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Otay Lakes  -

Please note: portions of this area (particularly along the north side) were scorched by the 2007 Harris Fire, but not as heavily damaged as some other areas of the county; most of the vegetation is still intact.  Click here for photos of the damage.

Facilities:  There are restrooms at the county park and porta potties scattered around the fishing access areas (open only on Wednesdays and weekends).

Directions: Take I-8 east to I-805 south.  Exit onto State Route 94 eastbound into Spring Valley (beware that 94 veers off the main freeway at Spring Street).  After the freeway ends, follow 94 as it makes a right turn at the first light past Jamacha Blvd., and follow 94 for about 10 miles to Otay Lakes Road and turn right.  For the purposes of this narrative, birding begins about six miles down the road at the "shallow end" of the lake, but you can bird anywhere along this road--it's just that the traffic can be pretty bad!

This area was best known among local birders as one of the best spots in the county for California Gnatcatcher, but the devastating Otay Fire of 2003 destroyed much of this bird's habitat on the north side of the lake, and the 2007 Harris Fire scorched some of the habitat on the west side, but thankfully there are still gnatcatchers here.  Alas, this area also happens to be the most popular with the humans!  The "shallow end" is often more attractive to ducks, herons, and shorebirds, and a stop anywhere along here will yield both Clark's and Western Grebes, as well as terns and marsh-loving songbirds.  Keep an eye out for American White Pelicans as well, although their numbers have been declining in recent years.  The burned area on the north side of the road can still have Western Meadowlarks and Horned Larks year-round, and American Pipits in winter.  Be sure to check the dead trees for perched raptors.

The "Shallow End" shortly after the Otay Fire of 2003

A more recent shot

Continuing on, in about another mile you'll come to an access road on your left that is worth exploring when it's open (if it isn't, you can park and walk in).  Although I've not found them during this project, Sage Sparrows have been found by others during the San Diego Bird Atlas project.  Just around the bend on the left is the jumping-off point for the "Inlet Trail", where a hike down to the water may be productive for rails, grebes, and other waterfowl.  You can still find Grasshopper Sparrows in here during the spring and summer, and White-crowned, Lincoln's, Savannah, and Vesper Sparrows in winter.  Song and Rufous-crowned Sparrows are found year round.  This can also be a good place to look for Golden Eagles and Northern Harriers.

Trail to the Inlet

Continuing on, after another mile you'll come upon a small parking area on your right with a road up to Upper Otay Lake, which tends to have more "puddle ducks" than Lower Otay.  Even if the gate is closed, it's just a short walk up to the lake, and both California and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are possible along here.  Look for both Black and Say's Phoebes, Bewick's and House Wrens, Cooper's and Red-shouldered Hawks, and Spotted and California TowheesYellow Warblers nest in the willows, and Cassin's Kingbirds and Hooded Orioles (summer) can be found in the eucs.  Be sure to check the "puddle" (sometimes bone dry) below the dam before heading up; shorebirds (including Wilson's Snipe) sometimes hide in here.  On rare occasions, Rock Wrens may be utilizing the area, especially in winter.  The dead snags across the street often have Double-crested Cormorants occupying them, as well as the occasional Osprey or Belted Kingfisher.

Lower Otay across from the road to Upper Otay

"Otay Puddle", below the Upper Otay dam

Upper Otay Lake

Continue on to the turnoff for Wueste Road on your left, and follow Wueste as it "hugs" the lake (note that you must negotiate two stop lights; turn left at both).  There are numerous pulloffs from which you can access trails that go down to the lake, but my favorite is on the left just before the Olympic Training Center; this appears to still be an excellent spot for California Gnatcatcher even after the Harris Fire.  The reeds that line the lake are good for Red-winged Blackbird, Marsh Wren, Common Yellowthroat, and even skulkers such as Sora, Virginia Rail, and Common Moorhen; the lake itself can be full of both Western and Clark's Grebes at any time, but various ducks join the crowd in winter.  American Coots, Mallards, Pied-billed Grebes and Ruddy Ducks are here year-round, and in the clumps of willows look and listen for Bell's Vireo, Yellow Warbler, Lazuli Bunting, and Blue Grosbeak in summer, and American and Lesser Goldfinch year round (sometimes Lawrence's can be heard bouncing over).  During migration great flocks of swallows of many species swarm over the area; Violet-green can be particularly common, and Cliff nest here.  On Wednesdays and weekends, when the marina is open, you can access an excellent dirt road from the parking lot that will take you right into the sagebrush.

California Gnatcatcher habitat along the east side of Lower Otay Lake

Follow the road to its terminus at Otay Lake County Park (fee).  There are many eucs and exotic plantings where suburban birds such as Hooded and Bullock's Orioles (summer), Nuttall's Woodpeckers, Cassin's Kingbirds, Lesser Goldfinches, and Northern Mockingbirds may be found.  If you park as far down as you can, a little trail switchbacks up the hill and gives you a great overview of the lake and can be good for chaparral species such as California Quail, California Thrasher, and Rufous-crowned Sparrow.  Check the floats near the marinas in winter, as there's often the odd Herring, Thayer's, or Glaucous-winged Gull in with the regular Californias and Ringbills.  Although generally considered rare inland, often good numbers of Western Gulls can also be seen here year-round.  Check the many Forster's Terns for a Bonaparte's Gull, and listen for the harsh call of the Caspian Tern.  Past the playground, a path winds through a butterfly-friendly garden that also attracts Costa's and Anna's Hummingbirds year-round and Allen's/Rufous Hummingbirds in migration.  In winter check the bushes for Dark-eyed Juncos.

Otay Lake County Park

Native Plant Garden

Trail to the overlook

View from the top

The fastest way back to San Diego is to retrace your way to Otay Lakes Road and turn left; after about five miles this road becomes Telegraph Canyon Road and eventually runs into I-805, which you can take north back to San Diego.

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, irruptive, or vagrant species and should not be expected. 

  J F M A M J J A S O N D
Eared Grebe              
Pied-billed Grebe
Western Grebe  
Clark's Grebe      
American White Pelican                      
Brown Pelican                      
Double-crested Cormorant    
Great Blue Heron          
Great Egret          
Snowy Egret              
Cattle Egret                      
White-faced Ibis                      
Mallard  
Gadwall              
Northern Pintail                    
Cinnamon Teal                
Green-winged Teal                
American Wigeon                
Northern Shoveler              
Canvasback                      
Redhead                  
Ring-necked Duck                
Lesser Scaup              
Bufflehead                  
Ruddy Duck            
Turkey Vulture                      
Northern Harrier      
White-tailed Kite                      
Sharp-shinned Hawk                      
Cooper's Hawk                    
Red-shouldered Hawk                
Red-tailed Hawk    
Osprey    
Golden Eagle                      
American Kestrel          
Peregrine Falcon                      
California Quail              
Common Moorhen                    
American Coot  
Virginia Rail                      
Sora                  
Killdeer    
American Avocet                    
Greater Yellowlegs                  
Spotted Sandpiper                      
Western Sandpiper                  
Least Sandpiper                    
Long-billed Dowitcher                
Wilson's Snipe                      
Herring Gull                    
Thayer's Gull                      
Glaucous-winged Gull                    
Western Gull  
California Gull          
Ring-billed Gull              
Bonaparte's Gull                      
Caspian Tern                
Forster's Tern          
Mourning Dove      
Rock Pigeon                    
Costa's Hummingbird                
Anna's Hummingbird    
Selasphorus Hummingbird                      
Belted Kingfisher                  
Northern Flicker                    
Nuttall's Woodpecker            
Ash-throated Flycatcher                      
Black Phoebe      
Say's Phoebe              
Cassin's Kingbird        
Bell's Vireo                      
American Crow      
Common Raven
Horned Lark          
Northern Rough-winged Swallow                  
Violet-green Swallow                  
Tree Swallow                
Cliff Swallow              
Barn Swallow                
Bushtit    
House Wren            
Marsh Wren              
Bewick's Wren      
Rock Wren                    
Wrentit      
Ruby-crowned Kinglet                  
California Gnatcatcher  
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher            
American Robin                      
Hermit Thrush                      
Northern Mockingbird        
California Thrasher              
European Starling            
American Pipit                  
Yellow-rumped Warbler          
Yellow Warbler                  
Common Yellowthroat
Wilson's Warbler                      
Blue Grosbeak              
Lazuli Bunting                      
Spotted Towhee          
Green-tailed Towhee                      
California Towhee
Rufous-crowned Sparrow        
Grasshopper Sparrow                  
Savannah Sparrow                    
Vesper Sparrow                      
Lark Sparrow                      
White-crowned Sparrow        
Song Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow                    
Dark-eyed Junco                      
Western Meadowlark    
Brown-headed Cowbird                    
Red-winged Blackbird
Brewer's Blackbird                      
Great-tailed Grackle            
Bullock's Oriole                
Hooded Oriole                    
Lawrence's Goldfinch                      
Lesser Goldfinch    
American Goldfinch        
House Finch
House Sparrow                  

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