San Diego Natural History Museum--Your Nature Connection[San Diego County Bird Atlas Project]

The quarterly newsletter for Bird Atlas volunteers
Spring 1999

In this Issue
Big Day Bonanza (or, How to tour the County and See 100 Species to Boot)

Notable Observations

Reports from the Field
The Story of the Yellow Rail
The Tall Slender Round Softwood Structure Principle
More About the Sage Sparrows

Focus On...
Nuttall's and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers

Progress Report

News and Updates
Partners in Flight: Cleveland National Forest and the San Diego Natural History Museum
Blockbuster Weekends
Spring Wing Ding
The California Gnatcatcher Issue of Western Birds

Big Day Bonanza

(or, How to tour the County and See 100 Species to Boot)

One of the favorite pastimes of many birders is doing a "Big Day," whether it's part of an organized, nationwide event or just a personal, fun day out in the field, trying to see as many species as one can in the course of a day. Some people make a literal 24-hour day out of it, while others (self included) prefer a more casual approach. This article shares my own personal Big Day route within San Diego County, which I've been following monthly since October 1998.

In my route, I've tried to pick areas that represent each major habitat within the county, plus are aesthetically pleasing to visit. I begin at Mission Dam (P11), then head up to Lake Hodges (K11), then over the hills to San Elijo Lagoon (L7), down to Robb Field (R7), Cabrillo National Monument (S7), then east to Cuyamaca State Park, where I check the Merrigan Fire Road near Descanso (O19/20), then up to Stonewall Mine (M20). After a quick stop at Cuyamaca Lake (M20) it's down to the desert and Yaqui Well (I24), and if there's still enough light (Standard Time sometimes makes this difficult), a quick stop at "Ramona Pond" (K15). This may sound like a lot (and it is indeed a lot of driving, close to 230 miles from my home in Tierrasanta), but the hikes I take at each stop are nice short strolls, and I don't "beat the bushes" so to speak, so in reality it is not all that physically demanding. A good knowledge of vocalizations is essential, however, if you're going to log even close to 100 species for the day; I'd be willing to wager that over half of the landbirds on my list are "heard only."

If you'd like to try this out for yourself, here's the route and what to expect, or at least to look for. (For the sake of space, I haven't included specific directions to each site, as I'm assuming most readers know where these areas are.) Be sure to get to the first stop no later than 7:00 AM!

Mission Dam

The gate on the east end of Father Junipero Road is closed when I get there, so I take the trail just past the gate that goes directly down into the riparian area, then veers left at the kiosk in the grassland area. I generally walk down to where there's a little wooden railing on the left and rest here for five minutes, just listening before heading back. This area, of course, is jumping in spring, with Bell's Vireos, Yellow-breasted Chats, Black-chinned Hummingbirds, Yellow Warblers, Bullock's Orioles, Black-headed and Blue Grosbeaks (especially in the trees closer to the grassland), and Grasshopper Sparrows. Downy and Nuttall's Woodpeckers are there year round, and White-tailed Kites I believe breed there. Western Meadowlarks and Say's Phoebes are fairly easy to pick up in the grasslands, and Hutton's Vireo is possible in the riparian area. The common garden-variety birds (Anna's Hummer, California and Spotted Towhees, Wrentit, Bewick's Wren, Scrub Jay, Song Sparrows, and Yellow-rumped Warblers in winter) are easily found around the road as well.

Lake Hodges

I take the trail reached from the Joslyn Senior Center off West Bernardo Drive and walk down to the water's edge, where I sit for five before heading back. This is my favorite place to take people for the California Gnatcatcher, and the sage scrub is also good for the California Thrasher, the Rufous-crowned and Sage Sparrows on occasion. Swifts and swallows wheel overhead, and a family of kites lives here as well. Sometimes you get an Osprey.

This area is famous for vagrants; a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher showed up here (again) recently. Bernardo Cove always has both Clark's and Western Grebes, Red-winged Blackbirds, and ducks, and usually has some kind of heron or two skulking about, including at times the Least Bittern. Listen for Marsh Wrens in the reeds. In winter many sorts of sparrows can show up, including Vesper and Golden-crowned among the many White-crowns.

San Elijo Lagoon

I prefer the trail that heads east from the end of Rios Ave. Depending on the water level and season, the lagoon can be loaded with ducks and/or shorebirds, including phalaropes. During the warmer months this is a great place for Elegant and other terns, and cormorants, pelicans, and gulls can be spotted from the end of Rios. Listen for Clapper and Virginia Rails and Soras in the reeds. It's also good for a second crack at the California Gnatcatcher and chaparral birds, as well as Belding's Savannah Sparrow and the urban Mockingbird.

Robb Field

This easy access to the mouth of the San Diego River can be packed with birds any time of year! The birds vary from day to day, much less month to month, so you never know what you'll find. This site is probably your best bet for Snowy Plover, as well as multiple other shorebirds. Gulls are usually abundant, and at certain times of the year Elegant Terns and sometimes Black Skimmers crowd the sandbars. In fall look for Common Terns among the Forster's. Various waterfowl, including the odd Horned Grebe and Pacific Loon, feed in the deeper water. This is also a great place for Brant in the winter. Snowy Egrets like to harass the clam diggers, and usually this is a good place to spot the Little Blue Heron. The odd jaeger has also been known to show up. It's also prudent to check the blackbird flocks around the potties for possible Tricoloreds and the shavings along the road for a Whimbrel.

Cabrillo National Monument

The tidepools here theoretically should be good for rocky shorebirds, but I haven't had much luck this year; if you don't mind crowds and being stared at by the tourists, La Jolla Cove is probably a better area for these birds. Nevertheless, I like this area for its beauty (and comparative lack of people). The rocks below the bench at the parking lot can have Black and Ruddy Turnstone, Wandering Tattler, and Spotted Sandpiper; sometimes there are Surfbirds on the beach. Take the trail to the tidepools, search all the rocky areas for shorebirds, and scan the ocean for sea ducks, Black-vented Shearwaters, and jaegers. If nothing else, you're bound to pick up Heermann's Gull and Brandt's Cormorant; I've also had Pelagic Cormorant practically at my feet, and on one occasion a Black Oystercatcher flew by!

Merrigan Fire Road

Get yourself a cold drink and get onto I-8 east for the long drive out to Rancho Cuyamaca State Park! Since this particular trail is off the main highway (you wind through Riverside Drive and Descanso to get there), I don't think many people know about it, but it's got some interesting habitat. You'll be hitting this area around 1 PM, so it'll probably be rather quiet (and perhaps even warm), but because of the combination of oak savanna, some chaparral, and agricultural areas, you have the potential of picking up such species as the Oak Titmouse, Dark-eyed Junco, Loggerhead Shrike (rarely), Tricolored Blackbird, Western Bluebird, Band-tailed Pigeon, Red-breasted Sapsucker, and of course Acorn Woodpecker. On one occasion I had a Prairie Falcon fly over, and in spring Mountain Quail can be heard calling (but probably earlier in the morning).

Stonewall Mine

This area is on the main highway within the park, and is one of my personal favorites. Here the coniferous forest is good for Pygmy and White-breasted Nuthatch, Mountain Chickadee, Western Wood Pewee, Purple Finch, Chipping Sparrow, Steller's Jay, and Hairy Woodpecker; in winter in the open meadows there's always a chance of spotting Ferruginous Hawk, and one year Lewis' Woodpeckers were in the area. Check the fences for Lark Sparrows and Western Bluebirds, and Western Kingbird in summer; if there's water extending "around the corner" from Lake Cuyamaca, check for waterfowl. Sometimes you can pick up the Red-breasted Sapsucker here.

Lake Cuyamaca

I can't resist pulling into the parking lot of Lakeland Resort and hopping across the street to scope the marshy area at the south end of the lake. You may or may not pick up anything new here, but I feel it's always worth a stop (if nothing else, to listen for those stupid Steller's Jays you somehow missed at the previous stops): you have a chance at the re-released Wood Ducks, and I have on previous occasions spotted Hooded and Common Mergansers here as well. One year several Bald Eagles wintered here, so it's always worthwhile to check the treetops on Fletcher Island across the way.

Yaqui Well

Granted, it's a long drive for a handful of species at the most, but this is the closest example of desert habitat (and decent birding) you can get to within a day. Drive slowly along the dirt road to the parking area, listening (if your ears aren't still clogged from the change in altitude) for the Verdin, Costa's Hummingbird, and Black-tailed Gnatcatcher. Take the trail to the marshy "well" area; I usually go a bit beyond past the burnt-out trees and sit on the rocks for a few minutes. In addition to the previous species (and depending on the time of year) you can pick up the Phainopepla, Black-throated Sparrow, Rock and Cactus Wrens, and White-winged Dove. Ironically, this has often been the only place of the day I've found the California Quail!

Ramona Pond

As I alluded, this stop may be draped in pitch by the time you get there (depending on the time of year and how fast you covered the other areas), but it's an irresistible stop since you drive right by it anyway on your way back to San Diego (if you choose to go through Ramona). This pond can have anything from a couple of coots to a flock of Canada Geese, or even a Eurasian Wigeon! Cattle Egrets roost here by the hundreds, and both the Red-winged and Tricolored Blackbirds colonize during the breeding season. Sometime there are a few shorebirds; I once had a Pectoral Sandpiper here.

We are indeed blessed to be living in an incredibly diverse county! If you haven't already, get out and explore it!

--Mary Beth Stowe

Wrenderings Archive | Bird Atlas Introduction