The Bolsa Chica Wetlands are an important migratory stop as well as nesting grounds for many avian species! Because of this Bolsa Chica, along with the rest of Huntington Beach, CA, has some of the nation's best birding! Nearly half of the birds found in the U.S. have been seen in Huntington Beach. A fabulous 321 out of Orange County's 420 bird species were sighted here in the past decade. The area covered by the checklist found below includes the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, Harriett Wieder Regional Park, and several small open-space areas of private ownership adjacent to the north end of the reserve. Harriet Wieder Regional Park is a 104-acre park operated by the County of Orange and is adjacent to the south end of the reserve. The park has a parking lot accessed from Seapoint Avenue in Huntington Beach.
Abundance for each species is designated by the symbols on the first page of the checklist. The numerical categories for each abundance level reflect approximations on the part of the compilers. Abundance codes apply to the bird in its expected habitat. Species are listed in accordance with the American Ornithologists’ Union Checklist of North American Birds, 7th edition (1998) as amended through the 52nd supplement.
When is the Best Time to See Birds?
This is a question often asked by visitors at the wetlands. There is not a single answer to this question. Typically any time you visit the wetlands there will be plenty of birds to observe, especially when compared with residential and urban areas. There are certain times when more species can be observed than others and this also depends on what area you plan to visit.
There are two major seasons when you can see large numbers of birds:
The height of this season is November-February. This is the best time to see shorebirds, ducks, loons and other species that migrate from their northern ranges in the summer to Bolsa Chica and southern ranges in the winter. From the Mesa trail many of these birds can be viewed at low tide.
The height of this season is April-August. This is the best time to see terns, avocets, Black-necked Stilts, and Western Snowy Plovers that migrate here from southern regions that they occupy during winter months. For these species Bolsa Chica is the perfect place to nest. This is a good time to visit the South Lot and observe the nesting islands and dunes where many of these birds nest.
Though during September, October, and March there is a lull in the number of birds that can be seen, do not let this discourage a visit to the wetlands in search of birds. Many birds are migrating through during these months, and there are opportunities to see interesting avian visitors and rare bird sightings occur during these months.
Time of Day vs. Tides
This is an excellent time for viewing birds. Many birds that have been inactive during night become very active in the morning in search of food. Also, at this time the lighting is behind the wetlands thus providing the viewer with excellent conditions to see birds. The loop trail beginning at the south parking lot is a great place to start early in the morning as well as the Pocket Loop near the Mesa Overlook.
As the tide recedes, often hundreds of shorebirds (particularly during winter months) come to feed on the exposed mudflats. We recommend arriving about an hour after the high tide peaks during the day. This is especially important when viewing full tidal areas like outer bay. A great trail to take during low tide is the Mesa Trail which begins at the north parking lot. To check the tides during your visit
. You can also stop by the Interpretive Center and purchase a tide calendar that shows the tide heights throughout the day!
Wetlands serve as a nursery for many fish and shark species. About 80 species of fish inhabit Southern California bays and estuaries. These are a few of the ones found in the waters of Bolsa Bay, Huntington Harbour and Anaheim Bay.
CROAKERS AND CORVINA
Gray Smoothhound Shark
Deep Body Anchovy
White Sea Bass
Pacific Staghorn Sculpin
Invertebrates are animals without backbones. Instead of bones, they have exoskeletons or are soft-bodied. Marine invertebrates lie near the bottom of the food chain in Bolsa Bay, but are above algae, plants, protozoa and plankton. The tens of thousands of birds that come to the wetlands depend upon these animals for their food. Fish that breed and spawn in the wetlands also consume many of these animals.
The invertebrates that live in the wetlands include copepods, amphipods, mussels, clams, horn snails, worms, crabs and many more!
SEGMENTED WORMS/ANNELIDS (POLYCHAETES)
Giant Green Anemone
Red Mud Worm
Bat Star Commensal Worm
Polydora Mud Worm
Salt Marsh Mud Worm
Fat Innkeeper Worm
Kelp Lace Bryozoan
Derby Hat Bryozoan
Ochre Sea Star
Banded Brittle Star
Western Spiny Brittle Star
Purple Sea Urchin
California Sea Cucumber
Eccentric Sand Dollar
California Spiny Chiton
Ribbed Horse Mussel
California Jackknife Clam
Pacific Littleneck Clam
California Horn Snail
Lewis’ Moon Snail
Norris’ Top Snail
Onyx Slipper Snail
Spiny Cup-and-Saucer Snail
Poulson’s Rock Snail
Scaled Worm Shell
Cloudy Bubble Snail
Striped Sea Hare
California Brown Sea Hare
Red-Striped Acorn Barnacle
Bay Ghost Shrimp
Striped Shore Crab
Red Rock Crab
Blueband Hermit Crab
Hairy Hermit Crab
California Spiny Lobster
Sea Louse (Sea Slater)
Taylor’s Colonial Tunicate
If you look carefully, you may be able to spot some reptiles while at Bolsa Chica. Because their bodies cannot produce their own heat, reptiles rely on the heat of the sun and the ground to warm their bodies. We call this cold-blooded or exothermic. Lizards can be seen on the ground or along the wooden fences, basking in the sunlight. Snakes are seen less often, but are occasionally spotted from the trails. Although feared by many, snakes play an important role within their habitat by controlling rodent populations. Rattlesnakes are also present at Bolsa Chica. For more information on rattlesnakes and the Do’s and Don’ts when walking in rattlesnake habitat, click here
California legless lizard
San Diego alligator lizard
Western fence lizard
Western side-blotched lizard
Western diamond-backed rattlesnake
Southern Pacific rattlesnake
San Diego gopher snake
Elgaria multicarinata webbii
Sceloporus occidentalis occidentalis
Uta stansburiana elegans
Plestidon skiltonianus (previously Eumeces skiltonianus)
Crotalus oreganus helleri
Lampropeltis getula californiae
Pituophis catenifer annectens
Several species of mammals can be seen at Bolsa Chica. Rabbits and gophers are seen most often in the morning, while ground squirrels are seen virtually all day. Coyotes can sometimes be spotted in the grasses on the Mesa (looking east of the Mesa Trail), and are very important in controlling the rodent population in the area.
RABBITS & HARES
Desert cottontail/Audubon’s cottontail
California ground squirrel
Botta’s pocket gopher
Western harvest mouse
Norway rat/brown rat
Black rat/roof rat
Rare Species of The Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve
Belding's Savannah Sparrow
(Passerculus sandwichensis beldingi)
Listed as endangered in the state of California in 1974. A nonmigratory, small brown sparrow with fine streaking on the head and face; often shows a dark central breast spot. It has a pale yellow spot on it's eye and is fully dependent on pickleweed habitat in Southern California coastal salt marshes. Builds cup-shaped ground nests in pickleweed and lays 2-6 eggs. Food source consists of seeds and insects. Call is a thin seep. Year-round resident at Bolsa Chica.
California Brown Pelican
(Pelicanus occidentalis californicus)
California Fully Protected Species; listed as a federally endangered species in October 1970, California endangered in 1971. Fully delisted March 2009. Adults weigh approximately 9 pounds, and have a wingspan of over 6 feet. Ground nests are built from sticks with courtship occurring at the nest site. Nesting occurs in colonies on predator-free islands; clutch size averages three eggs. Brown pelicans plunge dive to gather surface-schooling fish; primary diet consists of northern anchovy, Pacific sardine, and Pacific mackerel. Smallest of all pelican species.
California Species of Special Concern. A small, long-legged, groundperching owl which nests in abandoned squirrel and coyote burrows. Adults dark above with heavy spotting, heavy barring below. Prefers grasslands and open areas; will also nest along roadsides, canals, and farm fields. Diet consists of lizards, frogs, snakes, birds, small mammals and insects. Nests contain 7-10 eggs and produce 3-4 fledglings. Only specie of bird that nests underground. Has the longest legs of any owl; can be observed perching at the edge of the burrow or on low posts during daylight hours. Burrows can be identified by guano white-wash on the ground around the entrance; will make a sound similar to a rattlesnake if disturbed inside the nest. Nocturnal hunter; flies low to the ground and hovers above prey. Year-round resident of Bolsa Chica.
Light-footed Clapper Rail
(Rallus longirostris levipes)
California Fully Protected Species; listed as federally endangered in 1970, California endangered in 1971. Brownish-colored hen-sized marsh bird with gray and white flanks, cinnamon breast, long legs and beak, and short upturned tail. Inhabits cordgrass and pickleweed of coastal salt marshes from northern Baja to Santa Barbara County. Yearround resident; diet consists of snails, crabs, insects, small fish, and other invertebrates. Floating nests contain 4-8 eggs and are built of cordgrass; nests are anchored to pickleweed or cordgrass at/above the high tide line. Makes a clapping sound with its beak. Rare visitor to the Bolsa Chica.
Western Snowy Plover
(Charadrius alexandrinus nivosus)
Listed as federally threatened in 1993. A small, sparrow-sized shorebird with dark patches behind the eyes, sides of the neck, and forehead, and with white throat and underside. Inhabits coastal dunes and beaches and is well-camouflaged when resting. Nests are in loose colonies and are made in small depressions in the sand. Females may produce multiple broods by different males; nests contain 1-3 speckled eggs and may be abandoned if disturbed. Males incubate eggs at night, females during the day. Diet consists of insects and beach invertebrates. Nests at Bolsa Chica.
California Species of Special Concern. Formerly a year-round resident, now primarily migratory from northern and central California. Adults dark above, head and body white, yellow eyes, and a dark eye stripe. Wings long and narrow, bent at the wrist while soaring to form an "M" shape; wingspan of 58-72". Toes of Osprey are unique; all toes are of equal length and the outer toe is reversible which allows grasping prey with two toes pointing forward and two pointing backward. Catches fish by hovering, then plunge diving feet first; feathers are not water resistant and drowning may occur if the prey is too large to carry off. Talons cannot be retracted to drop prey. Fish are always carried head first under the bird's body to reduce drag while flying. Inhabits swamps, salt marshes, lakes, and rivers. Nests in dead trees, poles, and platforms near water. In 2006, a pair of Osprey nested on Shellmaker Island in Newport Back Bay and successfully fledged two chicks. The same pair of Osprey returned to Newport in 2007 and again successfully nested.
California Species of Special Concern. Formerly known as the Marsh Hawk, this bird has an owl-like face. Prefers open areas, grasslands, and marshes; found throughout the US. Males and females very different in plumage – males light gray above and white underneath, with a thin black trailing edge on the underside of the wings & black wingtips. Females brown above, buff below, dark streaking on breast; large white rump visible during flight. Flies low to the ground and hovers above prey when hunting. Feeds on rodents and small birds. Wingspan of 38-48"; males smaller than females. Year-round resident.
California Fully Protected Species. Adults are white with dark wings above, black shoulder patch, heavy black eye rings, and red eyes. Juveniles have rusty streaking on breast and head. Wings long and pointed, long tail. Prefers open grasslands, wetlands, and sparsely wooded open areas with abundant small birds, rodents, and insects for prey. Nests are built in trees and contain 3-5 eggs. If food is abundant, a second clutch may be laid. Hovering while hunting is unique behavior among all other North American kite species. Found along coastal North America from northern Baja to Washington state, also central California and southern Texas. Distinctive whistle-click vocalization. Year-round resident. Breeds at Bolsa Chica.
California Least Tern
(Sterna antillarum browni)
California Fully Protected Species; listed as federally endangered in 1970, California endangered in 1971. Migratory; winters in South America, breeds along the Pacific Coast from southern Baja to San Fransisco. Smallest of the tern species; has a wingspan of 20". Mostly white and pale gray with black wingtips, black cap, and black-tipped yellow beak. Nests in colonies on open beaches in or near coastal salt marshes. Nests consist of hollows scraped into the sand and contain 1-2 speckled eggs. Diet consists of small fish taken by means of plunge diving. Least Terns arrive in California in late March and depart in August.
California Coastal Gnatcatcher
(Polioptila californica californica)
Listed as federally threatened in 1993; also a California Species of Special Concern. Small, blue-gray bird with a long tail. Tail is black underneath with white edges; both genders have white eye ring. Male is somewhat smaller and darker than the female and has a black cap during the summer. Call is a distinctive kitten-like mew. Native to coastal southwestern California; prefers coastal sage scrub habitat. Smooth, cup-shaped nests are constructed in bushes and contain 3-4 pale blue spotted eggs. If conditions favor, a second clutch may be laid. Occasional visitor to Bolsa Chica.
California Fully Protected Species; listed as federally endangered in 1967 and revised to federally threatened in 1995. Federally delisted June 28, 2007. Currently listed as endangered in California. National symbol of the United States and is the only eagle unique to North America. Large, dark brown, with a wingspan of 70-90". Juveniles are mostly dark and may be confused with the Golden Eagle. Juveniles require 4-5 years to reach adulthood; adults have a white head and tail. Breeds in mountainous regions of northern CA near lakes and rivers; winters throughout the state near reservoirs, lakes, rivers, open rangeland, and coastal wetlands. Large nests are built high in tall trees or cliff ledges and may weigh over a ton after years of use. Diet consists of fish, waterfowl, small mammals, and carrion. A small breeding colony has been established on Santa Catalina Island; eagle No. 35 has been known to visit the Bolsa Chica Wetlands and the Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge. Possession of feathers or other Bald Eagle parts is a felony and may be punishable by a maximum $10,000 fine and/or imprisonment.
American Peregrine Falcon
(Falco peregrinus anatum)
California Fully Protected Species; listed as federally endangered in 1970, delisted in 1999. Listed as California Endangered in 1971. State and federally delisted in March 2009. Adults are dark gray above and lighter color below, with a characteristic dark helmet. Inhabits open wetlands and grasslands near cliffs; has also become established in cities and is known to nest on bridges and the ledges of tall buildings. Range has expanded to include the Channel Islands, Cascade & Klamath Ranges, and Sierra Nevada Mts. Wings are aerodynamic and pointed; wingspan may exceed three feet. Fastest bird in the world; dives may reach 200 mph. Preys on birds that are caught in flight. Hunts at Bolsa Chica.
California Species of Special Concern. Adults are dark gray above, rust below with small white bars, distinct dark gray crown, and long rounded tail with thick dark bars. Juveniles heavily streaked on breast. Similar in appearance to the Sharp-shinned Hawk, but larger. Preys on small to medium sized birds, small rodents, and lizards. Inhabits and nests in broken woodlands; will lay 3-5 eggs per nest. Year-round resident of the Bolsa Chica.
Federal Species of Special Concern. Small, dark brown butterfly with cream-colored spots on the forewing and cream outlining of the hindwing. Found only along the coast from Santa Barbara south to mainland Mexico and Baja. Inhabits coastal salt marshes where salt grass is found. Adults emerge from over-wintering larvae in late spring/early summer; eggs are laid exclusively in salt grass, which is the sole source of food for Skipper larvae. Multiple broods occur throughout the summer, with the adults disappearing shortly after Labor Day in September. Suitable Wandering Skipper habitat must include abundant salt grass for egg-laying and suitable nearby sources of nectar for the adult butterflies.
Adults feed primarily on Alkali Heath, Seaside Heliotrope, and Verrucose Seapurslane; they are also known to visit rare Southern Tarplant. Primary source of species decline is due to widespread coastal development and destruction of salt grass habitat.
Two-striped Garter Snake
Federal Species of Special Concern; California Species of Special Concern. Medium-sized snake with a back stripe of brown, brownish gray, or olive, and a single yellowish stripe on each side of the body; underside is dull yellow in color. On occasion the lateral stripes are missing. May reach up to 3' in length, however 18-24" is the norm. Predominantly aquatic in nature and is rarely found far from water. Mating occurs in spring and 1-25 live young are born in the fall; juveniles may take 2-3 years to mature. Feeds primarily on fish, fish eggs, and tadpoles. Small mammal burrows are used as overwintering sites. Predators include hawks, coyotes, herons, raccoons, shrikes and humans. Year-round resident of Bolsa Chica.
Silvery Legless Lizard
(Anniella pulchra pulchra)
California Species of Special Concern. Small, slender legless lizard with a shovel-shaped snout, smooth, shiny scales, and a blunt tail. Color varies; may be black, dark brown, beige, or metallic silver. Bolsa Chica population is silver to beige. Found almost exclusively in California from the coast to the Sierra Nevada foothills. Subterranean; constructs burrows in loose, sandy soils. Active in the morning and evening, and occasionally at night with warm soil temperature. Insectivore which feeds on insect larvae, beetles, termites, and spiders. Hunting is by ambush from beneath soil or leaf litter. Active almost year-round in coastal areas due to preference for cooler temperatures. Between 1 and 4 live young are born from September - November. Predators include Deer Mice, King Snakes, and Loggerhead Shrikes. Pictured here in the bill of a Great Egret.
(Centromadia parryi australis)
Federal Species of Special Concern. California Native Plant Society (CNPS) List 1B Rare Plant; tracked by DFG's California Natural Diversity Database (CNDDB). Also known as Southern Spikeweed, Pappose Tarweed. Annual. May reach 2.5 - 3' in height. Prefers compacted soils at or near trail edges, roadsides, seasonal ponds, foothill grasslands, and salt marsh periphery. Grows from seed only and cannot be rooted from cuttings or transplanted to new locations. Germinates in late spring/early summer, blooms through summer and fall. Pollinated by native bees and flies. Yellow flowers up to 3/4" diameter; petals long and narrow with a single nick in the ends. Branches stiff and heavily spiked. Only thirty populations of Southern Tarplant are known to exist and most contain fewer than 1,000 plants. Approximately 12 populations are presently threatened with destruction from development. Only five tarplant populations are known to contain over 8,000 individuals, of which Bolsa Chica is one. Population numbers vary widely each year depending on soil compaction, climate, and rainfall. The majority of Bolsa Chica
Southern Tarplant is located on the Lower Mesa.
(Nemacaulis denudata var. denudata)
CNPS List 1B Rare Plant. Low-growing prostrate annual; prefers protected beaches, sand dunes, and grasslands. Flowers April through September. Found in limited numbers only along extreme coastal regions in Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego Counties; populations severely reduced by coastal developments. Found at Bolsa Chica on Rabbit Island and the sand dunes on the eastern side of PCH.