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Father Junipero Serra Trail is paved all the way.
Approximate Length: 2.5 miles
Approximate Birding Time: 2.5 - 3 hours, including the three optional hikes
Traffic: Very light
Facilities: Restrooms are available at the visitor center and Kumeyaay campground; porta-potties are situated along Father Junipero Road and at the Mission Dam parking lot.
Directions: Take I-8 east to Mission Gorge Road, which bears left under the freeway. Follow this road all the way for almost four miles to the turnoff to Father Junipero Serra Trail on your left, where there's also a sign for Mission Trails Regional Park. This is also where the Visitor's Center is located. Since the gate to the road doesn't (theoretically) open till 8:00, another option would be to get two of the optional trails done first, starting with Lake Kumeyaay. To get to the lake, continue down Mission Gorge into Santee, and turn left at the first light, which is the east end of Father Junipero Serra Trail. The campground is on the right, just past the 4-way stop; if it's closed, park in the big lot across the street. Otherwise you can park in the day use area (or closer if you have handicap access). This narrative, however, begins at the Visitor Center area.
Optional hike: Oak Grove Loop Trail This is a lovely loop through sage scrub, chaparral, and oak woodland that takes a little over 30 minutes to bird. Park either in the small lot on the right as you turn onto Father Junipero Serra, or along the curb on the left if there's no room in the lot. It's possible to get California Gnatcatcher right in the lot, so keep an ear out for "kittens"! The trail is on the other side of the fence and leads back towards Mission Gorge Road, then down into the creek area. In the scrub look for both towhees and Rufous-crowned Sparrows, as well as the usual chaparral fare (Western Scrub Jays can be particularly plentiful in here). Down in the oak woodland a rest on one of the benches might yield Hutton's Vireo, Orange-crowned Warbler, House Wren, and Black Phoebe year round; Pacific-slope Flycatcher and Black-chinned Hummingbird in summer, and Ruby-crowned Kinglet in winter. Once out into the chaparral again, listen for the descending song or "beeps" of Canyon Wrens from the stark rock face of Mission Gorge. In winter, look for Hermit Thrushes and Fox, White-crowned, Golden-crowned, and Lincoln's Sparrows. Listen for the whistles of White-tailed Kites in this area as well. The trail dumps out on the paved road; make a left and return to your car. If the gate's still locked, you can either drive down to Kumeyaay and do that hike, or wait for the gatekeeper to show up and do Kumeyaay when you get there via Father Junipero.
Oak Grove Trail
Resting spots in the oak woodland
If the gate's open, head slowly down the road and stop periodically to look and listen (there are plenty of pulloffs). This area is best in spring and early summer when breeding birds partial to willow riparian habitats are at their peak; look and listen for Red-shouldered Hawk, Black-chinned, Anna's, and Costa's Hummingbirds, Belted Kingfisher, Downy and Nuttall's Woodpecker, Bell's Vireos, American and Lesser Goldfinches, Yellow Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-breasted Chat, Black-headed Grosbeak, Song Sparrow, and both Bullock's and Hooded Orioles. Watch for White-throated Swifts and raptors along the rock faces, and listen for Rufous-crowned and (rarely) Black-chinned Sparrows and Rock and Canyon Wrens. Despite the damage from the 2003 Cedar Fire, normal chaparral birds such as Bewick's Wren, Wrentit, California Thrasher, Bushtit, and California Quail should be around as well. The parking area for Old Mission Dam is on the left at the stop sign; strolling among the willows at this spot could be productive.
Riparian habitat along the San Diego River and recovering hillside
Optional hike: Grasslands Trail
The hardy could make a good hour-long loop from this trail that could take you to the back side of Mission Dam and then back up to the road, but a ten-minute walk through the heart of the riparian woodland and into the grasslands is enough to bag White-tailed Kite, Loggerhead Shrike (rare), and Western Meadowlarks year-round, and Grasshopper Sparrows in spring and summer, all of which you are unlikely to pick up from the road. You also might have a better chance at species such as Western Kingbird and Blue Grosbeak in summer; Lark Sparrow year round; and Say's Phoebe, Savannah Sparrow, and American Pipits in winter. In migration check the skies for Vaux's Swifts in addition to the swallows. To get to the trailhead, go past the parking area for Old Mission Dam and park across from where another gate blocks a wide trail going down into the the riparian area. Take this trail (which can be very productive for migrants in spring; Yellow Warblers breed here and can be particularly plentiful), and once into the grasslands take the middle trail. At the next intersection bear left; this is the best area for the sparrows. You can turn back at this point, but if you want to tackle the whole loop, keep going and make your way back towards the river (take the next left and then follow the signs to Old Mission Dam). You'll come to some "steps" into the (usually) dry creek, and then up the other side. Bear left, and follow this trail to an area with big flat rocks (usually it's dry in here), another traditional spot for Rock and Canyon Wrens. Take the bridge, and continue on past Old Mission Dam and to the parking area, then up the hill and down the road to your car. From here, Kumeyaay Campground and Lake is right ahead on your left.
Trail heading down into the riparian area
Grasslands on the Mission Dam Loop Trail
Coming around the back side of the dam
The old historic dam itself
Optional Hike: Kumeyaay Lake From the parking area walk down towards the lake, where two trails go around either side but do not encircle it (taking the trail to the left will take you past the amphitheater and to another smaller lake on the north side of the trail). In addition to typical willow riparian species seen or heard along the road, watch the lake for coots, Eared and Pied-billed Grebes, Common Moorhen, and various waterfowl, especially in winter. Swallows of various species like to swoop over the lake (Tree Swallows breed here), and from the reeds you can hear Marsh Wrens and occasionally Green Herons and Least Bitterns (or even catch one zip across the lake). While normally associated with salt marsh, Clapper Rails have begun to show up here; in winter listen for Sora as well, and Virginia Rail year-round. This is a prime fishing area for kingfishers and other herons as well. In migration the place can be alive with Wilson's Warblers as well as other migrants, including the shy Swainson's Thrush. The grassland and brushy area is good for sparrows (look for White-crowned, Golden-crowned, and Lincoln's in winter) and raptors. The sycamores in the parking area and campground often have American Robins in winter and American Goldfinches year-round.
Kumeyaay Lake in summer
Same spot in winter
The "Back Lake" on a foggy day
The east-bound trail
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, vagrant, or irruptive species and are not to be expected.
|Great Blue Heron||●||●||●||●|
|Black-crowned Night Heron||●||●||●|
|Western Scrub Jay||●||●||●||●||●||●||●||█||●||█||●||●|
|Northern Rough-winged Swallow||●||█||█||●||█||█|
|Black-throated Gray Warbler||●|
|"Slate-colored" Fox Sparrow||●||●||●|
*Kumeyaay Lake was not surveyed in November
**Reports of Clapper Rail at Kumeyaay Lake are becoming more numerous, so this species may become a regular fixture in the future.
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