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"Easy Birder" Driving Routes

Japatul Loop

    With the exception of part of Viejas Grade Road (which is an excellent dirt road), all roads on this loop are paved.

Approximate Length:  30 miles.

Approximate Birding Time:  5 hours

Traffic: Moderate to heavy (especially during morning rush hour) along Japatul and Tavern Roads; moderate to very light along Viejas Grade Road

Facilities: Porta potties at the Loveland Reservoir parking area; otherwise there are gas stations in Alpine.

Directions:  Take I-8 east past Alpine to the Descanso/Japatul Valley exit.  Turn right at the stop sign and start birding up at the next intersection; this loop provides a relatively easy way for those uncomfortable driving the dirt roads of the back country to try for some of the chaparral specialties and still be relatively close to civilization! 

Optional hike: Roberts Ranch        The area immediately to the east of the starting point is called Roberts Ranch, now part of the national forest and accessible through a gate near the CalTrans facility.  One could explore this area all day, but I generally just take a short hike into the oak woodlands, where typical birds such as Oak Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Orange-crowned Warbler, House Wren, and Acorn Woodpecker are possible year-round, plus Pacific-slope Flycatcher and Western Wood Pewee in summer, and Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Dark-eyed Junco in winter.  (This is another low-altitude spot where Band-tailed Pigeons, American Robins, Steller's Jays, and even Mountain Chickadees sometimes show up...)  The open area at the start of the trail may have Western Kingbird in summer, Say's Phoebe in winter, sparrows (Lark year-round and White-crowned in winter) and Western BluebirdsBrewer's Blackbirds might be hanging around the buildings along with the ever-present Starlings.  A mile down the road on the left are some bird feeders that sometimes attract chickadees and titmice, and there's often a roost of Band-tailed Pigeons in the trees next to the road.

Roberts Ranch pre dawn

Follow Japatul Road south, stopping occasionally for common chaparral fare such as Bushtit, Wrentit, Bewick's Wren, California Thrasher, and both California and Spotted Towhee year-round, plus Ash-throated Flycatcher in summer.  A short peek into the fields along Japatul Lane on the right might yield California Quail and is good for Western Bluebirds year-round and Western Kingbirds in summer (and although I've not spotted them myself, I hear the rock outcroppings are a good place to look for Golden Eagle).  Just past the turnoff for Lyons Valley Road is Japatul Spur Road on the right, which cuts across to Japatul Road again, but passes through an Audubon sanctuary (not open to the public).  Finding a pulloff is tough, but a walk along the road might be profitable for more oak-related species (Hutton's Vireos seem pretty reliable in here) and some open-area specialties like Blue Grosbeak in summer.  The chaparral hillsides have historically had Bell's Sage Sparrow as well, but they're also "gettable" at other stops along the route.  You may also encounter one of the few Scott's Orioles that regularly occur this far west!

Typical scene along Japatul Road

Scene along Japatul Spur Road

At the end of Japatul Spur, turn right onto Japatul Road again, stopping at any area that looks like it might have promise; California Quail can be plentiful in here, and sometimes Greater Roadrunners can be heard "singing" in spring.  After about four miles you'll approach the Sweetwater River, where unfortunately the powers that be have put up numerous "No Stopping" signs (presumably to discourage fishermen from parking and hiking back to the lake).  If you can do so with a clear conscience J, a quick stop at the bridges to check the lush riparian habitat might yield a Bell's Vireo, Yellow Warbler, or other riparian specialty in summer.  The hillsides around there can have Rufous-crowned Sparrows year-round and Black-chinned Sparrows in summer.  Watch for White-throated Swifts and various swallows in spring and summer, particularly Northern Rough-winged and Cliff.

Overlook along Japatul Valley Road

Riparian habitat at Sweetwater River

Optional hike: Loveland Reservoir        Shortly you'll come to a large parking area on the left for Loveland Reservoir.  If you go all the way to the edge of the water (about a ten-minute walk), you go down some stairs that you have to come back up, hence the "strenuous" rating, but the birds you could get in here might be worth it to you: the lake itself can be pretty sterile bird-wise (as are many man-made reservoirs), but Western and Clark's Grebes, Double-crested Cormorant, Coot, and Ruddy Duck are almost always good possibilities, along with the occasional Great Blue Heron or Great Egret.  Listen for Red-winged Blackbirds and Great-tailed Grackles "singing" from the wetlands, and the deciduous habitat around the arm can have Lawrence's (more likely in summer) and Lesser Goldfinches, Black Phoebes, Common Yellowthroats, and Song Sparrows year round; and Black-chinned Hummingbirds, Black-headed Grosbeaks, and Lazuli Buntings in summer.  You might even hear a Canyon Wren across the way.  The nearby oaks are usually pretty reliable for Hutton's Vireos, "Red-shafted" Flickers, and Nuttall's Woodpeckers year-round, and can be good for migrants in spring.  The surrounding chaparral can have Anna's and Costa's Hummingbirds (plus Rufous and Allen's in migration), Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and Sage Sparrow year-round; Black-chinned Sparrow in summer; and Fox Sparrow and Hermit Thrush in winter.  You can also hike part of the California Riding and Hiking Trail across the street (look for the painted horse-crossing on the road) for a shot at more chaparral species (I consider that hike less strenuous than going all the way down to the lake, but the habitat is better at the latter...)

Trail down to Loveland Reservoir

Habitat around the lake

Stairs to "my" turnaround spot

View coming back up the trail

Continue west on Japatul Road; after another mile or so turn left on Sychuan Truck Trail, where you'll get a marvelous view of Loveland Reservoir and more chances at the chaparral sparrows.  (If you still have the energy, there's an access to the California Riding and Hiking Trail at the first major curve on the left; this will get you deeper into the chaparral.)  If you continue to the end of the road you  might be able to add more "suburban" type birds such as Yellow-rumped Warbler in winter, Black-headed Grosbeak and Bullock's and Hooded Orioles in summer, and Cassin's Kingbird year-round, but you should be able to pick those up in Alpine as well.

Loveland Reservoir from Sychuan Truck Trail

Follow the signs to Alpine, where Japatul Road becomes Tavern Road.  At the four-way stop, turn right onto South Grade Road.  There's a vast grassland on the left that you'll shortly come to called Wright's Field; although I've not encountered them, it looks great for Grasshopper Sparrows!  (You should at least get a Lark Sparrow or Western Meadowlark...)  There are a couple of trails accessible from South Grade Road if you have the time and energy to explore.  Check the trees around the homes for Phainopepla as well as other "suburban" birds. 

Wright's Field with Viejas Mountain in the background

Cactus habitat in same general area

Turn right on Via Viejas into the little residential area, park on a side street, and check out the small lake on the left side of Via Viejas, taking care to stay on the main road, as this is a private residential park.  This can be a fantastically productive little spot in winter especially; any number of good duck species (such as Canvasback and Redhead) can show up here, as well as Belted Kingfisher.  Year-round you have a good shot at Wood Ducks and Pied-billed Grebes as well as the ubiquitous Mallards and Coots, and an occasional heron (including Green).  If the water level is low you might pick up shorebirds, Killdeer and Least Sandpiper being the most likely.  The little pocket of oaks across the street is always worth a check; Band-tailed Pigeon is not unusual in here, as are Red-shouldered and Cooper's Hawks, and Black-headed Grosbeaks in summer; sometimes migrant Western Tanagers show up.  The willows might have Yellow Warbler as well as migrants in spring.  In winter you might hear a Pine Siskin flying over.  One winter a Red-naped Sapsucker showed up in one of the residential pepper trees, but Red-breasted is more likely.

"Palo Verde Pond"

During a dry year...

Return to South Grade and turn right, then right again on the frontage road next to the freeway.  (Turning left will take you into Alpine if you need civilization...)  You pass the Cleveland National Forest Ranger Station on the left, where you can get maps and use the restroom if necessary!  After about a mile, cut left over the freeway, and turn right (the only way you can turn) on Willows Road.  After another mile watch for the turnoff for Viejas Grade Road on the left, which is well-marked.  You'll be entering the Viejas Indian Reservation, and while stopping along the road is not forbidden here, the locals may get suspicious of a stranger with binoculars (I actually was questioned by the tribal police once J), so please don't wander off the main road and try to do your birding (at least along the populated stretch) from your car!  The first part of the road goes through rural ranches, where there's a little riparian area just before a hard left that's worth checking for Yellow Warblers, Lazuli Buntings, and Blue Grosbeaks in summer.  The open rangeland may have raptors in winter.  From here it's a good idea to drive straight to the dirt road, as you pass by tightly packed schools and homes until then (be sure to watch for blackbirds, kingbirds, and even Killdeer) Once on the dirt road you'll be going through chaparral that was destroyed by the 2003 Cedar Fire, but is recovering quite nicely; you should be able to get Black-chinned Sparrows in summer and Sage and Rufous-crowned Sparrows year-round, as well as Rock Wrens and other fire-followers such as Lazuli Bunting (summer) and Lark Sparrow.  Listen for Mountain Quail calling from the hillsides in spring.  Towards Descanso you pick up more oak woodland, and a quick check of the pines around the Descanso Ranger Station might bag you some of those higher-elevation species!  The route basically ends at the gas station at the end of the road.  This is very close to the jumping-off point for the Boulder Creek EBR as well!

Homey ranch and riparian habitat in the Viejas Indian Reservation

Views going up the grade

Recovering chaparral

Viejas Grade closer to the Descanso end

To return to San Diego, turn right at the intersection, then right again at highway 79, and follow that to the freeway.

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 denote vagrant, irruptive, or out-of-place species and should not be expected.

  J F M A M J J A S O N D
Pied-billed Grebe        
Western Grebe                  
Clark's Grebe                  
Double-crested Cormorant                      
Great Blue Heron                  
Great Egret                  
Snowy Egret                  
Green Heron                  
American Wigeon                
Wood Duck              
Ring-necked Duck                    
Ruddy Duck              
Turkey Vulture                
Northern Harrier                      
Cooper's Hawk              
Red-shouldered Hawk          
Red-tailed Hawk          
American Kestrel                
California Quail              
Mountain Quail                    
American Coot        
Least Sandpiper                      
Mourning Dove      
Band-tailed Pigeon        
Greater Roadrunner                      
White-throated Swift                  
Anna's Hummingbird
Costa's Hummingbird                    
Black-chinned Hummingbird                    
Rufous Hummingbird                    
Selasphorus Hummingbird                      
Belted Kingfisher                    
Northern Flicker        
Acorn Woodpecker  
Red-naped Sapsucker                      
Nuttall's Woodpecker      
Ash-throated Flycatcher                
Say's Phoebe                  
Black Phoebe  
Pacific-slope Flycatcher              
Western Wood Pewee                  
Cassin's Kingbird              
Western Kingbird                  
Bell's Vireo                      
Hutton's Vireo                
American Crow
Common Raven    
Steller's Jay            
Western Scrub Jay
Northern Rough-winged Swallow              
Cliff Swallow                
Mountain Chickadee                  
Oak Titmouse  
White-breasted Nuthatch          
House Wren            
Bewick's Wren    
Rock Wren                
Canyon Wren                      
Ruby-crowned Kinglet              
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher                    
Western Bluebird          
American Robin              
Hermit Thrush              
Northern Mockingbird          
California Thrasher    
European Starling      
Orange-crowned Warbler          
Nashville Warbler                      
Yellow Warbler                  
Yellow-rumped Warbler            
Black-throated Gray Warbler                      
Common Yellowthroat              
Western Tanager                      
Black-headed Grosbeak                
Blue Grosbeak                  
Lazuli Bunting                  
Spotted Towhee      
California Towhee
Rufous-crowned Sparrow                
Bell's Sage Sparrow                
Black-chinned Sparrow              
Lark Sparrow            
White-crowned Sparrow            
Fox Sparrow                
Song Sparrow        
Lincoln's Sparrow                      
Dark-eyed Junco              
Western Meadowlark                      
Brown-headed Cowbird                    
Red-winged Blackbird              
Brewer's Blackbird            
Great-tailed Grackle                  
Bullock's Oriole                  
Hooded Oriole                
Scott's Oriole                      
Pine Siskin                    
Lawrence's Goldfinch                
Lesser Goldfinch    
House Finch
House Sparrow            

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