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"Easy Birder" Driving Routes

Tijuana River Valley

,     The main roads are paved, but the roads around the sod farm can be tricky when wet.

Approximate Length: about 18 miles total

Approximate Birding Time: about 4.5 hours, including the two optional hikes

Traffic: Light to moderate

Facilities:  When open, Border Field State Park has restrooms; otherwise there is a porta potty at the parking lot near the gate, and plenty of gas stations and fast food joints in nearby Imperial Beach.

Directions: Take I-5 south almost to the international border, and exit on Dairy Mart Road.  Turn right at the stop and cross over the little bridge, where there's a large parking area on your right.

Dairy Mart Ponds

This first stop includes the Dairy Mart Ponds, which (when not dry) can be great for waterfowl and waders, and even some shorebirds.  If the viewpoints along the dirt road are blocked by runaway vegetation, you may have to view the ponds from the main road, just after the bridge and before the turn into the parking area.  Check the open water for a variety of ducks (especially in winter), coots, and herons, possible White Pelicans, and the exposed branches for shorebirds and Belted Kingfisher.  Scan the marshy area for Moorhen and Least Bittern, and listen for Virginia Rail, Marsh Wren, and Common Yellowthroat.  A few Western Gulls usually hang out here, as well as the occasional Caspian Tern.  Although it eluded me for the purposes of this project, a young Crested Caracara showed up in 2006 and hung around for quite awhile!  The riparian area around the ponds are great for songbirds and migrants; local specialties include Downy and Nuttall's Woodpeckers, and American Goldfinch year round; in summer look for Bell's Vireo, Yellow-breasted Chat, Blue Grosbeak, and Yellow Warbler.  In the brushy areas beyond the ponds look for raptors (White-tailed Kites in particular like to find lone trees from which to scan the area) and sparrows in winter (Song Sparrows are abundant year-round).  Although not officially "countable" yet, keep an eye out for the local feral population of Black-throated Magpie Jays and Northern Cardinals which can show up anywhere in the Valley; other exotic species you may run into include White-collared Seedeater and Purplish-backed Jay.  As you can no longer drive the dirt roads, most people prefer walking around the ponds area, but keep in mind that this can be a hangout for illegals (hence the Border Patrol presence), so please be aware of your surroundings. 

Foggy morning on the Open Space roads

Continue south on Dairy Mart Road, but then make a left into the sod farms; this can be a great place for vagrants (Red-throated Pipit and odd shorebirds are the usual suspects), but please be on your best behavior and do not walk out into the fields!!!  Right now it is permissible to drive around the perimeter of the farm on the dirt road; technically, the dikes are supposed to be reserved for Border Patrol vehicles.  Besides the rarities, this is a good place to look for more common species such as Long-billed Curlew, Western Meadowlark, American Pipit (winter), and Killdeer.  In spring and summer Cliff Swallows can be abundant as they hunt over the fields; look also for Northern Rough-winged and Barn.  The south side of the farm is pretty trashed out in spots, but you can pick up things like Savannah and Vesper (rare) Sparrows and Say's Phoebe in winter,  and Red-winged Blackbirds in the tiny little creek area.

Dairy Mart Sod Farms

Continue south on Dairy Mart, which becomes Monument Road.  The area becomes very rural and agricultural, with lots of eucs; it's a good idea to stop periodically and scan the fields for Horned Lark and raptors.  Just past Hollister look for a white picket fence on the right; the dirt road opposite this fence leads into the Smuggler's Gulch area, which can be very productive; one year a Black-backed Oriole showed up for several summers!  The usual suspects include House Wren year-round, and Yellow-rumped Warblers and Hermit Thrushes in winter.  Check the brushy hillsides for Lazuli Buntings and Ash-throated Flycatchers in spring and summer, and listen for Wrentit and California Thrasher year-round.  Return to Monument Road and continue west, taking a short peek down unmarked Sunset Road on the right; one winter an Eastern Phoebe hung out in the nearby farm.  Return to Monument and follow the road all the way to Border Field State Park.

Optional hike        Depending upon whether or not the park is open (which is usually weekends and holidays, but sometimes they close it if a winter storm has polluted the water; click on the above link and call for info), a walk to the beach will be productive for gulls, terns, shorebirds, and seabirds; specialties include Western and Clark's Grebes; Least (summer), Forster's, Elegant, and Royal Tern; Snowy and Semipalmated Plovers, and Belding's Savannah Sparrow.  The standing water in the cordgrass can sometimes hide shorebirds, herons, and ducks as well.  Look for Northern Harriers cruising over the landscape as well as White-tailed Kites and the occasional Merlin in winter; on very rare occasions Short-eared Owl has shown up.  Other possible songbirds along this trail include Loggerhead Shrike and Say's Phoebe.  After your hike be sure to drive up to the monument area and gawk at the view (and the bullring on the Mexican side, so close you can practically touch it) and scan the ocean for seabirds and the beach for shorebirdsPipits and larks sometimes hang around on the grassy areas in winter.  If the park is closed, there's a parking area on the left (south) side of Monument Road, and you can hike the willow-lined trail on the north side of the road, again being aware of your surroundings.  If you're up for a mega-hike, following the main trail and veering to the left when appropriate will take you all the way to the beach, but if you want to get down there that badly, probably walking the entrance road to the beach trail is more direct (expect at least an hour-long walk round-trip).

 

Beach Trail at Border Field SP, looking towards Spooner's Mesa

Canal running through the cordgrass

Yes, you're right on the border!

Park habitat from the picnic area

"Upland" trail when the park is closed...

Retrace your route to Hollister and turn left.  Stopping before the bridge and checking out the riparian area could be profitable or dead; you definitely want to turn left at the four-way stop and check out the Bird and Butterfly Gardens at Tijuana Valley Regional Park on your right after you make the turn.  The stables are always worth checking for Common Ground Dove (one year a Ruddy was found here).  You can follow the dirt road to the staging area, birding the garden area from the road, but a stroll through the area is better, as this place can be a great vagrant trap.  In winter you might find flocks of Dark-eyed Juncos and White-crowned Sparrows, or even an occasional Hermit Thrush.  When the flowers are in bloom the place can be alive with hummingbirds and butterflies of all shapes and sizes!

Bird and Butterfly Trail at Tijuana River Valley Regional Park

 As you continue north on Hollister, you'll soon come to Sunset; although not very esthetically pleasing, a check down the length of the road in both directions might yield some rarities (the tomato fields have been quite productive in recent years). Check the wires for the recently-arrived Eurasian Collared Dove, and check any blackbird flocks for a possible (but extremely rare) Common Grackle. The sod farms along Sunset are worth checking as well; rarities found here include Ruff and at least two species of longspur.

Optional hike:  "Sunset Trail"    + (Parts of the trail are sandy.)   Return to Hollister and go north into suburban Imperial Beach, then turn left on Leon.  When you reach Saturn (4-way stop), turn left, and return to the Valley.  Just after the dip (check for water birds in the pond on your right) and before the road ends, Sunset picks up again on your right; turn right here and drive to the end, where there's a trailhead into what is actually part of the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge.   This is another great riparian area with many of the songbirds occurring at the Dairy Mart Ponds (one morning I heard a Wrentit and Greater Roadrunner singing simultaneously...), along with some brushy area that can be good for sparrows.  The default hummingbird is usually Anna's, but check also for Costa's year round and Black-chinned in spring and summer.  This can also be a good place for exotics, as both the magpie jays and Northern Cardinals can be found here occasionally.  More scrub-loving birds such as Common Ground Dove, Spotted Towhee and California Thrasher are more likely here than along other areas of the route.  My turnaround point is an open area after coming out of a densely wooded portion of the trail, but you can continue on if you have the time and energy; a 20 minute hike from the trail head will bring you to the back side of the refuge, which is probably your best chance at Belding's Sparrow on the route if Border Field is closed, as well as more water birds (if you can tolerate the helicopters circling overhead!).

Trail at the end of Sunset Road

Slough from Sunset 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 vagrant or irruptive species and are not to 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                      
Least Bittern                      
Great Blue Heron                    
Great Egret                    
Snowy Egret                  
Green Heron                ●      
Black-crowned Night Heron                  
Mallard          
Gadwall                      
Northern Pintail                      
Cinnamon Teal                      
Green-winged Teal                  
American Wigeon                        
Northern Shoveler              
Bufflehead                      
Hooded Merganser                      
Red-breasted Merganser                      
Ruddy Duck                  
Northern Harrier                  
White-tailed Kite                    
Cooper's Hawk                
Red-shouldered Hawk                  
Red-tailed Hawk                  
Osprey                      
Merlin                      
American Kestrel                  
California Quail                      
Common Moorhen                    
American Coot              
Virginia Rail                      
Sora                      
Black-bellied Plover                        
Semipalmated Plover                      
Snowy Plover                      
Killdeer                      
American Avocet                        
Black-necked Stilt                      
Greater Yellowlegs                      
Willet                      
Whimbrel                ●      
Long-billed Curlew                      
Marbled Godwit                      
Sanderling                      
Least Sandpiper                      
Long-billed Dowitcher                      
Western Gull                  
California Gull                    
Ring-billed Gull                    
Heermann's Gull                        
Caspian Tern                      
Royal Tern                      
Elegant Tern                      
Forster's Tern                      
Mourning Dove                    
Eurasian Collared Dove           ●           
Common Ground Dove                        
Rock Pigeon                  
Greater Roadrunner                      
White-throated Swift                      
Anna's Hummingbird                
Costa's Hummingbird                      
Black-chinned Hummingbird           ●     ●      
Allen's Hummingbird                      
Rufous Hummingbird                      
Selasphorus Hummingbird                ●      
Belted Kingfisher                        
Northern Flicker                      
Nuttall's Woodpecker                
Downy Woodpecker                
Ash-throated Flycatcher                      
Black Phoebe                
Eastern Phoebe                      
Say's Phoebe                        
Pacific-slope Flycatcher                  
Willow Flycatcher                      
Olive-sided Flycatcher                      
Western Wood Pewee                      
Cassin's Kingbird                      
Loggerhead Shrike                      
Warbling Vireo                      
Bell's Vireo                    
Hutton's Vireo                  
American Crow                
Common Raven              
Black-throated Magpie Jay                      
Horned Lark                      
Northern Rough-winged 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                  
Swainson's Thrush                      
Hermit Thrush                  
Northern Mockingbird                  
California Thrasher                
European Starling                      
American Pipit                      
Red-throated Pipit                        
Phainopepla                      
Orange-crowned Warbler            
Yellow Warbler                    
Yellow-rumped Warbler              
Townsend's Warbler                        
American Redstart                      
Common Yellowthroat              
Wilson's Warbler                      
Yellow-breasted Chat                    
Western Tanager                      
Northern Cardinal                    
Black-headed Grosbeak                      
Blue Grosbeak                      
Lazuli Bunting                      
White-collared Seedeater                ●      
Spotted Towhee                  
Green-tailed Towhee                      
California Towhee              
Savannah Sparrow                        
"Belding's" Savannah Sparrow                      
Vesper Sparrow                      
White-crowned Sparrow                
Song Sparrow            
Lincoln's Sparrow                      
Dark-eyed Junco      ●                
Western Meadowlark                      
Brown-headed Cowbird                      
Red-winged Blackbird              
Brewer's Blackbird                      
Common Grackle                      
Great-tailed Grackle                      
Bullock's Oriole                      
Hooded Oriole                      
Lawrence's Goldfinch                      
Lesser Goldfinch                    
American Goldfinch              
House Finch              
House Sparrow                

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