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Birding in San Diego

A Field Guide

With some of the best birding in the country, birders from around the globe flock to San Diego. Here's a list of favorite spots to see feathered friends along the coast, inland foothills, canyons, mountains and deserts. 

By: Peter Thomas; San Diego Audubon Society

Grab Your Binoculars and Your Camera Bag

From the majestic Great Blue Herons and the Great Egrets seen in the winter to the Snowy Plovers and the Least Terns in the summer, birding in San Diego County is as diverse and magnificent as the many distinct habitats found across the region. Located on the Pacific Flyway migration path and with over 515 bird species observed, the county is often referred to as the ‘birdiest' in the country. Most days in San Diego are sunny and warm offering birders the unique opportunity to witness a myriad of species across coastlines, mountaintops, canyons and deserts - all in the space of a few spectacular and rewarding days.

With the help of Peter Thomas, birding expert from the San Diego Audubon Society, we’ve identified prime birding spots around the county for this short field guide.

Coastal

Tijuana River National Estuariane Reserve, Imperial Beach (Fifth Street & Iris)

More than 370 bird species rest and breed in these coastal wetlands. It’s one of the best places to hear and see Ridgeway’s Rail, a threatened species. Located near the Mexico - US border, the elevated McCoy Trail offers an easy walk with good views of the marshland and city of Tijuana.

Birds to see: Belding’s Savannah Sparrows, Least Terns, Long-billed Curlews, North-ern Harriers, Whimbrels.

Kendall Frost Marsh and Northern Wildlife Preserve, Pacific Beach (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, includes an observation platform for easy viewing.  are home to two endangered species of birds - the Light-Footed Clapper Rail and the Belding's Savannah Sparrow.

Birds to see: Light-footed Clapper Rail, Belding's Savannah Sparrow, swallows, grebe, pelicans, and herons.

San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Chula Vista

This historic Salt Works has been in operation since 1873. From October to February, birders stand from the vantage point of a series of levies for the amazing opportunity to observe wintering ducks and shorebirds in the restored salt marshlands. Admission to this area is only through the monthly San Diego Audubon Society field trips.

Birds to see: Brants, Common Goldeneyes, Elegant Terns, Grebes, Peregrine Falcons.

Chula Vista Marina, Chula Vista

An easy birding location to get to and navigate with a flat overlook of the wetland area (currently being restored), birders can spot a variety of bird specifies across a wide vista of marshland. The nutrient-rich tide brings in many fish, making it a popular spot for shorebirds. In winter, almost everything can be seen here.  

Birds to see: Brants, Ducks, Scoters, Skimmers, Reddish Egrets.

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.

Birds to see: 224 species 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.)

Birders enjoy the stunning views of San Diego Bay and the Pacific Ocean with habitat that includes coastal sage scrub and accessible tide pools. It is a prominent stopping point in spring and fall for migrant Warblers, Thrushes, Vireos and Raptors. See WWII fortifications built into the cliffs and walk the moderate trails to see and hear Chaparral birds.

Birds to see: Black Oystercatchers, Brown Pelicans, California Quails, California Scrub-Jays, Cormorants.

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/.

La Jolla Rocky Shores, La Jolla

This is the premier seawatch location in San Diego County. Pelagic birds come close to shore to enjoy an upwelling of seabird delicacies created by a deep undersea canyon.
The rocky shores make for perfect roosting spots for Pacific Coast Cormorants. Scopes are helpful.

Birds to see: Black-vented Shearwaters, Gulls, Jaegers, Tattlers, Turnstones.

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 Reserve, Solana Beach and Encinitas (I-5 North to Lomas Santa Fe Dr. west, right on Rios)

Many North American bird species have been observed in this large coastal wetlands area, including the endangered California Gnatcatcher. Birders have more than six miles of moderate trails - covering ocean shore, wetland lagoons, upland coastal sage scrub and chaparral and riparian areas - for birding. Well over 100 species are tabulated on the monthly counts.

Birds to see: California Thrasher, Harriers, Munias, Osprey, Scrub-Jays.

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)

Known for its beauty, abundant natural resources and rich history, this six-plus mile east/west canyon off the beaten path offers birders a tranquil day of easy hiking and bird watching. Year-round residents and migrating Warblers, Flycatchers and Raptors are always a delight to discover.

Birds to see: Acorn and Nuttall’s Woodpeckers, Buteo and Accipiter Hawks, White-tailed Kites, Western Bluebirds, Ash-throated Flycatchers.

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)

Just a short drive from downtown San Diego, this protected urban canyon offers easy, flat trails for visitors to observe many resident chaparral birds. During winter, Yellow-rumped Warblers and White-crowned Sparrows are in abundance. Tecolote is “owl” in Spanish and Great Horned Owls live here year-round.

Birds to see: California Thrasher, California Towhee, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Spotted Towhee.

Mission Trails Regional Park, Mission Valley (Mission Gorge Rd. and Father Junipero Serra Trail)

As the largest urban park west of the Mississippi River, the location is a bird and birding paradise with a combination of open grassland areas, chaparral vegetation, riparian corridors, pond/marsh vegetation and small mountain peaks. There are areas of rugged hiking with the San Diego River along route. Take a minute to see the Old Mission Dam.

Birds to see: Blue Grosbeaks, Lazuli Buntings, Least Bell’s Vireos, Rufous-crowned Sparrows, White-tailed Kites.

Santee Lakes, East County

Many lakes and adjoining habitats and open space flats make this area one of the county’s more dynamic birding spots. It is here that birders have the opportunity to witness the Western and Clark’s Grebes extraordinary dance-like display of “rushing” across the water. It is also a premier breeding site for Wood Ducks.

Birds to see: Egrets, Herons, Kingfishers, Soras, Virginia Rails.

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.

Mountains

"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)

Home of the world-renowned Palomar Observatory and to the Band-tailed Pigeons (the signature Palomar birds), this mountain habitat offers birders the opportunity to see a different set of birds with some looking to nest in the huge cedars and pines. Doane Creek Trail is a starting point with some challenging hiking around the area. Bring your butterfly guide.

Birds to see: Brown Creepers, Nuthatches, Rufous and Allen's Hummingbirds, Tan-agers, Woodpeckers. 

Desert

Agua Caliente County Park, East County (Borrego Springs)

Natural springs seep through this gem in the desert to attract many species of birds. There are flat trails around the campground and pleasant bird watching around Squaw Pond. The best time to visit is in the springtime during migration. 

Birds to see: Phainopeplas, Prairie Falcon Roadrunners, Verdins, White-winged Doves, Scott’s Orioles.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Borrego Springs

Across the majestic Borrego Springs, birds of the desert can be observed living and thriving in the dryer, hotter climate. The hiking is mildly strenuous (the landscape ranges from high-mountain to sea level) and bird watching is best in winter and summer mornings. Start at the visitor center to see Costa’s Hummingbird, Verdins, California Quails and Black-throated Sparrows.

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.

General Information

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.
Other general information, as well as field trips and a calendar of upcoming events, can be found at the San Diego Audubon website: http://www.sandiegoaudubon.org.

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