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Please note: this area was severely damaged by the 2007 Witch Creek Fire. A survey two months after the fire showed the area to be very birdy despite the devastation, so it's still worth visiting. Click here for pictures of the damage.
Paved all the way, optional Sycamore Creek Road is a good, short graded dirt road.
Approximate Length: About 32 miles, including side roads and backtracks
Approximate Birding Time: 5 hours, including the optional hike
Traffic: Moderate to heavy (especially during the rush hour commute) along Highland Valley Road, moderate along Bandy Canyon Road, and extremely heavy along highway 78.
Facilities: None at this time along the route; there are gas stations and fast food joints in Ramona.
Directions: Take I-15 north to the West Bernardo/Pomerado Road exit north of Rancho Bernardo (NOT the Pomerado Road exit near Miramar!) and veer right. Make an almost immediate left onto Highland Valley Road, and look for a large dirt parking area on your right.
Optional hike: Highland Valley Trail The trail is now open, but was extensively damaged by the Witch Creek Fire. As the habitat recovers, most of the species described here should return, but the status of the California Gnatcatcher is uncertain. Watch for influxes of Lazuli Bunting! This is one of the few Easy Birder Routes where you can get your hiking out of the way early! A short hike to the dense oak woodland can be very productive; the sage scrub on either side of the trail often has California Gnatcatchers, and sometimes White-tailed Kites can be seen from the trail as they hunt to the west, over what used to be Lake Hodges. This can be a good area for hummingbirds (once I had Anna's, Costa's, and Black-chinned all mobbing a hawk at once), and a rest on the bench in the woodland can yield titmice, Hutton's Vireos, and other oak-loving birds. Beyond this rest stop is more lovely oak/rock-strewn chaparral habitat with similar birds, but it's worth the hike.
Good California Gnatcatcher habitat along the San Deguito River Trail
Oak woodland along the creek
Oak woodland at "my" turnaround point
Back on the road, head northeast along Highland Valley. This route takes you through "rural suburbia" and several agricultural areas that can be particularly good in the winter. The San Deguito River Trail winds through this area, and parts of San Pasqual Valley are included. The first part of the road takes you through thick willow riparian habitat bordering the San Deguito River, and is home to Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Bell's Vireo, Bullock's Oriole, Yellow Warbler, and Yellow-breasted Chat in summer (a Yellow-billed Cuckoo was found here one year); and Common Yellowthroat, Song Sparrow, American and Lesser Goldfinches, Northern Flicker, and Downy and Nuttall's Woodpeckers year-round. A side trip down Sycamore Creek Road (on the right after a couple of miles) can be productive as well, and the relative lack of traffic makes ear-birding a little easier. Look for the usual riparian-associated birds here as well as chaparral fare along the hillsides, such as Wrentit, both Spotted and California Towhee, California Thrasher, and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. At the end of the road (please don't continue into the private drive) listen for Acorn Woodpeckers in the oaks.
Wild and domestic habitat along Sycamore Creek Road
Woodland along Sycamore Creek Road
A little over fives miles from where you started the route is the turnoff to Bandy Canyon Road; turn left here, and explore the road into San Pasqual Valley. At the intersection with Ysabel Creek Road is a parking area, but a check of the end of Ysabel Creek Road can be productive (as of this writing the road was entirely washed out, but they're building a new road and you can still park and walk down to the creek bed...); Bell's Vireo is a specialty of the area. Occasionally large flocks of Lawrence's and Lesser Goldfinches can be found feeding in the disturbed area, and Common Ground Doves may be hiding in the brush. Back at the staging area at the intersection, the San Deguito River Trail runs along the road at this point; hiking a bit of the eastbound trail from the parking area, if desired, could be productive, but you should be able to get (by ear at least) most of the same birds from the road. This entire road has good California Gnatcatcher habitat along the hillsides, and the creek can have a good selection of riparian birds. Hooded Orioles are particularly plentiful along here in spring and summer; look also for Blue Grosbeak and Lazuli Bunting. In winter this can be another good area for Say's Phoebes. Besides the gnatcatchers, the hillsides can also have California Quail, Bushtit, Wrentit, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, and California Thrashers, as well as the endangered coastal race of the Cactus Wren. Scan the agricultural fields for Cattle Egrets, White-faced Ibis, and Canada Geese in winter (plus the occasional Snow Goose), and the tops of the trees along the creek for White-tailed Kite as well as other raptors. Swallows come through in numbers during migration, and Cliff Swallows nest under the bridges; be careful to sort through the expected species for a possible Bank. Be sure to check the dairy farm for blackbirds, particularly Tricolored.
Coming down Bandy Canyon Road into San Pasqaul Valley
View of the valley
Ysabel Creek Road is gonna be closed for awhile...
Ysabel Creek from Bandy Canyon Road
Follow Bandy Canyon Road around to its terminus at Highway 78. Just before the stop sign is the staging area for another access to the San Pasqual Valley Trail on your left (and another porta potty); hiking a bit of this trail (which includes euc forest and orange groves as well as willow riparian habitat) might yield Blue Grosbeak (summer), Common Ground Dove, Black Phoebe, and Cooper's Hawks, as well as other riparian birds.
San Pasqual Valley Trail
Turn left at Highway 78. Stop and scan along the road if you wish, but traffic is extremely heavy along here (and a recently-erected memorial attests to how dangerous it can be as well); you can sometimes find Horned Larks and American Pipits (winter) in the fields. The San Pasqual Battlefield State Historic Park is closed during the week, but the memorial (about a quarter mile down from the main entrance) is always accessible and is worth a stop: the cactus patches up on the hill always have both Cactus Wren and California Gnatcatchers if you wait patiently enough! Greater Roadrunners are possible in here as well. Turkey Vultures kettle by the dozens here, and Zone-tailed Hawks are seen here sporadically; since they commonly hang out with TVs (on purpose to fool their prey); carefully checking the kettles may hit pay dirt.
Santa Ysabel Creek from Highway 78
San Pasqual Battlefield Monument
Since the other end of Ysabel Creek Road (right across from the monument) is closed (and I doubt it will be open any time soon...), you'll have to backtrack to Bandy Canyon (and be extremely careful when pulling out; you're on a blind curve here). Take Bandy Canyon back up to Highland Valley and turn left, continuing on the main road. Periodic stops (where safe) will yield typical human-associated rural birds (Scrub Jays, Cassin's Kingbirds, orioles, Northern Mockingbird, etc.) along with oak riparian specialties where the habitat is conducive to them; look and listen for Black-chinned Hummingbird, Hooded and Bullock's Orioles, and Black-headed Grosbeak in summer; Ruby-crowned Kinglet, White-breasted Nuthatch, White-crowned Sparrow, and Yellow-rumped Warbler in winter; and Acorn and Nuttall's Woodpeckers, Hutton's Vireo, Western Bluebird, Phainopepla, House Wren, Oak Titmouse, Lesser and Lawrence's Goldfinches, Orange-crowned Warbler, and both towhees year-round. Citrus groves often have Common Ground Doves in among the trees. Where there are rocks and scrub, listen for the usual chaparral fare as well as both Rock and Canyon Wrens. Red-shouldered Hawks can be particularly plentiful along here.
Rural landscaping and oak woodland along Highland Valley Road
When you reach a T intersection, turn left, continuing on Highland Valley Road. The road straightens out here, bringing you into wide open oak savannah rangeland. This area can be good for raptors, particularly Ferruginous Hawk in the winter. Other open country birds to look for include Western Kingbird in summer; Say's Phoebe, Mountain Bluebird, American Pipit, and various sparrows in winter; and Western Meadowlark, Horned Lark, Lark Sparrow, Loggerhead Shrike, and blackbirds .year-round.
You soon come to Rangeland Road, which turns left when Highland Valley veers off to the right. This is another great raptor haunt, and even Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons have been found here, feeding on whatever's in the fields! On those rare occasions during the winter when there's standing water in the fields after a good rain, check for shorebirds. About a mile down is a little riparian area that comes up to the road and is always worth checking; listen for Yellow Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Blue Grosbeak in summer, and Common Yellowthroat, Song Sparrow, and American Goldfinch year round (although all these species are much more common in the willow riparian area near the beginning of the route). At the entrance to the gated community, use your scope to check the holding ponds to the west for waterfowl, herons, White-faced Ibis, and shorebirds. Sometimes Canada Geese will feed in the open fields; check out these flocks for the occasional Cackling and Snow. Blackbirds like this area as well; be particularly on the lookout for Tricoloreds, although Red-winged occurs here as well.
Approaching Rangeland Road at sunrise
Holding pond at the end of Rangeland Road
Resist the temptation to sneak in for a closer look!
Oak savannah habitat
Return to Highland Valley Road and continue on into Ramona; there's another short road to the left just short of the intersection with Highway 67 that may be worth checking if you've missed any of the open country birds up till now. At the intersection you can turn right to return to San Diego via El Cajon; turning left will take you into Ramona.
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 or irruptive species and should not be expected.
|Great Blue Heron||●||●|
|Black-crowned Night Heron||●|
|Common Ground Dove||●||●||●|
|Western Wood Pewee||●|
|Western Scrub Jay||●||●||█||█||●||█||●||●||█||█||●|
|Northern Rough-winged Swallow||●||●||●||●|
|Fox Sparrow (Slate-colored)||●||●|
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