REASON TO GATHER #5: Birdwatching with a Pro at Malibu Lagoon


I recently joined a new club, one with nearly 45 million US members. Like many, during the pandemic, I became a “birder” – first by learning the birds that flocked to a feeder in my backyard and more recently, by taking my binoculars on the road and identifying birds in new locations. This club has famous members (Jonathan Franzen, notably) as well an increasingly younger cadre of nature-loving, binocular-toting naturalists. If you’re even a little bird-curious, this adventure will let you know if it’s a club for you.

Osprey by BIJS

One of my first forays into offsite birding took place last Friday. My sister was in town and since she is an experienced birder, I wanted to be sure she saw as many species as she could during her visit. We met up with an enthusiastic young bird guide at the Malibu Lagoon, just off the PCH near Cross Creek, behind Surfrider Beach. Benny Jacobs-Schwartz (he likes to be called BIJS) has a company called Birds by BIJS that specializes in local tours; he also leads bird excursions to other countries including Costa Rica and Ecuador – check them out here. BIJS’s knowledge and passion combine to make him an excellent guide, for novices and experts alike.

BIJS provides binoculars and this amazing scope

We had a perfect morning, spotting more than fifty species at Malibu Lagoon, and gazing at surfers and seals at Surfrider Beach. My sister was impressed. She spotted two birds she’d never seen before (birders call these “Life Birds”) – an Allen’s Hummingbird and a Nando Parakeet – which she reported back to our guide after she checked our sightings against her eBird list. Here is the list from our trip. Most birders report what they see over their lifetime, logging their lists onto the portal to build a knowledge base on global bird populations. Admittedly, this is a level of dedication I have not yet achieved, but it builds community for birders and helps scientists track the changes in species over time.

Allen’s Hummingbird by BIJS

We were happy we’d adventured out with BIJS, for two reasons. First, he brings along an amazing telescope that extends beyond the range of most binoculars. Looking through that spectacular glass to a far-off beach, we located a small grouping of snowy plovers, an exciting sighting because the species is endangered. Second, he has deep and precise knowledge of local birds, but good about doling it out in manageable doses. At times, we strolled quietly and just absorbed our surroundings. At times, he and my sister traded birding lore with relish.

Planning a guided tour with BIJS is a great activity for a group of friends or a family gathering of any kind — bird-watching experience is certainly not required! For me, exploring a new location and being attuned to nature is relaxing, and I loved gleaning bits of knowledge from the guide and my sister. There is always more to see and more to learn, and that is part of the fun.

The truth is, it’s impossible not to see the birds, once you know they’re out there.


Malibu Lagoon

Set up a Walk: You can join one of BIJS group outings for $25. Or, if you want to organize your own group, BIJS charges $250 for up to 15 people (though he says that 8 is optimal for a private outing). To get in touch with BIJS use email or text / call him at 1 (818) 939-9913‬. He provides binoculars and precise information about parking and weather. You can sign up on his website for updates, or follow him on Instagram: @birdsbybijs

Download this APP: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology operates the wonderful Merlin app, so download it for FREE and get started on your bird identification journey. It’s extremely easy to use – even a bit addicting. You’ll be tasked with choosing five things about each bird to help you make an ID (location, date of siting, size, color, and behavior) and I find that paying attention to these details hones my eye over time. From there you’ll be shown a list of options that is usually limited enough to make your ID.

Don’t Miss This: The Merlin app has a new, amazing feature in which it can capture a call of a song and identify the bird, similar to how Shazam can tell you what song you’re hearing. That helped me identify a rare bird in my neighborhood, which was a beginner’s thrill.

Next Level: You might want to invest in a bird book. The Sibley Guide to Birds is the gold standard. And author David Allen Sibley has a wonderful coffee table book called What It’s Like to Be a Bird which is illustrated and provides lots of fun facts to help your interest take flight.

Birding Sites in LA County: Here is a nice list from the LA Times.

The Malibu Lagoon is a wetland which was refurbished recently *not without controversy. Here is a recent article that describes the history and some of the problems.


DINE: A meal at the nearby Malibu Farm Cafe is a treat for locals and a homer for out-of-towners. The food is clean and delicious, and the views from the Malibu pier are unbeatable. The birds who hover are aggressive, but after our outing, I had patience for an elegant Starling who felt the need to chatter at us during lunch.

TOUR the Adamson House: Deepen your knowledge of Malibu’s history and shoreline, and add another spectacular view by taking a self-guided tour through the Adamson House. Here is my story on the mansion, and another story about a fun book that chronicles the early days of this storied coastal town, The King and Queen of Malibu.