Looking for a Northern California Birds Identification feature? Then you just got lucky. Check our guide for deets on avifauna in North Cali.

Is it a bird or a plane? If you’re a birder, you’re likely never going to waste your time watching airplanes float past. Not when the Northern California sky is so full of fantastic avifauna varieties. Speaking of which, we’re here to move our birdwatching series forward, only this time folks in NorCal should be paying attention.

This guide will list out identification features and info on diet and habitats from ducks to herons and everything in between. Ready? Let’s go, then!

6 Northern California Birds And Their Identification

1. Red-throated Loon

With a name like Red-throated Loon, this bird was always destined for renown. On the size scale, red-throated loons fall somewhere between common loons and Red-breasted Mergansers, and this makes them pretty hard to miss. Aside from that, this seabird also has a long, streamlined neck and pointed narrow wings. But, their most stand-out feature is the sharp, almost knife-like bill and the patch of rusty-red feathers on its throat.

As far as habitat is concerned, these birdies like frequenting comfortably-sized ponds in flatlands with coastlines. They can also be seen near mudflats or shallower waters, foraging for prey. In winters, they’re mostly found near coves and creeks. Red-throated loons like gorging on marine wildlife – so fishes, mollusks, crustaceans – all makeup part of their diet.

2. Great Blue Heron

From the smallest loons to the largest of herons – there isn’t much our birds of Northern California feature doesn’t have. Going back to contender number two – the Great Blue Heron gets its name thanks to its gray and azure blue flight feathers. The species also have reddish thighs, but it’s the dark band, starting from their eyebrows, stretching all the way back to their heads, that gives them a distinctive appearance.

 birds of northern california

The Great Blue Heron’s habitat stretches from North America to Canada, and in the winters, this species travel through Florida, on to Mexico, and then to South America. Although, these birds don’t need to migrate to warmer waters in the winter. As long as the water where their prey resides isn’t frozen over – some individual Blue Herons will stick out the winter without moving. Another unique aspect about this species is that they never venture too far from water bodies. They like nesting in isolated spots and aren’t too big on crowded spaces.

Their diet is mainly piscine (fish-based). However, Great Blue Herons aren’t opposed to sampling crabs, rodents, reptiles, birds, or insects now and then. Like most of their species, Blue Herons tend to swallow their prey whole – but that’s what also puts them at risk of choking as they can get ambitious with their prey.

3. California Quail

This species is pretty special because it has about seven sub-species that are all native to California, too, hence the name. Some of the sub-species include:

  • Santa Catalina Quail
  • Warner Valley Quail
  • San Lucas California Quail
  • Owen Valley Quail

This cute little birdie has a relatively rounded appearance, even though legend has it that this species is the most slender in the quail family. You can tell a California Quail by its grey-yellowish front and brown back.

The bird has stripes on its flanks, a light brown head with black and white marks, and an adorable little dangling plume atop its head. Females are generally smaller in size than males and also have a smaller-sized plume. You can say it’s certainly stylish enough to be the state bird of California.

The diet of this species primarily consists of leaves and seeds. However, they also like chomping down berries and insects.

4. Swainson’s Thrush

Also known as the Olive-backed thrush, this bird species is definitely one of our favorites – thanks to its melodious voice. Named after the English ornithologist William Swainson – this species frequent the coniferous woodlands of North America and Canada. This species has brown-colored tails, wings, and backs. However, their bellies are lighter in color, and they have dark brown dots on their throats and chest. It had pale eye-rings and a small, almost conical beak.

 california native birds

From afar, one can mistake Swainson’s Thrush for something like a Sparrow. But, you can tell its presence by its clear spiraling notes with upward inflections. These birds are omnivores, and their diet consists primarily of insects in the winter and fruits (like berries) in the summer.

5. Northern Saw-whet Owl

Unique among California native birds, the Northern Saw-whet Owl is one of the smallest owl species found in North America. That’s just one of the reasons why this species has found its way into our Northern California birds identification list. However, these little birds aren’t easy to spot. If you do happen to chance upon one, look for an adorablY-rounded brown face with off-white streaks. They also have dark beaks and yellow eyes that almost seem too big for their face. Young owls tend to have rusty brown bodies and buff-colored wings and heads. Additionally, this species has no ear tufts.

Northern Saw-whet owls frequent all types of woodlands, from mixed to coniferous. In winters, you have a better chance of spotting them around evergreen trees. They tend to hunt only at night (which is typical owl behavior) and prefer scouting from perches. Their prey consists of voles, small birds, insects, and young squirrels – making them carnivorous.

6. Harlequin Duck

Known as lords and ladies in North America, the Harlequin Duck species are common California birds during the fall and winters. They are notoriously difficult to spot during the summers.

 common california birds

As one of the most colorful sea ducks in the world, this species has lovely plumage. The males sport dark bluish-grey feathers around their heads and necks. They also have a bright white crescent-shaped marking around their eyes with dark dots behind the eyes. Their most distinctive feature is the vertical black stripe running on top of their heads and white stripes just underneath the necks and breasts. On the other hand, the females are a little less vibrant and don grey-brown feathers with white oval spots right behind the eyes.

As dare-devils, these birds prefer to frequent rough waters, such as mountain streams or water bodies around coastlines. They’re diving ducks, which means they hunt for their prey underwater. The diet of Harlequin ducks includes small fish, mollusks, crustaceans, aquatic insects, and worms.


We’re at the end of our Northern California Birds Identification list and hope you’ve amassed enough birdwatching ammo to last you the summers and winters. The birds on our list vary in size and habitat to ensure you don’t get too bored staying stuck in one place for too long.

As always, if you’ve got a story to share or a rare bird-sighting to report, don’t hesitate to scroll down and leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!

Read more about Interesting Facts About Red Tail Hawks – Red Tail 101

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