San Diego Birding Pages
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Please note: this area was severely damaged by the 2007 Witch Creek Fire, however most of the trails are now open (click here for more information). Click here for pictures of the damage.
Facilities: There are restrooms at Rancho Bernardo Community Park and the launch facility, and a porta potty at the trailhead at the end of Sunset Drive.
Directions: Take I-8 east to Highway 163 north, which will merge with I-15. Lake Hodges lies between the communities of Rancho Bernardo and Escondido; depending on where you would like to hike, you can exit either on West Bernardo Drive and go left (west) to Rancho Bernardo Community Park, or continue to Via Rancho Parkway, where there are trails both east and west of this intersection (see below for details).
Bernardo Bay This is the favorite of many birders, as it is one of the most reliable spots in the county for California Gnatcatcher. At present there are three access points off West Bernardo Drive: the first is along a dicey bit of shoulder which can hold a few cars and takes you down to a narrow trail that hugs the south side of the lake, where there's a presently flooded thick riparian forest. The second is a large dirt parking lot on the right just before the signal; this is the jump-off point for the Piedra Pintadas Interpretive Trail, but in reality there are several sub-trails you can take through the sage and around the hill if you wish. The third access point (and my personal preference because of the potties) is in the Rancho Bernardo Community Park (also known locally as the Joslyn Senior Center). For this particular hike, you'll want to head for the trail that hugs the east side of Bernardo Bay (which may or may not have water in it, depending on the rainfall). Besides the gnatcatchers, the open sage can host Rufous-crowned and Bell's Sage Sparrows (the latter is difficult here), Say's Phoebe (has nested here), Anna's and Costa's Hummingbirds, California Thrasher, Bewick's Wren, Greater Roadrunner, California Quail, Wrentit, Cassin's Kingbird, and California Towhee year-round. In summer Western Kingbirds and Ash-throated Flycatchers join the lineup, and in winter this can be a hotbed for sparrows, mostly White-crowned but also small numbers of Golden-crowned, Lincoln's, Fox, and possibly Vesper. This is a great place for raptors, with White-tailed Kite, Northern Harrier, American Kestrel, Osprey, Red-tailed Hawk, and Turkey Vulture commonly seen. The riparian area along Bernardo Bay has specialties such as Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Bell's Vireo, Yellow-breasted Chat, Yellow Warbler, Lazuli Bunting, and Blue and Black-headed Grosbeak in spring and summer; and American and Lesser Goldfinch, Spotted Towhee, Black Phoebe, Red-winged Blackbird, Great-tailed Grackle, Northern Flicker, and Nuttall's and Downy Woodpeckers year round. When there's water, look and listen for Green Heron, Sora, Belted Kingfisher, Pied-billed, Western, and Clark's Grebes, and other waterfowl. Rarities such as Scissor-tailed and Vermilion Flycatcher have shown up here in the past. Many species of swallows, as well as White-throated Swift, swarm about in migration, and Tree Swallows are here year-round. During dry years where this arm of the lake is very shallow, look for White-faced Ibis and lounging American White Pelicans as well as other waders, and larids such as Forster's Terns and Bonaparte's Gulls, among the Ringbills and Californias; even a wandering Western may show up. If you hike far enough into the cactus patches, you might find the local endangered coastal race of the Cactus Wren. This is also a great place to watch the Western and Clark's Grebes dance in spring! For the hardy, you can make a two-hour loop by taking a side trail up the hill and looping back through the sage scrub for a better chance at some of the sage specialties, or you can continue along the side of the lake which will take you to the flooded riparian forest described above, closer to the freeway.
Trail accessed from the West Bernardo Drive shoulder
View from the dirt lot; loop around the hill and come back by way of Bernardo Bay for a good two-hour hike.
Start of the "Bernardo Bay Trail" from the Senior Center
An American Kestrel guards the kiosk
Searching for the elusive California Gnatcatcher
Bernardo Bay during a wet year
Piedra Pintados Trail for the short version, if you do the whole thing... Part of the official San Deguito River Trail, this trail can be accessed from either the dirt lot or the community park, only instead of heading northwest along Bernardo Bay, you follow the posted arrow and cut around the south end and head directly west. (There is a description of this hike in its entirety in Jerry Schad's Afoot and Afield in San Diego County.) A short hike takes you closer to the riparian area where you could have closer encounters with the aforementioned specialties of that habitat as well as migrants. Another access point is off Duenda Drive, where a connector trail parallels a small creek where a small riparian woodland manages to contain goodies like Yellow-breasted Chat and Virginia Rail as well as the expected Song Sparrows, Marsh Wrens, and Common Yellowthroats. Taking the trail to the right leads to a small waterfall with more riparian birds, and to the left is more open space; listen for Rock and Canyon Wrens from the boulders, and look for kites, harriers, and other raptors. This area seems to be more reliable for Rufous-crowned Sparrow and Wrentit as well. To get to this trail turn right out of the parking lot onto West Bernardo Drive and go 1.3 miles to Duenda Drive. Turn right and go another 0.6 mile to a little bridge, where you'll see a sign for the trail head, just before Moon Song Drive.
Access trail off Duenda Drive
Where it joins the Piedra Pintados Trail
Flowering yucca at an interpretive post
View of the lake
North Side Trail Also part of the disjointed San Deguito River Trail complex, this trail is accessed by exiting I-15 at Via Rancho Parkway, going right, and then right again on Sunset Drive, following it to its terminus. From here the trail goes in two directions; this section describes the portion that heads south and then under the freeway. Note: the trail is open during construction; there's a "Do Not Enter" sign which is rather confusing, but actually refers to the little ramp going up to the freeway... While noisy, this can still be a very productive trail, especially when there's water; various sparrows are always present in the scrub, and riparian birds (particularly Red-shouldered Hawks) can be found in the willows. Because the water (when there is water) can be more shallow here, it tends to be more attractive to geese and shorebirds. The major freeway construction apparently isn't bothering the birds any; four kinds of grebes can show up here (both Western and Clark's Grebes in numbers), as well as Great and Snowy Egrets and other waders, American White Pelicans, and Common Moorhens in with the coots. Be sure to check the skies for Osprey and on rare occasions Bald Eagle in winter. Beyond the freeway look for puddle ducks in winter, and California and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers can be found in the sage on the hills beyond the freeway. The ambitious birder can hike all the way to the Del Dios facility; one's chances of finding Cactus Wren are greater along this stretch as the cactus patches are healthier. Riparian vegetation along the lake can hold Bell's Vireos and Yellow Warblers in the breeding season and any number of migrants; one year a Gray Flycatcher showed up here!
Start of the San Deguito River Trail heading south and west
Flooded riparian area
Under the freeway (it's a mess right now...)
On the west side of the freeway (also a mess right now...)
Mule Hill Trail Going the opposite direction from the above, the trail takes you behind a driving range and away from the traffic noise; a ten-minute walk takes you by lush riparian forest where Bell's Vireos seem to be more numerous here than on other hikes, and a 20-minute walk will take you into more open space and the chaparral hillsides opposite the driving range. Here the grasslands are a haven for sparrows in winter, particularly Savannah; look also for Western Meadowlark year-round and American Pipit in winter. A small creek parallels the trail and can contain both Song and Lincoln's Sparrow (the latter occurring only in winter), and a pair of White-tailed Kites is usually hanging around.
Mule Hill Trail behind the driving range
Wetland habitat along the trail
The trail as it heads into the open space
Del Dios Trail + For a completely different habitat, head west on Via Rancho Parkway almost to its terminus at Del Dios Highway, and turn left on Lake Drive (even if you miss the turn, you can turn left on Del Dios and then left again at your first opportunity, and this will take you down to Lake Drive, dumping you off right at the park). On Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays you can drive into the Lake Hodges launching facility during certain times of the year; check their webpage under "What's New" to keep abreast of opening dates. At other times you can still access a great hiking trail that starts in the park and first goes through a forest of eucalyptus before merging with the oak woodland, where you'll find birds not occurring on the other side of the lake. Specialties include Acorn Woodpecker, Phainopepla, House Wren, Western Scrub Jay, White-breasted Nuthatch, Hutton's Vireo, and Oak Titmouse year-round, and Hermit Thrush, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and Dark-eyed Junco in winter. Keep an eye out for sapsuckers as well. This trail takes you close to water even when the lake is practically dried up, and if you can't find water birds anywhere else, you still should be able to pick up Clark's and Western Grebes here, as well as cormorants, pelicans, and a few ducks. The tules are a little thicker here than on the other side of the lake, so your chances of at least hearing Green Heron and Least Bittern may be better here. The trail goes all the way to the dam and beyond for the more ambitious hiker (although at present the trail is closed past Hernandez's Hideaway due to dam construction). Keep an eye out for suburban birds such as Hooded and Bullock's Orioles in summer and Cedar Waxwing and American Robin (where there are evergreens) in winter. In early 2006 a lost Thick-billed Kingbird was hanging around for several months, so you never know what may show up!
Del Dios Trailhead
Biker on the Del Dios Trail
The lake during a drought year
The lake and dam during a wet year
This famous corner hosted a lost Thick-billed Kingbird during the winter of 2005-2006; the red circle marks the bird!
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 irruptive or vagrant species and should not be expected.
|American White Pelican||█||●||█||█|
|Great Blue Heron||●||●||●||●||●||●||●|
|Black-crowned Night Heron||●||●||●||●||●|
|Greater White-fronted Goose||●|
|Western Wood Pewee||●|
|Western Scrub Jay||●||●||●||●||●||●||●||●||●||█||●|
|Northern Rough-winged Swallow||●||●||●||█||●||●|
|Black-throated Gray Warbler||●|
|"Bell's" Sage Sparrow||●||●|
|"Slate-colored" Fox Sparrow||●|
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