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"Easy Birder" Driving Routes
San Felipe Grade (S2)
Paved all the way
Approximate Length: 17 miles
Approximate Birding Time: 3 hours (4 with the two optional hikes)
Traffic: Moderate, but can be noisy as this is the most popular grade
with the big trucks...
Facilities: None along this route, but there are restrooms at the
two Cuyamaca campgrounds on the way up and restaurants in Santa Ysabel on
the way home.
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 to S2
(locally known as Scissors Crossing). Turn left (north) on S2 (note
that it zigzags) and start birding here at the crossing.
Early morning at Scissors Crossing
hike: PCT @ Scissors Crossing + (there's a mild rise at one
point, but otherwise it's flat). Just past where S2 heads north, the
PCT picks up on the south side of highway 78. You'll see a turnoff for
the Sentenac Birding Trail on your left, which is an hour long loop, part of
which goes through soft sand or water (depending on if the creek is
running), so if you prefer a shorter, easier walk continue straight along
the PCT, which eventually dumps out along S2, where you can simply follow
the road back to your car. If there's water in the creek and you
prefer to keep your feet dry, you may want to skip the trail altogether and
just walk the bridge down to the "southbound" S2 and back. Any way you
take it, this area can be quite productive, as this lush riparian area
houses birds from the foothills not usually found in the desert. Here,
look for both Nuttall's and Ladder-backed Woodpecker (knowing their unique
vocalizations helps here; beware of hybrids!), Northern Flicker, Blue-gray
Gnatcatcher, Wrentit, Western Scrub Jay, Common Yellowthroat, Black Phoebe,
and Song Sparrow year-round; Yellow-rumped Warbler and White-crowned Sparrow
in winter, and Bullock's Oriole and Bell's Vireo in summer. Look for
Western Tanagers and other migrants in the spring; even herons are possible!
Other desert-related species can also be found here, such as Black-throated
and Brewer's (winter) Sparrows, White-winged Dove, and Verdin.
Chaparral species which are also found in our deserts include California
Thrasher and Towhee, Ash-throated Flycatcher (summer), and California Quail.
Check for migrating swallows as well; one year a large flock of Lawrence's
Goldfinches had the place staked out! For the first few miles up S2 the
riparian area remains lush; listen for Blue Grosbeak, Yellow Warbler,
Yellow-breasted Chat, and the newly-colonized Summer Tanagers in
(appropriately) summer. Although I missed it for purposes of this
project, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo showed up during the summer of 2006, so
they're worth keeping an ear out for!
Southbound PCT (taken shortly after a controlled burn)
San Felipe Creek
Further up the road the big trees die out for awhile, and
the habitat becomes more open and scrubby, good for Loggerhead Shrikes,
Northern Mockingbirds, and Scott's Orioles (summer). Across the street
the cactus and scrub are good for Phainopepla, Cactus and Bewick's Wrens,
and Black-tailed Gnatcatcher. Keep an ear out for Rock Wrens along the
hillsides, and watch for Greater Roadrunners crossing the road.
Further up the grade listen for Mountain Quail in spring.
Optional Trail: San Felipe Valley Wilderness Area
(Very mild incline on the way down to and up from the valley, where the
trail is flat.) At about mile 5.5 (from Scissors Crossing) there's a
parking area on the left and a short trail down to the creek; the Pines Fire
of 2002 devastated much of this area, but vegetation is coming back and so
are the birds (particularly Lazuli Buntings in spring and summer).
This hike might yield some birds otherwise hard to get from the road, such
as Common Ground Dove, as well as sparrows and migrating warblers
(Black-throated Gray Warbler and Indigo Bunting has been kicked up in here).
Dark-eyed Juncos seem to like this area in winter, and Lark Sparrows start
flocking here in late summer. Listen for Costa's Hummingbirds zinging
in early summer. Willow Flycatchers have been reported from deep
within the partially burned willow riparian area, but have not yet been
heard from the road.
After a rare snow in the Volcan Mountains
Desert habitat on the east side of the road
Continuing on, you eventually reach oak savannah habitat
and start picking up expected birds such as Black-headed Grosbeak (summer),
Western Bluebird, Red-shouldered Hawk, Western Scrub Jay, Oak Titmouse,
Acorn Woodpecker, White-breasted Nuthatch, and Chipping Sparrow.
Black-chinned Sparrows are repopulating the burned chaparral areas in
summer, to be replaced by Fox Sparrows in winter. Past the turnoff to
Montezuma Grade, the rolling grasslands of the Vista Water District come
into view; unfortunately the Mataguay Fire of 2004 took out much of this
area as well, but there's still enough habitat to support Western Kingbirds
in summer, American Pipit and Vesper and Savannah Sparrows in winter, and
Lark Sparrows and Horned Larks year round. Look for American Kestrels
and other raptors (keep an eye out for specialties like Ferruginous Hawk and
Prairie Falcon in winter and rarities like Swainson's Hawk in migration).
The riparian area along Buena Vista Creek was spared, however; listen for
Bullock's Orioles, Blue Grosbeaks (both summer) and other riparian birds,
and check the very small marsh for nesting Tricolored Blackbirds (Brewer's
and Red-winged can also be plentiful in here, as well as Western
Meadowlark). Check the larger trees for nesting Great Blue
Heron. A stand of pines down the road is often good for Lawrence's
Goldfinch, and possibly Mountain Chickadee, and the willow woodland that
comes up to the road can have Yellow Warblers in summer. The route
ends at the intersection with highway 79.
Oak savannah habitat
View from the summit
Grasslands of the Vista Water District
Pines and willows near the end of the route
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 indicate vagrant or
irruptive species and are not to be expected.
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