One of the best places to bird in Santa Barbara County, this estuary is great for shorebirds, seabirds, and waterfowl.
By John Deacon | Published: 8/22/2017
The Santa Maria River Estuary has long been considered one of the best birding hotspots in Santa Barbara County. More than 200 species have been reported, and it is a breeding location for the endangered Western Snowy Plover and California Least Tern. One of the best shorebird spots in the county, it is also an Audubon-designated Important Bird Area.
In the fall, you might see thousands of shearwaters on the horizon. Gray whale sightings are relatively common from shore. The wintering flocks of ducks, geese, and sandpipers are quite impressive, and Northern Shovelers may number in the thousands.
The adjacent beach is famous for its heavy surf, and the surrounding dune complex is one of the largest in the United States. Birding the estuary and beaches can be easy or strenuous. It is an easy hike to the beach or the estuary. However, to walk the entire length of the accessible beach and estuary can be several miles through loose to packed sand. For the more adventurous, a 2.5-mile walk (5-mile round-trip) south along the beach yields incredible views of Mussel Rock, a breeding area for Pigeon Guillemots. — John Deacon
John Deacon was part of the team that established the Santa Maria/
Guadalupe Christmas Bird Count more than 30 years ago.
At a Glance
Click on the coordinates below to view location:
Dunes, beach, lagoon, and grassland.
Generally flat; mostly sand. Walking can be difficult on the sandy areas. Majority of area not wheelchair-accessible.
Cinnamon and Green-winged Teal, Surf Scoter, Western Grebe, Brown Pelican, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, White-tailed Kite, Snowy Plover, Parasitic Jaeger, Western and California Gulls, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Black Phoebe, Loggerhead Shrike, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Oak Titmouse, Western Bluebird, California Thrasher, Orange-crowned and Wilson’s Warblers, California and Spotted Towhees. Winter: Red-breasted Merganser, Sooty and Black-vented Shearwaters, Black-bellied Plover, American and Pacific Golden-Plovers, Long-billed Curlew, Western and Spotted Sandpipers, Wilson’s Phalarope, Bonaparte’ Gull, Golden-crowned Sparrow.
When to go
Late fall and winter are best. Birding is good throughout the day. However, area is subject to heavy fog in the morning and potentially high winds in the afternoon, so late morning usually best time to visit.
Parking lot and restrooms. The Dunes Center, located at 1055 Guadalupe St. in Guadalupe, has exhibits, checklists, and restrooms.
County park. No fees. The road into the park, open from 8 a.m. to dusk, is narrow, so no stopping allowed. Parts of area closed during tern and plover nesting season; call (805) 343-2354 for access info prior to visiting.
Spotting scope recommended. Dress in layers. Check tide tables. For better chances to see sandpipers, visit during mid- to low tide.
For more info
Jim May Park
A small park located off Donovan Rd. in Santa Maria, about 15 miles east of Guadalupe, that is easily walked and is wheelchair-accessible. Hummingbirds, herons, gulls, warblers, and more.