spot on their lower beak.

Where to See Them: Often found near lakes, rivers, and coastal areas, particularly around nesting sites and feeding grounds.

When to Visit: Seen year-round, with a peak visibility during the breeding season from April to August.

29. Forster’s Tern

Description: Forster’s Terns are sleek, slender terns with a white body, black cap, and a deeply forked tail. Their bills are orange with a black tip during the breeding season.

Where to See Them: Frequently seen in and around wetlands, marshes, and estuaries, especially those with ample fish.

When to Visit: Most commonly observed from spring through early autumn, aligning with their breeding and feeding period.

30. Elegant Tern

Image: Ron Knight / CC by SA 2.0

Description: The Elegant Tern can be recognized by its long, slender orange bills and distinctive black feathered crest during the breeding season. Their bodies are white with light gray wings.

Where to See Them: Prefers coastal regions, often seen in large colonies on sandy beaches and estuaries.

When to Visit: Typically visible from spring to summer, particularly during their breeding season, which peaks from April to July.

What is the Best Way to See the Birds at Elkhorn Slough?

There are two main ways to see the birds at Elkhorn Slough: by water and by land. 

Observing birds by water is generally the better choice since it allows you to get closer views without disturbing the birds’ habitats.

When you’re on the water, you can reach the hidden areas where birds rest or feed, which ensures a more intimate bird-watching experience.

Are you wondering how to hit the water and experience the birds of Elkhorn Slough?

Kayak tours are a fantastic option. 

In addition to being a peaceful and immersive way to navigate the waterways, kayaking allows you to get up close to various bird species without disturbing or startling them.

At Kayak Connection, we offer birding and wildlife tours led by experienced naturalists who can help you learn about the birds, their habitat, and the other wildlife in the Slough. 

Our tours are ideal for novice and seasoned birders looking to make the most of a visit to Elkhorn Slough.

How to Prepare for Your Birdwatching Adventure

Proper preparation can make your bird-watching experience at Elkhorn Slough a truly unforgettable experience.

Here are some tips and gear recommendations to help you get ready:

  • Bring Binoculars: A good pair is essential for birdwatching. Look for binoculars with at least 8x magnification for the clearest, brightest image.
  • Bring a Camera: Taking photos of birds can help you remember your trip. For the best pictures, use a camera with a good zoom lens to capture details from a distance.
  • Dress Appropriately: Wear comfortable, weather-appropriate clothing. Layering allows you to adjust to changing temperatures and conditions throughout the day. Don’t forget a hat and sunglasses!
  • Footwear: We recommend wearing sturdy shoes that can get wet – especially if you plan to explore areas with wet or uneven terrain.
  • Field Guide: Bringing a bird field guide or using a bird identification app on your smartphone can help you identify the different species you encounter.
  • Hydration and Snacks: Always carry a water bottle and some snacks to stay hydrated and energized during your trip.
  • Sunscreen: Apply sunscreen generously and bring some insect repellent, especially if you’ll be out during early morning or late afternoon hours when insects are more active.

A note about respecting wildlife: Keep a respectful distance from wildlife and avoid loud noises. Remember, we are guests in the birds’ habitat. 

Don’t ever feed or disturb the birds. Stay on designated trails if you’re exploring on land, and follow all posted rules.

Respecting wildlife ensures safety and preservation for both the animals and their habitats and ensures future generations can enjoy them.

Book a Birding Tour With Kayak Connection Today!

Elkhorn Slough is a world-renowned birding destination, and the best way to see the many species that frequent the area is from the water. 

At Kayak Connection, we love taking people out into the Slough and helping them witness and learn about the rare and unique birds in this area. 

Ready to learn more about our tours or book your experience today? Check out our tours page to learn more.

FAQs

1. When is the best time of day to go birdwatching?

If you’re interested in birdwatching at Elkhorn Slough, the best times to visit are early morning or late afternoon. 

These “golden hours” offer the best lighting for spotting and photographing birds and coincide with when birds are most active.

2. What about the best season?

As far as seasons go, we recommend visiting during the spring and fall since many migratory species pass through the Slough at these times.

Author: Jess Grigsby

Since 2012, Jess has co-owned and operated Kayak Connection together with her husband Dave. She is a lawyer, coach, avid kayak enthusiast and mother of two teenage girls. At Kayak Connection, Jess oversees a team of experienced kayak guides who are all CPR certified, with many holding advanced Wilderness First Responder (WFR) certifications. Our team is composed of environmental educators, naturalists and classroom teachers with experience working with all kinds of visitors, from school groups to large corporate teams.