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Depending on how adventurous you are, the Clark Lake Road is passable for standard passenger cars (it can be soft in spots, or downright impassable after a heavy winter rain--see photo below), but the road to Coyote Canyon is best attempted with a 4WD vehicle (especially if you dare to go past the Desert Gardens). The roads connecting these spots are paved.
Approximate Length: about 25 miles with all the backtracking
Approximate Birding Time: 4 - 6 hours, including the optional hikes
Traffic: Practically non-existent along the dirt roads (except when the desert is in bloom...); light to moderate along the paved roads
Facilities: None along the route, but there are a couple of gas stations in Borrego Springs, and restrooms at the Anza Borrego Desert SP Visitor's Center, west of Borrego Springs.
Directions: The scenic route is to take I-8 east to the Japatul Valley Exit (highway 79) and follow 79 north through Cuyamaca State Park to the intersection with highway 78 near Julian. Turn right, and take 78 down into the desert. Cross S2, and once through Sentenac Canyon make a left onto S3, towards Borrego Springs. Near Casa Del Zorro, instead of veering left towards town, go straight on Yaqui Pass Road and follow the main road towards the airport. At the intersection with S22, turn right. After a couple of miles the road veers sharply to the left; just out of the turn is Old Springs Road on your right. Turn in here and park off the road where the road makes a hard right. The thrasher area is straight ahead. Note that you can no longer drive into the borrow pit (hence the No Trespassing signs) but foot traffic is allowed, according to County Parks.
Optional hike: Old Springs Road This is the most reliable place in the county for LeConte's Thrashers. From the "hard right", hike across the pit and up onto the little rise, then head left into the creosote until you come upon an ORV trail (of which there are many). I usually follow the trail for about ten minutes, where it joins up with another trail that loops back towards the borrow pit (if you feel you're getting turned around, the airport to the west is always visible). In addition to the thrashers, you can often kick up Horned Lark, Say's Phoebes and "Desert" Sage, White-crowned, and Brewer's Sparrows in the winter (and on rare occasion, even Sage Thrashers can be found here). In spring (especially after a wet winter) the air can be alive with Western Meadowlarks singing first thing in the morning! The habitat is very sparse, and it's not uncommon to leave this area with nothing more than a Raven to show for your efforts (especially during the warmer months), but it's worth a quick stop.
LeConte's Thrasher habitat at Old Springs Road
After the rains...
Early morning along S22
Continue north on S22, and after the road veers right again, look for Rockhouse Trail on your left after about a half mile; this marks the entrance to the Clark Lake road. Follow the main road (which is clearly marked to keep you from going down the wrong road); again, the habitat along here is pretty sparse, but can be good for Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Verdin, Loggerhead Shrike, Black-throated Sparrow, and Rock Wren. Closer to the lakebed, your chances of kicking up LeConte's Thrasher increase, although they're not guaranteed by a long shot. Beware that in March and April, this can be a good area for Sage Thrashers migrating through, and Northern Mockingbird year-round, so the LeConte's may not be the only "thrasher-like thing" you hear singing along here! At the Big Yellow Thing (where there is now an active quarry; beware of trucks barreling along the road during the week), the road turns sharply to the right and goes straight across the dry lake bed (may be impassable when wet) to a mesquite "woodland" on the other side; these areas are often the birdiest spots on the route, with plenty of Phainopeplas, gnatcatchers, and migrants in season, as well as wintering species such as Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Yellow-rumped Warbler. These oases double as primitive camp sites, so you can pull off the road and walk around; the first oasis has a good, flat trail that you can walk back to where the quarry property is fenced off (about a five-minute stroll). The second "oasis" is approachable by a little side road (do not attempt to drive this if it's wet!!) and is worth encircling on foot (you'll find a little makeshift fire ring on the back side); historically there have been Long-eared Owls here, but not since I've been keeping records. More likely are the same birds found at the other little "oasis", but keep an eye out for surprises (on a Big Day one year I had a Green-tailed Towhee here). LeConte's Thrashers have also bred here, but beware that California Thrasher can also occur here (although I've not encountered them while keeping records for this project). This is also a good area for Gambel's Quail, but be aware that California Quail (or their hybrids) can show up as well, sometimes in numbers.
Clark Lake (aka Rockhouse) Road and typical habitat
Mist over the lake in the winter
The "Big Yellow Thing"
Where the road crosses the lake
More recent shot showing quarry fenceline and how the crossing looks after a rain...
Mesquite woodland with "Jip"
Retrace your route back to S22 and turn right. Where the main roads veers to the left, jog right onto Henderson Canyon Road. After a wet winter this area can be carpeted with desert flowers, and increasingly, Swainson's Hawks have been found migrating through this area. The tamarisks may be dead or hold any number of surprises like Summer Tanager; I once called a singing Greater Roadrunner out of hiding! Turn right at the "T" on Di Giorgio Road, although mostly orchards, this area can have some "backyard" birds such as White-winged and Common Ground Dove, Anna's and Costa's Hummingbirds, Say's and Black Phoebe, Bewick's Wren, and even Cooper's Hawk. Lark and Song Sparrows (two species one wouldn't necessarily associate with this habitat) also occur along this road. In winter you might kick up the odd Fox or Lincoln's Sparrow, or even House Wren along here, especially around the landscaped areas. The default Myiarchus in San Diego is the Ash-throated Flycatcher, but recently Brown-crested Flycatchers have begun to sporadically breed in the area; look for them along this road, Henderson Canyon Road, and at the Roadrunner Club. Follow the road to where it becomes dirt; the "official" road to Coyote Canyon and Desert Gardens begins here. There's considerably more natural vegetation along here than at Clark Lake (particularly at the Gardens themselves); look for Black-throated Sparrow, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Verdin, Cactus and Rock Wrens, and other desert specialties. LeConte's Thrasher is possible here, but rare.
Henderson Canyon Road in bloom
Entrance to Coyote Canyon
Coyote Canyon Road and Desert Gardens
Ironically, the best birding is often not in the "natural areas" but in the residential areas; to get to the Roadrunner Club (which is one of the better spots), return to Di Giorgio and keep heading south (watch for Swainson's Hawk along this road in migration, and Ferruginous Hawk in winter). The RV park and golf course will be on your left; if you enter here you can check the "water hazards" along the golf course for egrets, waterfowl (look for oddities such as Greater White-fronted Goose), and blackbirds. Follow the road south into the "old" mobile home park, and either cruise the streets or park in the big lot (pretty obvious when you come to it) and walk the neighborhood (and please stay ON the streets and don't wander onto the golf course). This seems to be one of the most reliable spots for White-winged, Common Ground, and Eurasian Collared Dove. Many folks have feeders of various sorts up, so these are always worth checking for Anna's and Costa's Hummers, Lesser and Lawrence's Goldfinches, and various sparrows in winter. This can also be a great place for migrants in season, as well as the desert specialties. Any water birds you find on this route (including Belted Kingfisher) will either be in the aforementioned ponds or around "Swan Lake", a large water hazard on the south side of the golf course (their mascot Mute Swan doesn't count...). San Diego County's first Brown-crested Flycatcher was found here (and they appear to be returning annually), so you never know what may show up! Check the flocks of grackles and Brewer's for the occasional Red-winged Blackbird (and on very rare occasion Tricolored), and the palms in summer for Hooded and Bullock's Orioles. In winter you may find wandering mountain and foothill species such as Nuttall's Woodpecker, Western Bluebird, and White-breasted Nuthatch. And, yes, you may stumble upon the area's namesake! At present birders are welcome here, but PLEASE respect private property and the privacy of the homeowners!
Lush residential area within the Roadrunner Club
Part of the golf course
Humans aren't the only ones to use the course! (The smaller goose is a vagrant Greater White-fronted...)
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 out of place, vagrants, or irruptive species and should not be expected.
|Greater White-fronted Goose||●||●|
|Eurasian Collared Dove||●||●||●||●||●||●||●|
|Common Ground Dove||●||●||●||●||●||●||●||●|
|Northern Rough-winged Swallow||●|
|Black-throated Gray Warbler||●||●|
|"Desert" Sage Sparrow||●||█||█||●|
|"Slate-colored" Fox Sparrow||●|
*This species has apparently begun colonization of the area, so time will tell if it becomes "expected" or not.
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