Birds of the Sea of Cortez
Wedged between Baja California and the Mexican mainland, the Sea of Cortez is renowned for its brilliant turquoise waters and rugged desert surroundings. Also known as the Gulf of California or the Vermillion Sea, it is largely protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its exceptional biodiversity.
Not only does the Sea of Cortez attract snorkelers and scuba divers but it offers some of the world’s best kayaking. While slowly paddling along its shoreline, you’ll have the opportunity to see incredible marine life, such as whales and the critically endangered vaquita, as well as abundant birdlife that includes species endemic to the region.
From tiny hummingbirds to carrion-feasting vultures and one of the world’s most enchanting songbirds, here are just some of the bird species you can spot while exploring the Sea of Cortez on our kayaking adventures.
Blue-footed booby (Sula nebouxii)
While commonly associated with the Galapagos Islands, the blue-footed booby can also be found along the Sea of Cortez coastline. It is instantly recognizable due to its bright blue feet, which males exaggeratedly lift up and down as they strut to attract mates. Interestingly, the brightness of the feet decreases with age and females prefer younger males (with brighter feet) due to their higher fertility. (They are also reportedly better at looking after chicks compared to older males). Blue-footed boobies can often be seen diving for fish and it’s the carotenoids in the fish they consume that enhances the coloration of their feet.
Double-crested Cormorant (Nannopterum auritum)
With a wing span of around 4.5 feet, the double-crested cormorant is an impressive bird to observe in flight or when drying its feathers (which, like all cormorants, are not waterproof). It can be found from Alaska’s Aleutian Islands all the way down to Mexico where it builds large nests on the rocky shores of Baja California. The double-crested cormorant is almost entirely black, except for a small patch of bare skin around its face. It takes its name from the extra plumage it displays during the breeding season when its black features become intermingled with white ones. As fish feeders, double-crested cormorants dive up to 25 feet below the water’s surface to catch their prey, which includes everything from shellfish to eels.
Magnificent frigatebird (Fregata magnificens)
Instantly recognizable due to its deeply forked tail, the magnificent frigatebird can be found on both the Pacific and Atlantic sides of the Americas. It thrives in tropical and subtropical waters and prefers to roost high up in coastal trees or on rocky cliffs. The magnificent frigatebird has the lowest wing loading of any bird, with its wingspan of up to two meters being incredibly long for its size. This means that landing and taking off can be tricky and is the reason why frigatebirds tend to live at height. While it feeds on fish and squid at the surface of the ocean, it never dives down below and is known for stealing food from other birds. Both males and females have large throat pouches to accommodate their catch, with the males’ being particularly impressive due to its bright red color.
Heermann's Gull (Larus heermanni)
Featuring a smoky-gray coloration and red bill, Heermann’s gull is distinct in appearance from other gulls. While it can be found between British Columbia and Mexico, the species nests almost exclusively on Isla Rasa in the Sea of Cortez. It takes its name from the 19th-century American explorer and naturalist, Adolphus Lewis Heermann, who spent years collecting samples of birds, fish, and reptiles to send to specialists at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. Heermann’s gulls can often be seen on Baja California’s beaches or feeding in its shallow waters.
Royal tern (Thalasseus maximus)
With its bright orange bill and crest of black “hair”, the royal tern certainly lives up to its name. It’s one of the largest terns in existence, with a gray upper body and white feathers underneath that are juxtaposed against its jet-black legs. The species is endemic to the Americas where it can be found along both coastlines. Its western population prefers to nest between California and Mexico before wintering as far south as Peru. In Baja California, royal terns can be seen flying gracefully along the coastline in search of small fish, which they pluck out of the water easily with their sharp bills. They are incredibly social birds and like to gather in noisy colonies.
Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura)
Also known as the turkey buzzard or carrion crow, these vultures are among the most widespread of the New World vultures. They can be found from southern Canada to the bottom tip of South America in vegetation ranging from deserts to open pastures and subtropical forests. As a scavenger, the turkey vulture feeds almost exclusively on carrion and plays an important role in cleaning up rotting flesh. With excellent vision and a keen sense of smell, it can often be seen flying low to detect the scent of decay. Vultures use thermals in their everyday movements and watching these impressive birds in flight is a sight to behold. They are almost entirely black in coloration, except for their bald, red head and pink-tinged bill. When feeding, a group of vultures is known as a “wake” while in flight, they are referred to as a “kettle”.
Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)
As one of the most widely distributed raptors on the planet, the osprey can be found on all continents, except Antarctica. In the Americas, it breeds from Alaska down to Mexico before wintering as far south as Argentina. Ospreys feature a brown upper with a whitish head and underparts and have a wing space of around 70 inches. Commonly known as a fish hawk, its diet consists almost exclusively of fish and it can often be seen plunging feet-first into the water to grab its prey. If you’re on the lookout for ospreys around the Sea of Cortez, stick nests atop channel markers and high platforms are a good indication they are in the area. In flight, its wings resemble the letter “M”, making it easily recognizable in silhouette.
American Oystercatcher (Haematopus bachmani)
Almost entirely black in coloration (except for its bright red bill and pink legs), these photogenic oystercatchers can be found along the western shores of North America. Its distribution ranges from Alaska’s Aleutian Islands to Baja California and it is currently a species of high conservation concern. The black oystercatcher prefers rocky shorelines and never ventures too far from shore, with intertidal zones providing a feast of marine invertebrates to forage. With its strong bill, it can easily pry shells open and dislodge food such as barnacles, mussels, and crabs. The black oystercatcher takes its scientific name from John Bachman, a naturalist and associate of John James Audubon.
Xantus's hummingbird (Basilinna xantusii)
Weighing in at just 0.12 ounces, Xantus’s hummingbird is a tiny bird that is endemic to the Baja California Peninsula. While the females are distinguishable due to their cinnamon underparts, the males feature an iridescent emerald green throat. Xantus's hummingbirds prefer to live in arid woodlands and desert scrub, as well as being regularly sighted in home gardens. They forage for nectar from a variety of flowering plants and are an important pollinator of Amazaquitl (Arbutus xalapensis). Xantus’s hummingbirds prefer to sing under the protection of a bush, with their call described as “a quiet, rough, gurgling warble, at times interspersed with rattles...and high, squeaky notes."
Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus)
Native to most of North America (and the state bird of Alabama), the northern flicker is one of the few woodpecker species that is known to migrate. It is referred to by a wide range of names, including the “harry-wicket”, the “yellowhammer” and the “gawker bird”. Northern flickers are unique from other woodpeckers in that they often feed on the ground where they forage for fruits, berries, and seeds. Having said that, insects are their main food source (ants are known to make up almost half of some flickers’ diets) and they can also catch flies, butterflies, and moths in flight. If you’re on the lookout a northern flicker, listen for the drumming sound it makes on trees or its “ki ki ki” call.
Gila woodpecker (Melanerpes uropygialis)
Found throughout the desert regions of Southern California and Baja, the Gila woodpecker is renowned for being able to survive in treeless habitats. It likes to build its nests in the holes of saguaro cacti and mesquite and feed on not only insects but also fruit, nectar, and seeds. While they are endangered in California, populations remain strong elsewhere, although climate change is expected to severely reduce their habitat. The back and wings of Gila woodpeckers are distinctively marked with a black-and-white zebra pattern while the male has a small red cap on the top of its head. A rolling “churr” or “yip yip” sounds are a good indication that Gila woodpeckers are in the vicinity.
Cactus wren (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus)
Named after the plant it prefers as a habitat, the cactus wren can be found throughout the deserts of the United States southwest, as well as in the northern and central parts of Mexico. Its beautiful plumage features black and white markings against a brown backdrop, with a distinctive white “eyebrow” and cinnamon-colored underparts. In Baja California, cactus wrens like to build their nests and seek protection in cacti where they live throughout the year in pairs or family groups. While they are still found in abundance, it is thought that increased habitat fragmentation is a cause for concern as they aren’t quick to disperse into new areas. That being said, cactus wrens have proved to be innovative when it comes to coexisting with humans and man-made materials are often seen incorporated into their nests.
Hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus)
While predominantly brown in color, the hermit thrush exhibits a red-tinged tail and white underparts marked by brown spots. It prefers to breed in the coniferous forests of Canada, Alaska, and the northeast United States before migrating south to Central America in the winter, which is when they can be observed in Baja California. Hermit thrushes like to forage on the floors of forests and amidst patches of shrubbery, with their main diet being insects and berries. A highlight for birdwatchers may not be so much seeing a hermit thrush but hearing its song, which has been described as “the finest sound in nature”.
Gray thrasher (Toxostoma cinereum)
These beautiful songbirds are endemic to Baja California, with a preference for cacti-dotted deserts, scrubby woodlands, and thickets. It features a barred tail and a white breast with arrow-shaped black spots, as well as a short, curved bill. The gray thrasher has two subspecies - Toxostoma cinereum cinereum and Toxostoma cinereum mearnsi, with the latter being a little darker in color. Toxostoma cinereum mearnsi is more abundant in the north of Baja California while Toxostoma cinereum cinereum is more common in the south. Gray thrashers feed mostly on arthropods and the fruit of cacti and are adept at running along the ground.
Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)
Also known as the “redbird”, the northern cardinal is a bright red songbird with a distinctive crest on its head and a black masked face. It can be found in woodlands, shrublands, and wetlands between Canada and Guatemala, and has been introduced to Bermuda and Hawaii. Northern cardinals prefer to feed on seeds, grains, and fruits, which they forage for while hopping along the ground. Insects are the food of choice for the young. Northern cardinals are territorial songbirds, meaning they will vocally mark out their territory. Listen for males whistling from the tops of trees to deter other males, with the songs varying from region to region.
Yellow-footed gull (Larus livens)
Endemic to the Gulf of California, the yellow-footed gull is a large, stout-billed gull with a slate-gray back, white underparts, and bright yellow legs. It is closely related to the western gull, which can be found along the Pacific coast of North America and was thought to be a subspecies up until the 1960s. Yellow-footed gulls can often be seen on the beaches and muddy intertidal habitats of the Sea of Cortez, with a preference for nesting on rocky coasts or islands. As feeders, they are largely scavengers who search for small fish and invertebrates and are known to loiter around waste dumps and docks in search of food.
Brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)
Often seen flying in formations above the Sea of Cortez, the brown pelican is one of seven global pelican species. It is unique, however, in that it is the only species to dive from the air into the water to catch its prey - a sight that never gets old. Brown pelicans can be found along the Pacific coastline from British Columbia to northern Chile, as well as being regularly observed in the Galapagos Islands. While their nape and neck are a brownish-maroon color, the head is usually white with a yellow patch. Brown pelicans prefer to nest in colonies on islands and dunes, as well as in shrubby thickets. Its numbers appear to have bounced back in recent years after previously being endangered due to the use of pesticides across much of its range.