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Except for the road to the Borrego Sewer Ponds (which can be a little soft but otherwise passable for standard passenger cars), the roads on this route are all paved.
Approximate Length: 25 miles
Approximate Birding Time: 5 hours with the four optional hiking trails
Traffic: Light to moderate (weekend and holiday traffic can get hairy)
Facilities: There are restrooms at Tamarisk Grove Campground. If Tamarisk Grove is closed (which they may do during the summer), the restroom at Yaqui Well Camp (across the street) is always open.
Directions: To avoid Ramona and Julian, take I-8 east to the Descanso/Japatul Road exit (highway 79) and turn left (north) under the freeway. Follow 79 through Cuyamaca State Park (note that 79 makes a hard left a couple of miles from the freeway) up to where it Ts with highway 78 near Julian. Go right, and follow 78 down the grade; continue to S2 (locally known as Scissors Crossing) and continue through Sentenac Canyon (marked by a "Welcome to Anza Borrego" sign) and on to S3, where there's a sign pointing you to Borrego Springs. Turn left here, and Tamarisk Grove campground will be on your right.
To get the best return on your birding for this route, it's recommended that you actually walk the Optional Hikes, although (with the exception of Narrows Earth) it is possible to drive them if you cannot walk.
Optional hike: Tamarisk Grove Note: the rangers ask that you park outside the campground to bird the area. This area is famous as a migrant trap in spring, but perhaps its most famous residents are the Long-eared Owls that reside in the tamarisks themselves; usually they hang out by the bathrooms, but they move around and can be virtually anywhere and horrendously difficult to spot (best bet is to ask the ranger; he may have them staked out). Otherwise the usual desert fare such as Costa's Hummingbird, Verdin, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher (Blue-gray also occurs occasionally), and Ladder-backed Woodpecker may be around year-round, while Yellow-rumped Warblers will take over the place in winter, and all three goldfinches are possible (although American is rather rare). Also in winter watch for Say's Phoebes, and in summer look for Ash-throated Flycatchers. Hooded Orioles are a possibility, especially in the palms across the street at the ranger's residence.
Tamarisk Grove Campground
Continue up along Yaqui Pass Road and be sure to stop periodically to enjoy the views and pick up Rock Wrens or possibly even Golden Eagle. Coming down the hill you'll get into more cactus habitat with attending Cactus Wrens and Black-throated Sparrows. If you drive this road early enough in the morning in spring and summer you may even catch sight of a Lesser Nighthawk batting by or a Greater Roadrunner darting across! The view into the Borrego Sink is quite impressive, and you'll be able to see your next destination at the end of Yaqui Pass Road from on high. At the bottom of the hill is the old Casa del Zorro Resort, which is now apparently closed; one year San Diego's first and only Rufous-backed Robin was found by someone staying at the resort, and special arrangements were made for birders to come on the property. The trees can be good for migrants; one fall a Nuttall's Woodpecker (highly unusual in the desert) showed up on the corner! The most exotic thing you're likely to get these days are the invasive Eurasian Collared Doves.
View from Yaqui Pass
Coming over the pass into the Sink
Bird's-eye view of Borrego Sink
Winter storm over Borrego Springs
Same system dumping snow on the mountains above Montezuma Grade
Casa del Zorro Resort
Optional hike: Borrego Sink if you walk it or if you opt to drive it. Continue to the very end of Yaqui Pass Road to the little dirt cul-de-sac. If driving, turn left onto the narrow dirt road (which has a fence on either side), and make a hard hairpin right at your first opportunity. If walking, park at the cul-de-sac and take the little trail by the metal post, and veer right towards the discarded refrigerator (!). When this trail joins the main "road", continue east and follow this trail to the old dilapidated house (although I have yet to find them, I always check it for Barn Owls). Past the house the main trail bears right and into thicker mesquite, then ends at a wire fence. (The whole of the road is about a mile long.) This is the area most people have found San Diego County's only population of Crissal Thrasher; the mesquite forest that they enjoyed has for the most part died off due to a lowered water table, so they are all but extirpated from the area (keep in mind that both California and LeConte's Thrasher could show up here as well). Easier to find but still confined to this spot are San Diego's only breeding Lucy's Warblers, which sometimes can be heard singing right from the parking spot! Even without these two target birds, the area can be productive: besides the usual desert fare look for Brewer's, White-crowned, and the "Desert" Sage Sparrow in winter; and Mourning, White-winged (more likely in summer) and Common Ground Doves year round, as well as both Anna's and Costa's Hummingbirds. In the open area at the end of the road you might pick up American Pipits in winter or Horned Larks year-round. During migration watch the skies for Barn Swallows and Vaux's Swifts. It's very easy to get turned around in here, so the best way to keep from getting lost is to simply backtrack the way you came. Check for Brewer's Blackbirds around the houses.
Borrego Sink trailhead
Optional hike: Borrego Sewer Ponds Retrace your route up Yaqui Pass Road to Borrego Springs Road (where the Casa del Zorro is) and turn left. After about a mile look for an unmarked dirt road on your left (a good landmark is the second set of power lines that run perpendicular to the main road) and turn in here. Keep in mind that the Borrego Water District has a signed entrance to its facility before this road--you don't want that! There are two dirt roads; take the right-hand one, and this will take you to the fenced-off ponds. There's a wide dirt area where you can park and take a stroll around the ponds; IMHO your birding will be much more productive if you walk, but the road is plenty wide and solid enough for a passenger car. The water levels can fluctuate wildly, from bone dry to filled and anything in between, and you can pick up some things here that you probably won't find elsewhere on the route such as Black Phoebe, Yellow-headed (very rare) and Red-winged Blackbird, Common Yellowthroat, and Song Sparrow (plus White-crowned, Brewer's, Savannah, Vesper, and Lincoln's in winter). Waterfowl and/or shorebirds are always possible (depending on the water level), and this can be a hangout for Northern Harrier as well. This can be a good spot for "Desert" Sage Sparrow in winter, and the place is usually overrun with Phainopeplas that time of the year as well. Watch for both California and Gambel's Quail; knowing the subtle difference in their vocalizations can be very helpful, but these two species freely hybridize in this area, so even that can be tricky! Although Bewick's Wren is the default wren here (along with Rock), in winter you might kick up a lost House Wren come down from the mountains. You may also pick up Ash-throated Flycatcher in spring and summer, or a disbursing Blue Grosbeak or Lazuli Bunting. This is another possible spot for Crissal Thrasher, but Northern Mockingbird is more likely, so beware of assuming all chewy-chewy calls belong to the thrasher!
Borrego Sewer Ponds
Habitat at the far end
Return to Borrego Springs road and continue east towards highway 78. The landscape is quite barren and the birdlife reflects that, but you still might pick up a Loggerhead Shrike on an ocotillo. The most interesting part of this road is a deep "bowl" that you drive through just before reaching 78, which is actually San Felipe Wash. Once at the intersection, turn right, and you'll soon reach another geologically interesting spot called "The Narrows"; Rock and Canyon Wrens might be found at this spot, but otherwise it's mainly just a scenic area.
"Borrego Bowl" (aka San Felipe Wash) from Borrego Springs Road
Same area from Highway 78
Optional hike: Narrows Earth Trail Soon after coming out of the Narrows, look for a wide parking area on your left that's the jump-off point for the Narrows Earth Trail, a short loop that takes you up the canyon a bit (some hikers keep going, but the nature trail turns back at that point). To be honest, this trail can be awfully dead bird-wise (especially if you hit it later in the day), but you never know what might show up; one morning I actually had Desert Bighorn Sheep up on the ridge! You should at least find Verdin and Rock Wrens in here, or maybe even a Ladder-backed Woodpecker on an ocotillo.
Narrows Earth Trailhead
View of the Narrows from the trail
Continue east on Highway 78; if you've missed Cactus Wren thus far, a stop at the cholla cactus patches or mesquites just before Tamarisk Grove might yield one or two. The route ends at the intersection of SR 78 and S3; going straight on 78 takes you up the Banner Grade and beyond to Julian et al.
Yaqui Pass Road from 78
Approaching Tamarisk Grove from the east
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, out-of-place, or irruptive species and are not to be expected.
|Eurasian Collared Dove||●||●||●||●|
|Common Ground Dove||●||●||●||●|
|Black-throated Gray Warbler||●|
|"Desert" Sage Sparrow||●||●||●|
*Limited coverage in November
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