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"Easy Birder" Driving Routes

Blair Valley/Pinyon Mountain

    The roads are sandy and bumpy in spots, especially on the last leg out of Little Blair Valley, and may cause a standard passenger car to "bottom out".

Approximate Length: 15 miles, counting the side roads

Approximate Birding Time: 4 hours

Traffic: Practically non-existent

Facilities: There's a restroom at the entrance to the Blair Valley area, and several porta-potties near the primitive campgrounds in Big Blair..

Directions: The scenic route is to take I-8 east to the Japatul Valley Exit (highway 79) and follow 79 north through Cuyamaca State Park to the intersection with highway 78 near Julian.  Turn right, and take 78 down into the desert to S2.  Turn right (south) towards Agua Caliente Park.  After about five miles you'll come to a little pass in the mountains.  Just over this pass you'll see an historical marker on the right for the Butterfield Stage Route; turn left onto the dirt road, and bear left again towards the kiosk and stop sign; this is where the route begins.  A stop here can add a few species, as Verdins in particular seem to like the mesquites.  Early in the morning (especially in spring) the air can be full of the songs of Cactus Wrens and California Quail.

"Big" Blair Valley

The two Blair Valleys are actually dried lake beds and look pretty bleak, but in reality this can be a great place for birds, especially in winter.  Follow the main road that "hugs" the valley's border, and keep "hugging" the valley until you come to a major fork with a little brown and white arrow marker telling you to veer right towards the Mortreros and Pictographs.  The rock piles on your left are home to Rock Wrens at any season, and the valley floor can have Horned Larks and American Pipits in winter. 

Creosote/cactus habitat

As you take that right fork, continue to follow the signs towards the Mortreros.  You'll pass through barren creosote, cactus, and agave habitat; Black-throated Sparrows can be plentiful along here.  This loop is also a fairly reliable place for Scott's Oriole in spring and summer, and Ladder-backed Woodpecker at any season.  A 1.5 mile side road to the Marshall South Home might give you some extra coverage, but the hike itself is strenuous.  Continuing on the main loop, you'll soon come to the parking area for the Mortreros Trail.

Optional Hike: The Mortreros Trail + Basically flat, but the incline to the mortreros is ever so slight and the trail soft in spots.  Typical desert species to be looked for along this trail, in addition to the others previously mentioned, include Anna's and Costa's Hummingbirds,  and Black-tailed Gnatcatcher (Blue-gray occurs in winter).  Past the really big rock, there's a clump of rocks where the trail virtually ends, but you have a marvelous view into the canyon.  Sit here for five; this is a good spot for Canyon Wren.

Mortreros Trail looking back into the valley

The "Really Big Rock"

The "Canyon Wren Canyon"

Continuing on the loop, you'll come to another fork; the right fork takes you to another trailhead for the pictographs which covers similar habitat, but the road can be dicey.  Take the left fork and continue to Little Blair Valley.

Little Blair Valley

The same area after a rare good winter's rain

Again, hug the side of the lakebed, as many side roads go off into the primitive campgrounds.  Look for Loggerhead Shrike (beware of Northern Mockingbirds as well) and Say's Phoebe, and watch the big mesquite bushes; from late fall to early spring look for Sage Thrashers, but take that second look as one winter a Bendire's Thrasher showed up here!  At the turnoff to Highway S2, keep going straight and pull up next to the "riparian" area on the right that transects the lakebed.  A stroll around the wash vegetation can be very productive: look for Mountain Bluebird and sparrows in the winter, and during migration anything can show up.  One fall I witnessed a life-and-death battle between a Prairie Falcon and a Roadrunner, so as bleak as this area looks, it can still hold surprises!

"Riparian" area transecting Little Blair Valley

Go back to the turnoff and go right, taking the road over the hill; at the top veer left toward the highway.  This area seems to be the more likely place to run into raptors, California Towhees, and Bewick's Wrens, and Verdins seem to like this back area as well.  In winter, the vast majority of sparrows you run into will be White-crowned, but sorting through the flocks may yield a Brewer's as well; in spring listen for their non-stop songs as they prepare to head north! 

View of Shelter Valley from the back side of the loop

The road ends at County Road S2; to continue the route, turn right and drive north for one mile to the turnoff to Pinyon Mountain on the right (look for the yellow equestrian sign as a landmark).  The birds along this road are similar to what you'll find in Blair Valley, but the open, fenced area at the beginning of the road can be good for Horned Lark, Say's Phoebe, and Mountain Bluebird in winter and Western Kingbird in summer.  Regulars like Loggerhead Shrike and Western Meadowlark can also be found here.  About a half mile down, while still relatively on the desert floor, sparrows like to hide in the creosote; look for Black-throated Sparrows year round and White-crowned and Brewer's in winter. 

Entrance to Pinyon Mountain Road

Gradually the road climbs and the vegetation is dominated by yuccas, century plants, ocotillos, chollas, and beavertail cactus, as well as some junipers.  Scott's Orioles particularly like this area in spring and summer, and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers can be expected year round.  Other possibilities include Ash-throated Flycatcher in summer, Sage Thrasher in migration, and Greater Roadrunner, Verdin, and Black-tailed Gnatcatcher year round.  In winter Western Bluebirds sometimes show up.

Ascending the hill

Century Plants and yuccas dominate the landscape

After about 3.5 miles the road comes to a narrow passage through the mountains which only the hardiest of 4WD vehicles can pass (you'll notice that the road widens enough here for the average vehicle to turn around)!  A hike up the road probably won't produce any new birds, but you'll get some exercise and see at least a couple of the namesake pinyons up on the hillside!  Besides the birds, this is a good place to look for Antelope Ground Squirrels and Jackrabbits.  Listen for Rock Wrens on the hillsides and White-throated Swifts overhead. 

The end of the road for the average car!

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 vagrants or out of place and are not to be expected.

  J F M A M J J A S O N D
Sharp-shinned Hawk                    
Cooper's Hawk                      
Red-tailed Hawk          
Prairie Falcon                      
California Quail                    
Mourning Dove              
Greater Roadrunner                
White-throated Swift                    
Anna's Hummingbird                  
Costa's Hummingbird                  
Ladder-backed Woodpecker    
Ash-throated Flycatcher                
Black Phoebe                      
Say's Phoebe            
Pacific-slope Flycatcher                      
Western Kingbird                      
Loggerhead Shrike    
Common Raven  
Horned Lark          
Verdin        
Bushtit                      
Bewick's Wren      
Cactus Wren
Rock Wren
Canyon Wren              
Ruby-crowned Kinglet                    
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher                
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher                
Mountain Bluebird                  
Western Bluebird                      
Northern Mockingbird                      
Bendire's Thrasher                      
Sage Thrasher                      
American Pipit                    
Phainopepla                      
Orange-crowned Warbler                      
Yellow-rumped Warbler                      
Black-throated Gray Warbler                      
California Towhee                  
Black-throated Sparrow
Brewer's Sparrow              
Chipping Sparrow                    
Vesper Sparrow                      
White-crowned Sparrow                
Western Meadowlark                    
Scott's Oriole                
Lawrence's Goldfinch                    
Lesser Goldfinch                      
House Finch    

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