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Except for the road to Yaqui Well (which under normal conditions should be passable for standard passenger cars), the roads on this route are all paved.
Approximate Length: 25 miles
Approximate Birding Time: 5 hours with the three optional hiking trails
Traffic: Moderate along the grade; light on Wynola and Farmer Roads
Facilities: The only restroom along the route is at Yaqui Well campground; otherwise there's a public toilet at the Birdwatcher in Julian.
Directions: To avoid Ramona and Julian, take I-8 east to the Descanso/Japatul Road exit (highway 79) and turn left (north) under the freeway. Follow 79 through Cuyamaca State Park (note that 79 makes a hard left a couple of miles from the freeway) up to where it Ts with highway 78 near Julian. Go right, and follow 78 down the grade; if you get to this area pre-dawn you may want to stop periodically to listen for owls and Poorwills. Continue to S2 (locally known as Scissors Crossing) and continue through Sentenac Canyon (marked by a "Welcome to Anza Borrego" sign) and on to S3, where there's a sign pointing you to Borrego Springs. Turn left here, and Yaqui Well camp will be on your left. Do not attempt to enter this area if the road looks even remotely wet!
Optional hike: Yaqui Well You have to drive through the campground to get to the starting point of this popular birding trail; the parking area is wide but not obviously marked. This desert oasis is a superb migrant trap in spring with various warblers, flycatchers, and vireos moving through, and in winter the place is inundated with Phainopeplas! Common year-round desert birds include Costa's Hummingbird, Verdin, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, and Cactus Wren; less common are Loggerhead Shrike, Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, and Black-throated Sparrows. In summer White-winged Doves can be common, and occasionally Scott's Orioles show up (although Bullock's is the common oriole here). Winter sparrows include White-crowned and Brewer's, and this is generally a good area for California Quail year round (beware of Gambel's x California hybrids; I've had suspicious-sounding birds here that showed characteristics of each...). The walk to the well itself (which is nothing more than a stand of reeds) is short, but the main trail jogs out into the open desert and winds up across from Tamarisk Grove campground; I generally sit and listen around Marker #12 and then head back.
Trail to Yaqui Well
Where the trail heads into open desert
After exploring Yaqui Well, go back to highway 78 and turn right, the way you came. If you missed the Black-throated Sparrow at Yaqui Well, there's a good chance you'll pick it up between here and Sentenac Canyon, as well as any other common desert species. The canyon itself can be good for both Canyon and Rock Wrens, and the riparian vegetation usually has Bell's Vireos in spring, as well as other specialties such as Yellow Warbler and Song Sparrow. Listen for Rufous-crowned Sparrow on the hillsides, and in winter check the brushy areas for Lincoln's Sparrows.
Desert habitat heading up highway 78
Yaqui Creek along Sentenac Canyon
Shortly after coming out of the canyon you'll approach the turnoff for S2 (Scissors Crossing). The bridge here is always worth a stop, and part of the PCT runs through here as well (see the description of this hike under the San Felipe Grade EBR). This is one of those rare spots where the highlands meet the desert, and you can find both Nuttall's and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Wrentits and Verdin, and Scrub Jays and Crows as well as Ravens! This is another good migrant trap, and swallows can be numerous. Although I've not recorded them for this particular route, birds normally associated with southeast Arizona such as Summer Tanager and Brown-crested Flycatcher have bred here, and the tanager in particular is becoming quite regular up San Felipe Grade. Watch for odd water-related birds such as Snowy Egret and Green Heron! The surrounding desert scrub can be good for Brewer's Sparrows in winter, and during migration keep an eye out for Sage Thrashers in here.
View of Yaqui Creek just past Scissors Crossing
From here you start climbing the actual "Banner Grade", passing through transitional habitat that can be good for Scott's Oriole in spring and summer (especially around the yuccas). In the more open areas you'll start picking up Lark Sparrows and Western Meadowlarks year-round, and Say's Phoebes, American Pipits, and White- and Golden-crowned Sparrows in winter. Greater Roadrunners might be spotted anywhere along here. Chaparral specialists such as California Thrasher, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Bushtit, Wrentit, California Towhee, and Bewick's Wren can be expected here as well. In the heavier chaparral listen for Mountain Quail, and in summer Black-chinned Sparrows can be common. In winter check for Fox Sparrows and Hermit Thrushes, and as you rise into more oak and other woodland habitat, look for Oak Titmouse, Acorn Woodpecker, Band-tailed Pigeon, House Wren, Hutton's Vireo, Spotted Towhee, and Dark-eyed Junco year-round; Western Wood Pewee and Black-headed Grosbeak in summer; and Ruby-crowned Kinglet in winter. Migrant warblers can crop up anywhere along the grade in the most incongruous habitats! This area was devastated by the Pines Fire of 2002, but is recovering nicely.
Climbing the grade: pinyon habitat...
...and open rangeland
Oak woodland nestled at the foot of the Volcan Mountains
Morning sunshine hitting the oaks further up the grade
Near the top of the mountain you'll come to Wynola Road; turn right here and bird as you can, as pulloffs are few and far between. This is a scenic area of oak savannah habitat with some scattered pines, so you may pick up Pine Siskin (can be abundant at the Birdwatcher's feeders in Julian), Violet-green Swallow, American Robin, and Pygmy Nuthatch as well as Hairy Woodpecker, Mountain Chickadee, and Steller's Jay. The open areas are more attractive to Wild Turkey as well. Turn right on Farmers Road and park just past the drive on your right for a hike up Volcan Mountain.
Optional hike: Volcan Mountain I only go a short distance up this trail (enough to get an overview of the area), but the hardy can take a two hour hike up to the gate (at present the bulk of the preserve is closed to the public, but there are docent-led hikes that go deeper into the preserve; click on the above link for more info). The orchards along the entrance road can be good for Chipping Sparrow, Western Bluebird, and both Lesser and Lawrence's Goldfinch, and in winter look for Golden-crowned Sparrows among the Whiteys. This is another good spot for Black-chinned Sparrows in summer and Rufous-crowned Sparrows year-round. From the ridge you can enjoy the view of the ranch homes and watch and listen for Flickers, Black Phoebe, White-breasted Nuthatch, and Purple Finch year round; and Western Kingbird and Lazuli Bunting in summer. Red-breasted Sapsuckers are possible, and one year we had wintering Lewis' Woodpeckers here, although that species is highly erratic. Raptors are easy to spot along here; look for Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks, as well as the occasional White-tailed Kite and Prairie Falcon. Beware of listing raptors by ear around here, as the orchard owners have begun to utilize hawk and falcon recordings to discourage pesky starlings!
View from the Volcan Mountain Trail
Continue on Farmers Road, stopping periodically to check the small farm ponds for coots, ducks (especially in winter) and Pied-billed Grebes. Just before the end of the road you'll see a staging area for the newly opened Santa Ysabel Open Space Preserve.
Optional hike: Santa Ysabel Open Space Preserve This is a nice alternative to the Volcan Mountain Trail if the latter is too strenuous for you. The staging area is only open on weekends at present, but there's a small pulloff on the right just past the cattle guard where you can squeeze your car during the week. I've only gone about a half mile in, but the whole trail (which empties out onto Highway 79 near Santa Ysabel Mission) is between six and seven miles and evidently climbs some pretty good hills. This first section goes through gorgeous oak savannah habitat, and while it's so new that I've only hiked it twice, it was very good for Lawrence's Goldfinch, Lazuli Buntings, Western Kingbirds and Bluebirds, and Lark Sparrows. One year during the Atlas project I had a singing Grasshopper Sparrow near the Cedar Glen Camp turnoff, so listen for them if you visit this area in spring and early summer. Undoubtedly this will be a great place for wintering sparrows (especially Savannah; look for them along the road as well). The oak riparian area at the creek crossing probably has great potential at other times of the year (and earlier in the day!)
Scenes along the new Santa Ysabel OSP Trail
The little pond at the end of the road tends to be a good spot for Ring-necked Duck and Belted Kingfisher in winter, with oddities such as Hooded Merganser, Virginia Rail, Great Blue Heron, and even Osprey showing up! Wetland songbirds such as Common Yellowthroat, Red-winged Blackbird, and on rare occasion Willow Flycatcher can be found in these spots as well. A real rarity in the riparian areas one year was a Downy Woodpecker; Blue Grosbeak is more expected (in summer).
Pond at the end of the road
Retrace your way back to Wynola and turn right, birding as you can. You'll pass through more "pine savannah" habitat; Brewer's Blackbirds hang around the buildings along here, and check the farm pond on the left for ducks (American Wigeon tend to like this one in the winter). The route ends at the intersection with highway 78, where you can turn right to return to San Diego (and I've heard that the pizza place on the corner is a yummy place for lunch!).
"Pine savannah" habitat; many of the trees here have died from the pine beetle.
Personal Checklist ●=small numbers █ = large numbers (10+)
Please keep in mind that these lists are NOT comprehensive, and that some months may have had poor overall coverage. Species in red are vagrant, out-of-place, or irruptive species and should not be expected.
|Great Blue Heron||●||●||●||●|
|Western Wood Pewee||●||●||●||●|
|Western Scrub Jay||█||█||█||█||●||●||█||●||█||●||█||●|
|Northern Rough-winged Swallow||●||●|
|Black-throated Gray Warbler||●||●|
|"Slate-colored" Fox Sparrow||●||●|
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