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Please note: this area was severely damaged by the 2007 Witch Creek Fire; however, the upper end of Black Canyon Road and the whole of Mesa Grande Road is intact. Based on data gathered during previous post-fire surveys, most of the chaparral specialties probably won't start recolonizing until 2009-2010, but fire-followers such as Black-chinned Sparrows and Lazuli Buntings could spike in the next year or two. Look also for an increase in Rock Wrens. There are patches of surviving riparian woodland in the ravine, where birds associated with that habitat can at least still be heard. Click here for pictures of the damage.
+ Black Canyon Road is a generally good graded dirt road, but can have some good ruts, particularly along the bottom half of the road before the bridge. Mesa Grande Road is paved.
Approximate Length: 18 miles
Approximate Birding Time: 4.5 hours
Traffic: Very light along Black Canyon; moderate along Mesa Grande
Facilities: None along the route, but there are restaurants in nearby Santa Ysabel.
Directions: Take I-8 east towards El Cajon, and take highway 67 north to Ramona. Once through town and over a little hill, the road opens up. Turn left on Magnolia, and follow this road until it turns to dirt, where the route starts.
Black Canyon Road begins in Ramona and takes you up through chaparral and oak woodland, with some deciduous riparian areas, particularly at the Santa Ysabel Creek crossing. At the start of the dirt road, the small stand of oaks, pepper trees, and eucs can be good for Hooded and Bullock's Orioles in spring and summer and Nuttall's Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, and Red-shouldered Hawk year round, as well as other riparian-associated breeders and migrants. In the open area check for Say's Phoebe and Cassin's and Western Kingbirds, and watch for California Quail feeding along the road. Take care that Northern Mockingbirds hang out around the buildings, as California Thrasher can also be heard in the nearby chaparral. Rising into said chaparral should produce good numbers of Wrentits and both species of towhee; listen also for Rufous-crowned, "Bell's" Sage, and Black-chinned Sparrows (summer), Ash-throated Flycatchers (summer), and Bewick's Wrens. Costa's Hummingbirds can also be quite active here, especially in spring. Keep an ear out for both Lesser and Lawrence's Goldfinches bouncing over. In winter, look for the occasional Golden-crowned Sparrow in with the White-crowneds. Listen for both Rock and Canyon Wrens among the rocky outcrops.
Disturbed grasslands at the start of Black Canyon Road
Oak and riparian woodland along the creek
Common species typical of oak woodland are easily heard along this road, such as Black-headed Grosbeak (summer), Acorn Woodpecker, House Wren, Dark-eyed Junco, White-breasted Nuthatch, Oak Titmouse, and Orange-crowned Warbler. Listen also for Mountain Quail, Hutton's Vireo, Western Wood Pewee (summer), Pacific-slope Flycatcher (summer), and both Anna's and Black-chinned Hummingbirds (summer). At the fire station, keep an eye out for Wild Turkeys that like to feed around here! Please do not wander down into Indian property across from the fire station!
Riparian habitat along Santa Ysabel Creek at the historic Black Canyon Road Bridge.
After about five miles the road forks; take the left fork over the bridge and stop for a look (be aware that as of this writing--2007--there is major road work going on; I believe they're working on a new bridge). This is a good spot to check for Common Yellowthroat, Black Phoebe, Lazuli Bunting, Yellow Warbler, Song Sparrow, and other riparian birds.
Marjorie shows off the general condition of the road and the wonderful oak woodland habitat along the upper half of the road!
About 5.5 miles from the bridge, the road breaks out into oak savannah habitat and ranchland with boulders. This is a great area for raptors; Red-tailed Hawks and American Kestrels are common, whereas things like Ferruginous Hawk, Prairie Falcon and Golden Eagle are much less so. In summer you should find Western Kingbirds, and year-round keep an eye out for blackbirds, particularly Tricolored. Occasionally Wild Turkeys will be feeding in large flocks in the open fields, along with the blackbirds. There's a small dammed pond back from the road on the right hand side; check for ducks and grebes if it's not dry. There's also a little pond just past the ranch house; when there's water in it, check for waterfowl and shorebirds. At the intersection with Mesa Grande, check the telephone poles for Lewis' Woodpeckers in winter. Besides the raptors, check the skies for fly-over waders (presumably on their way to Lake Henshaw...)!
Meadows at the top of Black Canyon Road
The unusually full farm pond along the road
Turn right on Mesa Grande Road, and pull over periodically when you can; pullouts are few, and while I dislike using private ranch drives as pullouts, sometimes that's all there is. Be sure to check the pond on the right about a half mile from the Black Canyon Road intersection (only visible after you park and look backwards) as it sometimes has interesting ducks, and the flowering fields can be full of Lawrence's Goldfinches in spring. Keep an eye on the poles for the Lewis', and check the riparian crossings for Red-winged and/or Tricolored Blackbirds (the latter can be quite numerous) and Blue Grosbeak in summer. In winter, the grasslands can be good for sparrows, particularly White-crowned and Vesper (again, not in my records yet, but this is a favorite place among locals to look). Lark Sparrows and Western Meadowlarks can be found year-round, while Horned Larks tend to be more scarce. You may even spot a Great Blue Heron stalking the meadows for rodents! Western Bluebirds like areas where there are scattered trees; on rare occasions higher elevation birds like Mountain Chickadee and Steller's Jay show up! Check the wires for American Kestrel and the skies for White-tailed Kite and various swallows in summer, particularly Purple Martin which has nested in trees along the road. As you descend the mountain there are more adequate pullouts where you start picking up chaparral species again, and at the bottom in the flat ranchland, look for raptors and even Greater Roadrunner on the rocks in the field!
Oak savannah habitat along Mesa Grande Road
After the rains
Mesa Grande Road at the bottom of the hill.
The route ends at the intersection with Highway 79; for an interesting side trip you might want to turn right and visit the Santa Ysabel Mission, which is just down the road on your left. This has historically been a good place for both Red-breasted and Red-naped Sapsuckers in fall and winter. If you're in need of exercise, a left turn at the intersection of Highway 79 and 78 will take you up the hill towards Julian, and the Inaja Memorial Park on the right; their little half-mile nature trail can be a workout, but provides great views and a chance at more chaparral species. Otherwise you can stop at Santa Ysabel for some pie before returning to San Diego.
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.
|Great Blue Heron||●||●|
|Western Wood Pewee||●||●||●||●|
|Western Scrub Jay||█||●||█||█||●||●||●||●||█||●||█||●|
|Northern Rough-winged Swallow||●||●||●|
|Black-throated Gray Warbler||●|
|"Bell's" Sage Sparrow||●||●||●|
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