San Diego's great outdoors beckons bird watchers from around the globe. The region's beautiful and diverse landscape, from 70 miles of oceanfront beaches and bayfront tidelands to inland foothills, canyons, mountains and deserts, provides a permanent or migratory home to some of nature's most notable feathered friends.
San Diego County is one of those rare and exciting destinations where a birder can enjoy four distinct bird habitats all in the space of one day. More than 480 species of birds have been observed in San Diego County, more than any other county in the United States. It is a bird haven along the Pacific Flyway - the diverse migratory route along the west coast of the United States, where many birds make their winter homes or nest. San Diego is also a birder's delight due to of its year-round near-idyllic climate. Most days are sunny and warm with an average daily temperature of 70 degrees, and visitors have an opportunity to view birds in a comfortable outdoor setting almost any day of the year.
The following are some prime bird watching spots around San Diego County:
Tijuana Estuary, Imperial Beach (Fifth Street & Iris)
Maintained by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the estuary features 2,500 acres of coastal wetlands and an interpretive center. Over 370 species of birds (320 of which are migratory) have been observed here, including Belding's savannah sparrow, American peregrine falcon, white pelican, egrets, plovers, sandpipers, jaegers, ospreys, short-eared owls, clapper rails and little blue herons. Free Bird Walks are offered monthly. Information can be found at http://trnerr.org/?p=733 and by calling the Tijuana Estuary Visitors Center at (619) 575-3613.
Dairy Mart Ponds Ecological Reserve, South San Diego (I-5 South to S. Dairy Mart Rd.)
These freshwater ponds of the Tijuana River Valley, left by abandoned salt mining operations, include birds such as the blue grosbeak, common moorhen, white pelican and common yellowthroat.
Kendall Frost Marsh and Northern Wildlife Preserve (Interstate 5-S, Crown Point Dr. and Pacific Beach Dr.)
The 16 acres of salt marsh and open waters of the Kendall Frost Marsh and Northern Wildlife Preserve, on Mission Bay, are home to two endangered species of birds. Guests can get an undisturbed view of the Light-Footed Clapper Rail and Belding’s Savannah Sparrow from the northern edge of the Bay. Many different species, including swallows, grebe, pelicans, and herons, can also be viewed from the preserve’s observation platform.
- Living Coast Discovery Center, Chula Vista (1000 Gunpowder Point Drive)
Located in the Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge on San Diego Bay, the Living Coast Discovery Center is an internationally recognized zoo/aquarium showcasing plants and animals native to the San Diego region. Dedicated to exhibiting types of birds representative of the local ecosystem, the Nature Center has more than 224 species for guests to identify, including the hooded merganser, black-necked stilt and the western screech owl.
Shelter Island, North San Diego Bay
The island provides great views of the bay's deep water channels, where diving pelicans and cormorants can be seen. In the winter, birders can spot loons, grebes and ducks. At the western end of the island, surf scooters, bufflehead, auklets and murres can be seen.
Cabrillo National Monument, Point Loma (1800 Cabrillo Memorial Dr.)
This 144-acre park features an interpretive center and lighthouse, fantastic views of San Diego Bay and the Pacific Ocean, tidepools and a protected coastal sage scrub habitat, which is home to birds like the California towhee, western scrub jay and wrentit. Cabrillo National Monument is also one of the best places to view spring and fall migrating birds.
Famosa Slough, Point Loma (W. Point Loma Blvd. and Famosa Blvd.)
This small tidal marsh offers walking trails and benches from which birders can view waterfowl, shorebirds and blue-winged teal. Free monthly bird and nature walks are offered on the third Sunday of every month. For more information, visit the Famosa Slough website at http://www.famosaslough.org/.
San Diego River Flood Control Channel/Robb Field/Dog Beach, Ocean Beach (West I-8 to W. Point Loma Blvd. to Voltaire Street)
Birders can walk or bike along the flood channel, referred to as San Diego's "Mile of Birds." Birds include blue-winged teal, ruddy duck, osprey, gulls, terns, black brant, red knot and cormorants.
La Jolla Coast, La Jolla (Coast Blvd. off of Prospect Street)
The rocky shoreline north of La Jolla Cove is a great spot for shorebirds, gulls and terns, especially at low tide.
Torrey Pines State Reserve, La Jolla (Torrey Pines Rd.)
Located high above Torrey Pines State Beach, the home of the rare and ancient Torrey Pine is also a beautiful protected habitat for swifts, thrashers, woodpeckers and wren-tits.
San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Preserve, Solana Beach (I-5 North to Lomas Santa Fe Dr. west, right on Rios)
Nearly 1000 acres of habitat hosts more than 700 species of plants and animals. Birds found in the preserve include waterfowl, shorebirds, neotropicals, least terns and hawks. For more information, visit http://www.sanelijo.org/welcome-san-elijo-lagoon-conservancy.
Guajome Regional Park, Oceanside (3000 Quajome Lake Rd.)
With 4.5 miles of trails meandering through diverse habitats such as woodlands, chaparral, wetlands, and grasslands, birders are sure to see a wide variety of migratory birds. Birds in the park include waterfowl, neotropicals, pheasants, kites and hawks. More info can be found at http://www.sdcounty.ca.gov/parks/Camping/guajome.html.
Inland Foothills, Canyons and Lakes
Lopez Canyon, Sorrento Valley (Sorrento Valley Blvd.)
“Little brother” to Los Peñasquitos Canyon, this canyon offers more solitude than it’s bigger counterpart. Birds include soaring hawks, nesting owls and neotropicals.
- Lake Hodges, Rancho Bernardo (Park at Joslyn Senior Center, 18402 W. Bernardo Dr.)
A variety of birds can be seen, including waterfowl, hawks, sage sparrow, California gnatcatchers and cactus wren. Clark's grebes perform their mating dance on the lake in early spring.
Blue Sky Ecological Preserve, Poway (East on Bernardo Dr.; right on Espola. Entrance is on the left)
A 700-acre oak-lined canyon flanked by coastal sage scrub and chaparral-covered hillsides. Birds found in the preserve include hawks, turkey vultures, warblers and neotropicals.
- Ramona Grasslands Preserve, Ramona (Highland Valley Road, east of Archie Moore Road.)
Located in the Santa Maria Valley, this 3,521 acre preserve offers a four-mile loop trail with public access for hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders. Bird-watchers will enjoy the spectacular number of hawks, eagles, and falcons that make the preserve their home during the fall and winter months.
Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve, Mira Mesa (Mercy Road)
Natural beauty and rich history attract visitors to this preserve, which has over 14 different habitat types and supports a diverse array of flora and fauna. Over 175 bird species call this canyon home, including hawks, woodpeckers, bluebirds, great blue herons, egrets and mallard ducks.
- Marion Bear Memorial Park/San Clemente Canyon, Clairemont Mesa (Park entrances of Genesee Ave. and Regents Rd.)
With 467 acres of finger canyons and mesas with a rich a diverse history, birders can enjoy three miles of mostly flat trails along the length of the canyon. Birds found here include hawks, towhees, woodpeckers and warblers.
Tecolote Canyon Natural Park, Bay Park (5189 Tecolote Road)
Meaning “owl” in Spanish, this Canyon features 6.5 miles of trails and a Nature Center with exhibits on the area's animal and plant life. Birds include hawks, owls, jays, woodpeckers and migrating warblers.
- Mission Trails Regional Park, Mission Valley (Mission Gorge Rd. and Father Junipero Serra Trail)
With more than 5,800 acres to explore, Mission Trails is the largest urban park in California. Features include 40 miles of trails, four small mountain peaks, Old Mission Dam on the San Diego River, Lake Murray and a state-of-the-art visitors center. Birds in the area include the Orange-Crowned Warbler, Least Bell's Vireo, swallows, raptors and numerous riparian species.
Santee Lakes, East County
Santee Lakes is home to a variety of bird species due to the area’s seven lakes and adjoining habitats of Mission Trails Regional Park. Bird migrations in the winter, fall and spring reward viewing observations of Red-shouldered Hawks, Tree and Rough-winged Swallows, and Tricolored Blackbirds. Santee Lakes is also the county’s premier breeding site for wood ducks.
Otay Sweetwater National Wildlife Refuge, Rancho San Diego (Singer Lane; parking near the historic steel Sweetwater Bridge)
This rich stream habitat is surrounded by native chaparral and sage scrub. Birds found in the area include Costa's Hummingbird, Nuttall's Woodpecker, California Gnatcatcher, Spotted Towhee, Lazuli Bunting and Yellow-Breasted Chat.
Lower Otay Reservoir, Chula Vista (Wueste Road to Lower Otay County Park)
A 1,100 acre lake with 25 miles of shoreline, lake residents include the Red-tailed Hawk, White-tailed Kite, Clark's Grebe and Rufous-crowned Sparrow.
Sweetwater River Regional Park, Bonita (Along Bonita Road in Bonita Valley)
A 500-acre regional park with beautiful streams and open grassland, birders should watch for Red-shouldered Hawk, Anna's Hummingbird, Black Phoebe and Tri-colored Blackbird. For more information, visit http://www.sdcounty.ca.gov/parks/Camping/sweetwater.html.
"Hawk Alley"/Lake Henshaw, Santa Ysabel (26439 Highway 79)
This vast open area, surrounded by rugged hills, is a great place to spot raptors, such as ferruginous hawks, golden eagles and bald eagles, especially in the winter. The lake also attracts waterfowl, gulls, Red-naped and Red-breasted Sapsuckers, Lewis' Woodpeckers and mountain bluebirds.
- Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, Lake Cuyamaca (Hwy 79 to Lookout Rd. to Azalea Springs Fire Rd.)
Birders hike to Azalea Springs through pine and oak woodlands and grassy meadows to view white-headed woodpeckers and green-tailed towhee. During the winter, Cuyamaca Lake is attractive to waterfowl and bald eagles.
Julian, CA (I-8 East to Highway 67)
Many resident and migratory birds can be viewed in the mountain town of Julian, including the California and mountain quail, Bullock's orioles, Brewer's blackbird, lazuli bunting, Steller's jay, red-breasted nuthatches, and European starlings. The Common Redpoll, only ever seen in Canada and Alaska, has also been spotted here. Julian is also the location of The Birdwatcher, a store with great selection of gifts and supplies for bird-lovers.
- Palomar Mountain State Park, Palomar Mountain (19952 State Park Road)
Gorgeous forests and mountain meadows cover much of the 1,862 acres of this state park. Another popular mountain birding area, birders can spot Cassin's vireo, brown creepers, white-breasted nuthatch, Nuttall's woodpeckers and western bluebirds. More information can be found at http://palomarsp.org/index.htm.
Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, Brawley (Interstate 10 to Hwy 86S to Hwy 111, Sinclair Road)
Situated along the Pacific Flyway, this refuge offers spectacular views of some of the country’s best bird watching. Heavy migrations of waterfowl, marsh, and shorebirds occur during the spring and fall months. Throughout the winter, a wide variety of songbirds and birds of prey can be found. Endangered species such as the California Brown Pelican and Yuma Clapper Rail call this refuge home.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Borrego Springs
With more than 600,000 acres, the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in Borrego Springs offers visitors an unparalleled opportunity to experience the natural wonders of the desert. Teeming with wildlife, 268 species of birds have been recorded in the desert. From February to April, flocks of the beautiful Swainson’s hawk migrate to the Park. In 2013, over 3000 of these gorgeous birds migrated here. Birding hot spots include Lower Willows in Coyote Canyon, Yaqui Well, Vallecito, Agua Caliente, Mountain Palm Springs, Bow Willow Canyon, and Carrizo Marsh.
Birders planning to visit San Diego can get a checklist of all of the different birds found throughout the county at http://www.sandiegofieldornithologists.org/resources.html.
Other general information, as well as a calendar of upcoming events, can be found at the San Diego Audubon website: http://www.sandiegoaudubon.org/index.php