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All roads are paved (but there are several dirt parking lots)
Approximate Length: With all the backtracking and looping around, about 20 miles total.
Approximate Birding Time: 4 hours
Traffic: Moderate to light
Facilities: Porta potties are scattered around Fiesta Island, and there are restrooms near the picnic areas at Hospitality and Crown Points.
Directions: To get to Fiesta Island (the first stop on this route), take I-5 north from the intersection with I-8, and exit on Sea World Drive (which is the next exit). Turn left towards the ocean, over the freeway, and right onto East Mission Bay Drive. Make an almost immediate left onto Fiesta Island Road
After making the turn, go right into the large parking lot and drive down as far as you can to check out Tecolote Creek. Climb up on the berm and look for herons, grebes, gulls, shorebirds, and ducks in winter (sometimes rarities, like Greater Scaup and Common Goldeneye, show up here).
Return to Fiesta Island Road and turn right onto the island. This road makes about a five mile loop if you follow the outside route (you can also cut through the middle of the island). While the place is famous (or infamous?) as the site of the Over-the-Line Tournament, it also has the only real "wild" habitat left in Mission Bay, albeit mostly grasses, dunes, and eucalyptus. But it's a sure-fire place for Horned Larks, and good for other grassland birds such as Western Meadowlarks and Loggerhead Shrike, which are more uncommon on the coast. (Although I've not recorded them personally yet, there are many reports of resident Burrowing Owl here, so they're worth looking for.) Along the beaches you can drive right up to gulls and shorebirds (sometimes normally rock-loving shorebirds such as Black Turnstone and Surfbird can occur in numbers), and in winter this is a good place for Common Loon, Brant, and "bay" ducks; check the many Lesser Scaups for a possible Greater. For several winters a Harlequin Duck has been wintering around De Anza Cove, but I have yet to spot him from this route.
Shoreline along Fiesta Island
After making the loop, go back out to East Mission Bay Drive, make a right, and then another right onto Sea World Drive. Once past Friars Blvd., get in the left hand lane and make a left at the next light, which will take you down to the frontage road that parallels Sea World Drive. Make a right on the frontage road; I usually drive all the way to the end, turn around, and then bird my way back, as the light is often better from this angle. This is the famous Flood Control Channel, which can be stuffed with birds any time of year; in the deeper water look for grebes (especially Horned in winter) and bay ducks. This is the best place for our locally breeding Little Blue Herons as well; they (along with other herons and larger shorebirds like Willets, Whimbrel, and yellowlegs) can often be on the rocks right at your feet! Caspian Terns hang out here as well as Forster's, and Cinnamon Teal, Gadwall, and Mallards breed in the vegetation. In winter there are mobs of additional ducks, including a token Eurasian Wigeon or two amongst the hundreds of Americans. This is also a good place for Blue-winged Teal, uncommon in the west but becoming more common here. Expected shorebirds in season include Semipalmated and Black-bellied Plovers, Killdeer, Long-billed Curlew, Marbled Godwit, Western, Least, and Spotted Sandpipers, Dunlin, Red Knot, both species of dowitchers, Black-necked Stilt, and American Avocet. Both American White and Brown Pelicans occur here, although the latter is more common closer to the river mouth. Down the road in the denser vegetation, listen for Clapper Rails, Marsh Wren, Song and Belding's Savannah Sparrows, and Common Yellowthroat. Occasionally a stray from Sea World wanders over, so don't be too shocked if you happen upon a White-faced Whistling Duck or some such creature...
San Diego River Flood Control Channel
From here you'll want to check out the actual mouth of the San Diego River. Many people prefer accessing this spot by way of Robb Field in Ocean Beach, but for the purposes of this route I'll take you to the opposite side, by way of Hospitality Point, which gives you a view right from your car for the most part. Go back to Sea World Drive and turn left, following the signs to West Mission Bay Drive. Doing so will take you on a cloverleaf, and when you come out of it you'll want to stay to the left so you can make a left onto Quivira Drive (two lefts, actually, so in essence you'll be making a "U"ie of sorts). Follow Quivira as it curves around, and make a left up onto the dirt parking area at your first opportunity. Head right for the river (stopping before you go in, of course) and cruise the length of the channel, searching for many of the same types of birds as up river, but here there are sand bars and little "islands" which house nesting Least Terns and Snowy Plovers. Elegant Terns are also very common in summer (look for the occasional Royal in among them), and look for Common Terns in migration. Black Skimmers occasionally show up here but are more reliable at Kendalfrost Marsh. Hordes of gulls (mostly Western, California, and Ring-billed, but with the occasional Glaucous-winged, Bonaparte's, or Herring in winter) and shorebirds can occupy the sand bars clear out to the ocean. This is also a good area to look for Common Loons, Horned Grebe, and Brant in winter. One of the more entertaining sights is watching the mob of Snowy Egrets hot on the heels of the clam-diggers! Drive down as far as you can (a one-lane drive takes you out of the parking area and towards the jetty) and park in the little lot on the right. Take a stroll down the jetty to the fence to get a closer look at whatever happens to be in the area, and be sure to check the rocks for rocky shorebirds. Watch for Osprey, too!
The jetty at Hospitality Point
After birding the river, get back onto Quivira and continue down to the Mission Bay Park Headquarters building. You can only park here for 20 minutes, but that's plenty of time to check out the marina for cormorants (sometimes all three species show up), herons, ducks (including Red-breasted Merganser) and grebes (including both Clark's and Western). Walk behind the building and grab a peek at the jetty back there for pelicans, gulls (Heermann's can be plentiful here), and possibly rocky shorebirds. Check the wires and rocks for Belted Kingfisher and both Black and Say's Phoebes, and listen for Anna's Hummingbirds and Orange-crowned Warblers in the planted trees. Currently there's an active Osprey nest on the top of one of the sailboat's masts!
To get to the final stop of the day, retrace your way down Quivira to the light you came in on, make a right, and follow the signs to Ingrahm Street. Follow Ingrahm across Vacation Isle and towards Crown Point, where you'll make a right on Crown Point Drive. Follow this road past the park area (check the beaches for bird mobs) and look for some nature signs along the road on the right; you can park here and scope out Kendalfrost Marsh. Unfortunately the light always seems to be horrible no matter what time of the morning you go (unless it's overcast), but it's worth a stop; this is the most reliable place in Mission Bay for Black Skimmers and is also good for marshy songbirds such as Belding's Savannah Sparrows. (On very rare occasions, Nelson's Sparrow has been known to show up here in the winter during extremely high tides.) Watch for Northern Harriers in here as well. Feral exotics, such as Red-crowned Parrots, can sometimes be seen or heard in this area.
If you have the time and the energy, you can complete the loop by checking out De Anza Cove and the eastern edge of Mission Bay Park: continue on Crown Point Drive until its terminus at Pacific Beach Drive; turn right, and then hang a left before you accidentally roll into Campland by the Bay! (You'll basically be following the signs to Balboa Avenue, but you'll actually want to turn on Grand.) At Grand turn right, and follow this all the way to where it merges with Mission Bay Drive, where you'll veer right. Turn right onto North Mission Bay Drive; you can follow this road to the north to where it dead ends at Rose Inlet, but a fence makes viewing difficult; this is one of the places the wintering Harlequin Duck is sometimes seen, but seems to be more reliable for Belted Kingfisher. There's a bike path here that runs alongside the golf course and has much foliage and could be promising, but it's very closed in and, given the neighborhood, I haven't had the guts to explore it (if you're not alone you should be fine). Back in the park, you can check out the numerous beaches and coves (better in winter, by far) or take an exercise walk along the more open parts of the bike path; one time I caught a Peregrine Falcon having lunch on the beach! The Information Center has literature about the park as well.
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, irruptive, or out-of-place sightings and are not to be expected.
|American White Pelican||█||●|
|Great Blue Heron||●||█||●||●||█||█||█||█||●||●|
|Little Blue Heron||●||●||●||●||●||●||●||●||●||●|
|Black-crowned Night Heron||●||█||●|
|Western Scrub Jay||●|
|Northern Rough-winged Swallow||●||●||●||●|
|"Belding's" Savannah Sparrow||●||●||●||●||●|
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