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"Easy Birder" Driving Routes

Banner Grade

    Except for the road to Yaqui Well (which under normal conditions should be passable for standard passenger cars), the roads on this route are all paved.

Approximate Length: 25 miles

Approximate Birding Time: 5 hours with the three optional hiking trails

Traffic: Moderate along the grade; light on Wynola and Farmer Roads

Facilities:  The only restroom along the route is at Yaqui Well campground; otherwise there's a public toilet at the Birdwatcher in Julian.

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; if you get to this area pre-dawn you may want to stop periodically to listen for owls and Poorwills.  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 Yaqui Well camp will be on your left.  Do not attempt to enter this area if the road looks even remotely wet!

Optional hike: Yaqui Well       You have to drive through the campground to get to the starting point of this popular birding trail; the parking area is wide but not obviously marked.  This desert oasis is a superb migrant trap in spring with various warblers, flycatchers, and vireos moving through, and in winter the place is inundated with Phainopeplas!  Common year-round desert birds include Costa's Hummingbird, Verdin, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, and Cactus Wren; less common are Loggerhead Shrike, Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, and Black-throated Sparrows.  In summer White-winged Doves can be common, and occasionally Scott's Orioles show up (although Bullock's is the common oriole here).  Winter sparrows include White-crowned and Brewer's, and this is generally a good area for California Quail year round (beware of Gambel's x California hybrids; I've had suspicious-sounding birds here that showed characteristics of each...).  The walk to the well itself (which is nothing more than a stand of reeds) is short, but the main trail jogs out into the open desert and winds up across from Tamarisk Grove campground; I generally sit and listen around Marker #12 and then head back.

Trail to Yaqui Well

The Well

Where the trail heads into open desert

After exploring Yaqui Well, go back to highway 78 and turn right, the way you came.  If you missed the Black-throated Sparrow at Yaqui Well, there's a good chance you'll pick it up between here and Sentenac Canyon, as well as any other common desert species.  The canyon itself can be good for both Canyon and Rock Wrens, and the riparian vegetation usually has Bell's Vireos in spring, as well as other specialties such as Yellow Warbler and Song Sparrow.  Listen for Rufous-crowned Sparrow on the hillsides, and in winter check the brushy areas for Lincoln's Sparrows.

Desert habitat heading up highway 78

Yaqui Creek along Sentenac Canyon

Shortly after coming out of the canyon you'll approach the turnoff for S2 (Scissors Crossing).  The bridge here is always worth a stop, and part of the PCT runs through here as well (see the description of this hike under the San Felipe Grade EBR).  This is one of those rare spots where the highlands meet the desert, and you can find both Nuttall's and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Wrentits and Verdin, and Scrub Jays and Crows as well as Ravens!  This is another good migrant trap, and swallows can be numerous.  Although I've not recorded them for this particular route, birds normally associated with southeast Arizona such as Summer Tanager and Brown-crested Flycatcher have bred here, and the tanager in particular is becoming quite regular up San Felipe Grade.  Watch for odd water-related birds such as Snowy Egret and Green Heron!  The surrounding desert scrub can be good for Brewer's Sparrows in winter, and during migration keep an eye out for Sage Thrashers in here.

View of Yaqui Creek just past Scissors Crossing

From here you start climbing the actual "Banner Grade", passing through transitional habitat that can be good for Scott's Oriole in spring and summer (especially around the yuccas).  In the more open areas you'll start picking up Lark Sparrows and Western Meadowlarks year-round, and Say's Phoebes, American Pipits, and White- and Golden-crowned Sparrows in winter.  Greater Roadrunners might be spotted anywhere along here.  Chaparral specialists such as California Thrasher, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Bushtit, Wrentit, California Towhee, and Bewick's Wren can be expected here as well.  In the heavier chaparral listen for Mountain Quail, and in summer Black-chinned Sparrows can be common.  In winter check for Fox Sparrows and Hermit Thrushes, and as you rise into more oak and other woodland habitat, look for Oak Titmouse, Acorn Woodpecker, Band-tailed Pigeon, House Wren, Hutton's Vireo, Spotted Towhee, and Dark-eyed Junco year-round; Western Wood Pewee and Black-headed Grosbeak in summer; and Ruby-crowned Kinglet in winter.  Migrant warblers can crop up anywhere along the grade in the most incongruous habitats!  This area was devastated by the Pines Fire of 2002, but is recovering nicely.

Climbing the grade: pinyon habitat...

...and open rangeland

Oak woodland nestled at the foot of the Volcan Mountains

Morning sunshine hitting the oaks further up the grade

Near the top of the mountain you'll come to Wynola Road; turn right here and bird as you can, as pulloffs are few and far between.  This is a scenic area of oak savannah habitat with some scattered pines, so you may pick up Pine Siskin (can be abundant at the Birdwatcher's feeders in Julian), Violet-green Swallow, American Robin, and Pygmy Nuthatch as well as Hairy Woodpecker, Mountain Chickadee, and Steller's Jay.  The open areas are more attractive to Wild Turkey as well.  Turn right on Farmers Road and park just past the drive on your right for a hike up Volcan Mountain.

Optional hike: Volcan Mountain        I only go a short distance up this trail (enough to get an overview of the area), but the hardy can take a two hour hike up to the gate (at present the bulk of the preserve is closed to the public, but there are docent-led hikes that go deeper into the preserve; click on the above link for more info).  The orchards along the entrance road can be good for Chipping Sparrow, Western Bluebird, and both Lesser and Lawrence's Goldfinch, and in winter look for Golden-crowned Sparrows among the Whiteys.  This is another good spot for Black-chinned Sparrows in summer and Rufous-crowned Sparrows year-round.  From the ridge you can enjoy the view of the ranch homes and watch and listen for Flickers, Black Phoebe, White-breasted Nuthatch, and Purple Finch year round; and Western Kingbird and Lazuli Bunting in summer.  Red-breasted Sapsuckers are possible, and one year we had wintering Lewis' Woodpeckers here, although that species is highly erratic.  Raptors are easy to spot along here; look for Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks, as well as the occasional White-tailed Kite and Prairie Falcon.  Beware of listing raptors by ear around here, as the orchard owners have begun to utilize hawk and falcon recordings to discourage pesky starlings!

View from the Volcan Mountain Trail

Continue on Farmers Road, stopping periodically to check the small farm ponds for coots, ducks (especially in winter) and Pied-billed Grebes.  Just before the end of the road you'll see a staging area for the newly opened Santa Ysabel Open Space Preserve.

Optional hike: Santa Ysabel Open Space Preserve        This is a nice alternative to the Volcan Mountain Trail if the latter is too strenuous for you.  The staging area is only open on weekends at present, but there's a small pulloff on the right just past the cattle guard where you can squeeze your car during the week.  I've only gone about a half mile in, but the whole trail (which empties out onto Highway 79 near Santa Ysabel Mission) is between six and seven miles and evidently climbs some pretty good hills.  This first section goes through gorgeous oak savannah habitat, and while it's so new that I've only hiked it twice, it was very good for Lawrence's Goldfinch, Lazuli Buntings, Western Kingbirds and Bluebirds, and Lark Sparrows.  One year during the Atlas project I had a singing Grasshopper Sparrow near the Cedar Glen Camp turnoff, so listen for them if you visit this area in spring and early summer.  Undoubtedly this will be a great place for wintering sparrows (especially Savannah; look for them along the road as well).  The oak riparian area at the creek crossing probably has great potential at other times of the year (and earlier in the day!)

Scenes along the new Santa Ysabel OSP Trail

The little pond at the end of the road tends to be a good spot for Ring-necked Duck and Belted Kingfisher in winter, with oddities such as Hooded Merganser, Virginia Rail, Great Blue Heron, and even Osprey showing up!  Wetland songbirds such as Common Yellowthroat, Red-winged Blackbird, and on rare occasion Willow Flycatcher can be found in these spots as well.  A real rarity in the riparian areas one year was a Downy Woodpecker; Blue Grosbeak is more expected (in summer).

Pond at the end of the road

Retrace your way back to Wynola and turn right, birding as you can.  You'll pass through more "pine savannah" habitat; Brewer's Blackbirds hang around the buildings along here, and check the farm pond on the left for ducks (American Wigeon tend to like this one in the winter).  The route ends at the intersection with highway 78, where you can turn right to return to San Diego (and I've heard that the pizza place on the corner is a yummy place for lunch!).

"Pine savannah" habitat; many of the trees here have died from the pine beetle.

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 should not be expected.

  J F M A M J J A S O N D
Pied-billed Grebe                  
Double-crested Cormorant                      
Great Blue Heron                
Snowy Egret                      
Green Heron                      
Mallard              
American Wigeon                    
Ring-necked Duck                    
Lesser Scaup                      
Hooded Merganser                      
Turkey Vulture                  
Northern Harrier                        
White-tailed Kite                        
Sharp-shinned Hawk                      
Cooper's Hawk                      
Red-shouldered Hawk                      
Red-tailed Hawk                  
Osprey                      
American Kestrel                      
Prairie Falcon                      
California Quail                  
Mountain Quail                    
Wild Turkey                      
American Coot              
Virginia Rail                      
Killdeer                  
Mourning Dove        
White-winged Dove                    
Band-tailed Pigeon                
Greater Roadrunner                      
Common Poorwill              ●        
White-throated Swift                    
Anna's Hummingbird            
Costa's Hummingbird                  
Rufous Hummingbird                        
Belted Kingfisher                    
Northern Flicker          
Acorn Woodpecker      ●  
Lewis' Woodpecker                  
Red-breasted Sapsucker                      
Nuttall's Woodpecker        
Ladder-backed Woodpecker                    
Downy Woodpecker                      
Hairy Woodpecker                  
Ash-throated Flycatcher                
Black Phoebe        
Say's Phoebe                        
Pacific-slope Flycatcher                  
Willow Flycatcher                      
Hammond's Flycatcher                      
Western Wood Pewee                  
Western Kingbird                
Loggerhead Shrike                    
Warbling Vireo                        
Bell's Vireo                      
Hutton's Vireo                
Cassin's Vireo                        
American Crow            
Common Raven        
Steller's Jay        
Western Scrub Jay            
Northern Rough-winged Swallow                      
Violet-green Swallow                  
Cliff Swallow                    
Barn Swallow                        
Mountain Chickadee          
Oak Titmouse          
Verdin                
Bushtit            
White-breasted Nuthatch            
Pygmy Nuthatch                  
House Wren              
Bewick's Wren                
Cactus Wren                
Rock Wren                
Canyon Wren                    
Wrentit          
Ruby-crowned Kinglet                
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher            
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher                        
Western Bluebird          
American Robin            
Swainson's Thrush                      
Hermit Thrush                    
Northern Mockingbird                  
California Thrasher            
Sage Thrasher                      
European Starling                
American Pipit                      
Phainopepla              
Orange-crowned Warbler                        
Yellow Warbler                
Yellow-rumped Warbler                    
Black-throated Gray Warbler                    
Townsend's Warbler                        
Hermit Warbler                        
MacGillivray's Warbler                        
Common Yellowthroat          
Wilson's Warbler                      
Western Tanager                  
Black-headed Grosbeak                  
Blue Grosbeak                  
Lazuli Bunting                  
Spotted Towhee        
California Towhee          
Rufous-crowned Sparrow                      
Black-throated Sparrow                      
Black-chinned Sparrow                  
Brewer's Sparrow                    
Chipping Sparrow                
Grasshopper Sparrow                      
Savannah Sparrow                      
Lark Sparrow              
Golden-crowned Sparrow                      
White-crowned Sparrow                  
"Slate-colored" Fox Sparrow                        
Song Sparrow              
Lincoln's Sparrow                      
Dark-eyed Junco            
"Slate-colored" Junco                      
Western Meadowlark            
Brown-headed Cowbird                      
Red-winged Blackbird          
Brewer's Blackbird                  
Bullock's Oriole              
Hooded Oriole                        
Scott's Oriole                      
Pine Siskin                      
Lawrence's Goldfinch                
Lesser Goldfinch              
Purple Finch          
House Finch          
House Sparrow          

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