Pismo Beach Birds, a guide

© Tony Hyman


    This GUIDE will help you identify the birds you may encounter while enjoying the sand and surf of Pismo Beach and surrounding area.

    The ten beach birds you are most likely to see while visiting are: Western Gulls, California Gulls, Heermann’s Gulls, Brown Pelicans, Cormorants, Blue Heron, Egrets, Night Herons, Shearwater, Oyster Catchers, and you may even see a Tern or a Plover (an endangered protected bird).


While at the beach, you may be lucky enough to also see other birds, as well as sea-going mammals such as otters, seals, sea-lions, dolphins and whales, all of which live on or travel through, the central coast.

About the author

Tony has been walking the beach behind their home for two decades picking up trash and observing and photographing birds.


Western Gulls

   The most plentiful local beach-bird is the Western Gull. Native to this area, it is seen all year around. The largest of our gulls, it grows to maturity in four years.

A one year old is about 80% full grown, but will undergo many other changes.

    A popular misconception is that the brown gulls are females and the white ones male. Not true. The different colors indicate the age of the bird. In general, gulls start brown and grow to grey and white. But feather color isn’t the only change these gulls undergo.

    Pictures below-left show how Western gulls change over four years.


WARNING: Although you may feed birds in your own back yard, it is against the law to feed birds on the pier or other public places. That’s to keep public areas, including the beaches, ocean, waterways, parks and sidewalks clean and pleasant. Bird droppings are a serious pollution problem.

California Gulls

   These graceful birds are native to, and breed in, Canada and the inland Northwestern US, spending time as far east as the inland waters of Utah (where they have been named the official state bird). Despite their name, they visit this part of California for only a few months during the winter.

  About two-thirds the size of Western Gulls, Californias undergo a similar color change, from dark to light, during their shorter, three year, path to adulthood. They look similar to Western Gulls, but you can always tell the two apart. Very young California Gulls often have blue-grey feet, and thereafter have yellow legs and feet, not pink like Western gulls.

    They are especially beautiful and acrobatic fliers with long black-tipped wings and slim bodies.


Heermann’s Gulls

   These distinctively colored birds are the smallest gulls you’ll see in this area, and easy to recognize thanks to their bright red beak, white head, grey chest, dark grey top body, and black legs and feet.  Like other gulls, adults have undergone a color shift, starting life all dark brownish black (upper left).  They turn more grey and the head starts turning white in their second year (lower right). Adult three-year-olds are mostly grey with some brown and bright white head and bright red beak (center and lower left).

    Heermann’s are generally seen in mid-to-late summer as they migrate north from their Mexican breeding grounds. They are fun to watch as, despite their small size, they are very daring, and will often snatch food right out of the mouth of a larger bird, such as a Western Gull, pelican, or cormorant.

    Like California gulls, they are beautiful acrobatic fliers. Like other gulls, they can be “talkative” with more than one distinctive unforgettable cry. Listen to them.


Brown Pelican

    Pelicans are large birds, whose wing span can reach seven or more feet. When birds who are out to sea a couple hundred yards dive into the ocean chasing fish the splash is frequently so large that people on shore think it’s a whale blow. The pelican is equipped with air sacs under the skin that cause it to bob quickly to the surface after diving. Amazingly, it always comes up facing into the wind and ready to take flight again.

    If the bird is lucky and accurate, the result of these dives from as high as 60 feet, is a bill pouch filled with fish which it eats while bobbing peacefully on the ocean.

    Alternately flapping and gliding, pelicans look like pterodactyls from another age as they fly in strings of 10-20 birds, often inches above the waves or right along the bluff edge to take advantage of the updraft caused by the cliffs. Sometimes a few birds will form a V at the head of the flock.

    By the late 60’s they were almost wiped out by pesticides. They’re recovering but still on the endangered list. To see pelicans roosting in large numbers, try the rocks north of Dinosaur Caves by Margo Dodd park.



      The cormorants you’ll see on the Central Coast appear to be Double-Crested Cormorants. They tend to live, feed and travel in flocks, although are usually alone during late Spring nesting season. Groups of 100 or more have been spotted feeding along the waters of Shell Beach. They nest in trees and small caves in rocky cliffs.

    Cormorants are strong fliers and powerful divers. They have heavy bones and the ability to squeeze air from their bodies. They swim very low in the water often with only their neck and a little of their back showing. Underwater, they hold their wings as if gliding, driven by powerful paddling with their feet. Unlike ducks, their feathers are not waterproof, so after a dive, they find a windy or sunny spot and spread their wings to dry.

    Cormorants are usually seen only at a distance. In the air, whether in flocks or traveling alone, they show long necks, a straight tail and delta shaped wings that flap very rapidly, faster than any of the other birds you’re likely to encounter. They glide far less than pelicans or gulls.

Blue Heron

    These beautiful wading birds can be seen standing motionless as they hunt for food along streams, ponds, and in shallow coastal water. When the prey nears, with lightening speed the heron spears it with its beak. When they change location they walk slowly with an odd gait, the result of the “reversed knees.”      

    The heron can change its appearance dramatically, sometimes standing tall with neck stretched making him the height of a man, and other times hunkering down with neck held against its body, the result not much larger than a bed-pillow.

    It’s easy to tell whether you’re looking at a blue heron or a snowy egret (below). Herons have grey-blue bodies, yellow beaks, yellow legs and feet, and a dark stripe from behind its eye running down the back of its neck.


Oyster Catcher

    A California native you might see year-round haunting rocky shores, especially as the tide is receding, exposing the oysters, mussels, barnacles, limpets, worms and other small critters that make up its diet.

    Oyster catchers can’t be confused with any other bird thanks to their bright red bill, red-ringed eyes, and unusual three-toed feet. The bill is uniquely designed to open and eat shellfish, its primary diet

    They lay eggs in pebble-lined nests in the sand or rocks above high tide line, so don’t disturb them. These distinctive birds are more common North of Morro Bay but are seen, usually in pairs, in this area. They spook easily so approach them slowly.


Sooty Shearwater


        One of the most common birds on the planet, when you see one, you’ll see a lot of them. They travel in huge flocks, often 1,000,000 or more birds, seen flying a few hundred yards off the shore. Male, female, young or old, Sooty Shearwater all look alike: large almost-black birds with long thin wings. They breed off of South America, Australia and South Africa. You’re most likely to see flocks heading north in summer and and heading south in fall and winter.

Feeding Frenzy

    If you are lucky and observant, you’ll get to see gulls, pelicans, and cormorants together in a feeding frenzy, a common occurrence here on the central coast. Look how high in the water gulls and pelicans sit as compared to cormorants. They are eating herring, sardines and other “bait fish.”

LEFT  (from top to bottom):

    First year birds with their black beaks and overall brown color blend well into the rocky shoreline. As they age, they will need less camouflage so their feathers will change color from brown to grey and white. In general, the whiter the head and breast, the older the bird.

    First year gulls have dark legs and feet, but by the time they are two, legs and feet have turned the pink color which makes Western gulls easy to identify.

    Their black beaks will gradually turn orange as they age. In general, the more orange the beak, the older the bird. The red spot at the end is the sign of a bird capable of breeding.

    Beaks, feathers and feet don’t change after age four.

   ABOVE: Attractively marked young gulls are

    excellent flyers and can be very aggressive,

    even toward older and larger birds, when a        

    flock scrambles for food.

    BELOW: The incredible gullet of these birds

    enables them to swallow large items. Gulls        

    are carnivores, voraciously eating meat and

    grain products only. Farmers are grateful

    gulls very rarely eat vegetables, fruit or nuts.

Snowy Egret

    Another beautiful wading bird you are likely to see in this area is the Snowy Egret. It’s appearance, size and habitat are much like the blue heron. These are seen throughout the county, frequently in farmland on the back roads to San Luis Obispo.

    The egret has a black beak and legs, yellow feet, and in adulthood, all its feathers are white.

Night Heron

    You may see these chicken-size chubby birds on land or at the shore. They build fairly good-size nests in trees not far from the water, and typically return to the same tree in which they were born to raise the next generation.

    The people who love this protected bird are rarely those who have herons nesting on their property. Night Herons have two less-than-endearing qualities. Not only are they serious competitors for title of the world’s noisiest night bird, they appear to  produce more poop-per-ounce of body weight than any other critter on the planet. These birds may be good looking, but they’ll never win an award for being a  good neighbor.

    This rather skimpy flock, flying about 6 feet above the water, took almost 10 minutes to fly by Shell Beach, heading South to North in early September. Photo taken from a bluff-top at about 200 yards. This column is about 5 birds high, but we have seen a flock more than 20 birds high and flying so close together they looked like a solid thick black line from shore. That incredible flock stretched from left to right horizons and took 45 minutes to pass by.

Royal and Elegant Terns


      After 20+ years roaming the beaches of Pismo Beach I recently saw my first Terns. My stack of bird books suggests I saw two species, Royal and Elegant, both very similar. Looking at the wings, beak shape, leg color and size of the black crest at the back of their head suggests both these Mexican birds might be in the group I saw. Age and mating season also influence features and I’ve seen too few to make absolute determinations.

    Elegant terns breed in Baja California and generally migrate to Peru and northern Chile. But, a few chose to winter in Alta California, traveling north as far as San Francisco. This migration takes place in late Summer and Fall, so keep your eyes open for terns on local water and beaches from August through early Spring (my sighting was August 20th). Like cormorants and pelicans, terns dive dramatically for their bait-fish dinner.

    Royal terns are much more plentiful world-wide, found in the same West Coast range as Elegant terns but also the entire east coast of South America as far north as Pennsylvania as well as most of West Africa. Royal terns generally have bills darker orange and don’t have the slight downward curve found on Elegant terns. Royal terns tend to have more white on their heads.  Both have distinctive forked tails.