Spring migration brings many opportunities to spot some of the coolest birds of the coast redwood and giant sequoia forests. Keep an eye out for some of our favorites below—in your backyard, on your neighborhood walks, or in the forests if you’re lucky enough to have access to them.
For a more in-depth guide, download our free Birdwatcher’s Guide to Redwood Forests.
While this little bird loves lush coastal coniferous forests and oak woodlands along streams, you might encounter a nesting pair in its range from Alaska to central California. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I have a pair nesting in a woodpecker hole on the exterior of my house—they literally are living in my wall right now. Cute and fun fact: These little chickadees build their nests with rabbit, coyote, and deer fur.
This large crested jay is often seen flying solo or in small flocks throughout coastal forests. It’s hard to miss with dark blue plumage shaded with black or black-brown on the head, neck, and lower back. Its loud call is as striking as its looks, often sounding like shook shook shook shook. Like their clever corvid kin (such as crows and scrub jays) Steller’s jays can be bold in the face of the two-legged (humans). Check out this video of one unperturbed by my gaze in Big Sur.
Great Gray Owl
The chances of spotting a great gray owl in the giant sequoia groves are slim, but not impossible. They might be seen on perches along meadow edges, where they often hunt for rodents. Perhaps the best way to see a great gray owl is to listen for its repetitive, booming whoo. Listed as a California State Endangered Species, there are only about 300 individuals in California, most of which are in Yosemite. A few years ago, our friends on the North Coast had an unlikely sighting: a visiting great gray owl, from a northern population, in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.
At home in ancient coast redwood and other mature forests, the large pileated woodpecker has a dramatic red crest, a staccato, hammer-like pecking that can usually be heard from afar, and a very distinctive call that consists of a cuk-cuk-cuk-cuk-cuk that rises and falls in pitch.
The rufous hummingbird can be seen migrating through the ancient coast redwood forest and throughout California in spring. Males are a vivid rusty color on the back and belly, with a red throat. Females and immature birds have greenish gray heads and backs, and rusty sides. Their fiery hues are fitting—they are notoriously fierce when chasing off other hummingbird species.
This little bird favors coniferous forests of the Western Sierra Nevada. It has a black cap, throat, and eye patch; a white cheek, eyebrow, and belly; and a gray back and flanks. Its call is a chick-a-dee, often repeating dee.
The spotted owl is well adapted for old-growth forests. They need large forests with dense canopies, as well as varied vegetation in which to hunt woodrats and flying squirrels. Spotted owls also nest in tree cavities, and they are hesitant to cross clear-cuts or other disturbed areas. These biological needs led to its listing under the US Endangered Species Act, changing logging practices across much of the Pacific Northwest and California. Current threats include habitat fragmentation and the intrusion of the barred owl, a related species that is larger, more aggressive, and more adaptable. Spotted owls are dark brown with white spots on the head and back. Their round heads feature brown facial disks and pale markings that form an “X” between the eyes. The breast has white horizontal bars. (Barred owls, which look similar, are somewhat larger and have dark vertical streaks on the belly plumage.)
California’s only native pigeon is the band-tailed pigeon, which is larger and far more cautious than domesticated rock doves (“city pigeons”). Found in redwood and oak forests, it is dark gray on its upper parts and pale gray on its breast, with a wide, pale band on its tail. Listen for the male’s crooning coo.
At home in coniferous forests, the western tanager is one of the most eye-catching songbirds. The male has an orange-red head, a bright yellow breast and belly, and black wings with white wing bars. The female is also lovely, but more subdued in color, with a yellow belly and breast and gray-black dorsal plumage. Their song is a series of high and low notes, sounding like quick questions.
This small, short-tailed bird lives in ancient redwood and other coniferous and deciduous forests. It creeps down trunks foraging for insects and seeds. You’ll also know it by its white face and breast, its gray-blue back, and its endearing, nasal wha-wha-wha call.
Black-throated Gray Warbler
This migratory bird is currently breezing through brushy openings in coniferous forests and mixed woodlands. Their camouflage—a black-and-white striped head and flanks, a white breast, a black-striped gray back, and white wing bars—can make them difficult to find, but they’re well worth the effort. The yellow spot in front of the eye is the giveaway. Its vocalizations consist of a rising and falling zee zee zee zee bzz bzz or a subdued tup.