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"Easy Birder" Driving Routes

Black Canyon/Mesa Grande Roads

Please note: this area was severely damaged by the 2007 Witch Creek Fire; however, the upper end of Black Canyon Road and the whole of Mesa Grande Road is intact.  Based on data gathered during previous post-fire surveys, most of the chaparral specialties probably won't start recolonizing until 2009-2010, but fire-followers such as Black-chinned Sparrows and Lazuli Buntings could spike in the next year or two.  Look also for an increase in Rock Wrens.  There are patches of surviving riparian woodland in the ravine, where birds associated with that habitat can at least still be heard.  Click here for pictures of the damage.

 + Black Canyon Road is a generally good graded dirt road, but can have some good ruts, particularly along the bottom half of the road before the bridge.   Mesa Grande Road is paved.

Approximate Length: 18 miles

Approximate Birding Time: 4.5 hours

Traffic: Very light along Black Canyon; moderate along Mesa Grande

Facilities: None along the route, but there are restaurants in nearby Santa Ysabel.

Directions:  Take I-8 east towards El Cajon, and take highway 67 north to Ramona.  Once through town and over a little hill, the road opens up.  Turn left on Magnolia, and follow this road until it turns to dirt, where the route starts.


Black Canyon Road begins in Ramona and takes you up through chaparral and oak woodland, with some deciduous riparian areas, particularly at the Santa Ysabel Creek crossing.  At the start of the dirt road, the small stand of oaks, pepper trees, and eucs can be good for Hooded and Bullock's Orioles  in spring and summer and Nuttall's Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, and Red-shouldered Hawk year round, as well as other riparian-associated breeders and migrants.  In the open area check for Say's Phoebe and Cassin's and Western Kingbirds, and watch for California Quail feeding along the road.  Take care that Northern Mockingbirds hang out around the buildings, as California Thrasher can also be heard in the nearby chaparral.  Rising into said chaparral should produce good numbers of Wrentits and both species of towhee; listen also for Rufous-crowned, "Bell's" Sage, and Black-chinned Sparrows (summer), Ash-throated Flycatchers (summer), and Bewick's Wrens.  Costa's Hummingbirds can also be quite active here, especially in spring.  Keep an ear out for both Lesser and Lawrence's Goldfinches bouncing over.  In winter, look for the occasional Golden-crowned Sparrow in with the White-crowneds.  Listen for both Rock and Canyon Wrens among the rocky outcrops.


Disturbed grasslands at the start of Black Canyon Road

Oak and riparian woodland along the creek

Common species typical of oak woodland are easily heard along this road, such as Black-headed Grosbeak (summer), Acorn Woodpecker, House Wren, Dark-eyed Junco, White-breasted Nuthatch, Oak Titmouse, and Orange-crowned Warbler.  Listen also for Mountain Quail, Hutton's Vireo, Western Wood Pewee (summer), Pacific-slope Flycatcher (summer), and both Anna's and Black-chinned Hummingbirds (summer)At the fire station, keep an eye out for Wild Turkeys that like to feed around here!  Please do not wander down into Indian property across from the fire station!

Riparian habitat along Santa Ysabel Creek at the historic Black Canyon Road Bridge.

After about five miles the road forks; take the left fork over the bridge and stop for a look (be aware that as of this writing--2007--there is major road work going on; I believe they're working on a new bridge).  This is a good spot to check for Common Yellowthroat, Black Phoebe, Lazuli Bunting, Yellow Warbler, Song Sparrow, and other riparian birds.

Marjorie shows off the general condition of the road and the wonderful oak woodland habitat along the upper half of the road!

About 5.5 miles from the bridge, the road breaks out into oak savannah habitat and ranchland with boulders. This is a great area for raptors; Red-tailed Hawks and American Kestrels are common, whereas things like Ferruginous Hawk, Prairie Falcon and Golden Eagle are much less so.  In summer you should find Western Kingbirds, and year-round keep an eye out for blackbirds, particularly Tricolored.  Occasionally Wild Turkeys will be feeding in large flocks in the open fields, along with the blackbirds. There's a small dammed pond back from the road on the right hand side; check for ducks and grebes if it's not dry.  There's also a little pond just past the ranch house; when there's water in it, check for waterfowl and shorebirds.  At the intersection with Mesa Grande, check the telephone poles for Lewis' Woodpeckers in winter.  Besides the raptors, check the skies for fly-over waders (presumably on their way to Lake Henshaw...)!

Meadows at the top of Black Canyon Road

Dammed pond

The unusually full farm pond along the road

Turn right on Mesa Grande Road, and pull over periodically when you can; pullouts are few, and while I dislike using private ranch drives as pullouts, sometimes that's all there is.  Be sure to check the pond on the right about a half mile from the Black Canyon Road intersection (only visible after you park and look backwards) as it sometimes has interesting ducks, and the flowering fields can be full of Lawrence's Goldfinches in spring.  Keep an eye on the poles for the Lewis', and check the riparian crossings for Red-winged and/or Tricolored Blackbirds (the latter can be quite numerous) and Blue Grosbeak in summer.  In winter, the grasslands can be good for sparrows, particularly White-crowned and Vesper (again, not in my records yet, but this is a favorite place among locals to look).  Lark Sparrows and Western Meadowlarks can be found year-round, while Horned Larks tend to be more scarce.  You may even spot a Great Blue Heron stalking the meadows for rodents!  Western Bluebirds like areas where there are scattered trees; on rare occasions higher elevation birds like Mountain Chickadee and Steller's Jay show up!  Check the wires for American Kestrel and the skies for White-tailed Kite and various swallows in summer, particularly Purple Martin which has nested in trees along the road.  As you descend the mountain there are more adequate pullouts where you start picking up chaparral species again, and at the bottom in the flat ranchland, look for raptors and even Greater Roadrunner on the rocks in the field! 

Oak savannah habitat along Mesa Grande Road

After the rains

Mesa Grande Road at the bottom of the hill.

The route ends at the intersection with Highway 79; for an interesting side trip you might want to turn right and visit the Santa Ysabel Mission, which is just down the road on your left.  This has historically been a good place for both Red-breasted and Red-naped Sapsuckers in fall and winter.  If you're in need of exercise, a left turn at the intersection of Highway 79 and 78 will take you up the hill towards Julian, and the Inaja Memorial Park on the right; their little half-mile nature trail can be a workout, but provides great views and a chance at more chaparral species.  Otherwise you can stop at Santa Ysabel for some pie before returning 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. 

Great Blue Heron                    
Great Egret                      
Cinnamon Teal                      
Green-winged Teal                      
American Wigeon                      
Ring-necked Duck                  
Turkey Vulture            
White-tailed Kite                  
Sharp-shinned Hawk                      
Cooper's Hawk                      
Red-shouldered Hawk    
Red-tailed Hawk    
Ferruginous Hawk    ●                
Golden Eagle                      
American Kestrel    
Prairie Falcon                      
California Quail      
Mountain Quail                
Wild Turkey              
American Coot                    
Mourning Dove      
Band-tailed Pigeon                    
Rock Pigeon                  
Greater Roadrunner                      
Vaux's Swift                      
White-throated Swift     ●                 
Anna's Hummingbird          
Costa's Hummingbird                
Black-chinned Hummingbird                    
Selasphorus Hummingbird                      
Northern Flicker  
Acorn Woodpecker
Lewis' Woodpecker                      
Nuttall's Woodpecker  
Pacific-slope Flycatcher                  
Ash-throated Flycatcher                
Black Phoebe          
Say's Phoebe                
Western Wood Pewee                
Cassin's Kingbird                    
Western Kingbird              
Warbling Vireo                      
Hutton's Vireo          
Cassin's Vireo                      
American Crow
Common Raven  
Steller's Jay        
Western Scrub Jay
Horned Lark                      
Purple Martin                      
Northern Rough-winged Swallow                  
Violet-green Swallow                  
Cliff Swallow            
Mountain Chickadee                
Oak Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch      
House Wren            
Bewick's Wren
Canyon Wren      ●  ●              
Ruby-crowned Kinglet            
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher                  
Western Bluebird  
American Robin                    
Hermit Thrush            
Northern Mockingbird              
California Thrasher
European Starling    
Orange-crowned Warbler                
Yellow Warbler              
Yellow-rumped Warbler          
Black-throated Gray Warbler                      
Common Yellowthroat                
Wilson's Warbler                    
Western Tanager                      
Black-headed Grosbeak                
Blue Grosbeak                      
Lazuli Bunting                  
Spotted Towhee
California Towhee
Rufous-crowned Sparrow        
"Bell's" Sage Sparrow                  
Black-chinned Sparrow                  
Chipping Sparrow                      
Savannah Sparrow                      
Lark Sparrow        
Golden-crowned Sparrow                    
White-crowned Sparrow          
Song Sparrow      
Dark-eyed Junco      
Western Meadowlark      
Brown-headed Cowbird                    
Tricolored Blackbird                
Red-winged Blackbird        
Brewer's Blackbird      
Bullock's Oriole                  
Hooded Oriole                      
Pine Siskin                      
Lawrence's Goldfinch                
Lesser Goldfinch
House Finch
House Sparrow              

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