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"Easy Birder" Driving Routes

Mission Gorge


    Father Junipero Serra Trail is paved all the way.

Approximate Length: 2.5 miles

Approximate Birding Time: 2.5 - 3 hours, including the three optional hikes

Traffic: Very light

Facilities:  Restrooms are available at the visitor center and Kumeyaay campground; porta-potties are situated along Father Junipero Road and at the Mission Dam parking lot.

Directions: Take I-8 east to Mission Gorge Road, which bears left under the freeway.  Follow this road all the way for almost four miles to the turnoff to Father Junipero Serra Trail on your left, where there's also a sign for Mission Trails Regional Park.  This is also where the Visitor's Center is located.  Since the gate to the road doesn't (theoretically) open till 8:00, another option would be to get two of the optional trails done first, starting with Lake Kumeyaay.  To get to the lake, continue down Mission Gorge into Santee, and turn left at the first light, which is the east end of Father Junipero Serra Trail.  The campground is on the right, just past the 4-way stop; if it's closed, park in the big lot across the street.  Otherwise you can park in the day use area (or closer if you have handicap access).  This narrative, however, begins at the Visitor Center area.

Optional hike:     Oak Grove Loop Trail         This is a lovely loop through sage scrub, chaparral, and oak woodland that takes a little over 30 minutes to bird.  Park either in the small lot on the right as you turn onto Father Junipero Serra, or along the curb on the left if there's no room in the lot.  It's possible to get California Gnatcatcher right in the lot, so keep an ear out for "kittens"!  The trail is on the other side of the fence and leads back towards Mission Gorge Road, then down into the creek area.  In the scrub look for both towhees and Rufous-crowned Sparrows, as well as the usual chaparral fare (Western Scrub Jays can be particularly plentiful in here).  Down in the oak woodland a rest on one of the benches might yield Hutton's Vireo, Orange-crowned Warbler, House Wren, and Black Phoebe year round; Pacific-slope Flycatcher  and Black-chinned Hummingbird in summer, and Ruby-crowned Kinglet in winter.  Once out into the chaparral again, listen for the descending song or "beeps" of Canyon Wrens from the stark rock face of Mission Gorge.  In winter, look for Hermit Thrushes and Fox, White-crowned, Golden-crowned, and Lincoln's Sparrows.  Listen for the whistles of White-tailed Kites in this area as well.  The trail dumps out on the paved road; make a left and return to your car.  If the gate's still locked, you can either drive down to Kumeyaay and do that hike, or wait for the gatekeeper to show up and do Kumeyaay when you get there via Father Junipero.

Oak Grove Trail

Resting spots in the oak woodland

If the gate's open, head slowly down the road and stop periodically to look and listen (there are plenty of pulloffs).  This area is best in spring and early summer when breeding birds partial to willow riparian habitats are at their peak; look and listen for Red-shouldered Hawk, Black-chinned, Anna's, and Costa's Hummingbirds, Belted Kingfisher, Downy and Nuttall's Woodpecker, Bell's Vireos, American and Lesser Goldfinches, Yellow Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-breasted Chat, Black-headed Grosbeak, Song Sparrow, and both Bullock's and Hooded Orioles.  Watch for White-throated Swifts and raptors along the rock faces, and listen for Rufous-crowned and (rarely) Black-chinned Sparrows and Rock and Canyon Wrens.  Despite the damage from the 2003 Cedar Fire, normal chaparral birds such as Bewick's Wren, Wrentit, California Thrasher, Bushtit, and California Quail should be around as well.  The parking area for Old Mission Dam is on the left at the stop sign; strolling among the willows at this spot could be productive.

Riparian habitat along the San Diego River and recovering hillside

Optional hike:     Grasslands Trail        

The hardy could make a good hour-long loop from this trail that could take you to the back side of Mission Dam and then back up to the road, but a ten-minute walk through the heart of the riparian woodland and into the grasslands is enough to bag White-tailed Kite, Loggerhead Shrike (rare), and Western Meadowlarks year-round, and Grasshopper Sparrows in spring and summer, all of which you are unlikely to pick up from the road.  You also might have a better chance at species such as Western Kingbird and Blue Grosbeak in summer; Lark Sparrow year round; and Say's Phoebe, Savannah Sparrow, and American Pipits in winter.  In migration check the skies for Vaux's Swifts in addition to the swallows.  To get to the trailhead, go past the parking area for Old Mission Dam and park across from where another gate blocks a wide trail going down into the the riparian area.  Take this trail (which can be very productive for migrants in spring; Yellow Warblers breed here and can be particularly plentiful), and once into the grasslands take the middle trail.  At the next intersection bear left; this is the best area for the sparrows.  You can turn back at this point, but if you want to tackle the whole loop, keep going and make your way back towards the river (take the next left and then follow the signs to Old Mission Dam).  You'll come to some "steps" into the (usually) dry creek, and then up the other side.  Bear left, and follow this trail to an area with big flat rocks (usually it's dry in here), another traditional spot for Rock and Canyon Wrens.  Take the bridge, and continue on past Old Mission Dam and to the parking area, then up the hill and down the road to your car.  From here, Kumeyaay Campground and Lake is right ahead on your left.

Trail heading down into the riparian area

Grasslands on the Mission Dam Loop Trail

Coming around the back side of the dam

The old historic dam itself

Optional Hike: Kumeyaay Lake    From the parking area walk down towards the lake, where two trails go around either side but do not encircle it (taking the trail to the left will take you past the amphitheater and to another smaller lake on the north side of the trail).   In addition to typical willow riparian species seen or heard along the road, watch the lake for coots, Eared and Pied-billed Grebes, Common Moorhen, and various waterfowl, especially in winter.  Swallows of various species like to swoop over the lake (Tree Swallows breed here), and from the reeds you can hear Marsh Wrens and occasionally Green Herons and Least Bitterns (or even catch one zip across the lake).  While normally associated with salt marsh, Clapper Rails have begun to show up here; in winter listen for Sora as well, and Virginia Rail year-round.  This is a prime fishing area for kingfishers and other herons as well.  In migration the place can be alive with Wilson's Warblers as well as other migrants, including the shy Swainson's Thrush.  The grassland and brushy area is good for sparrows (look for White-crowned, Golden-crowned, and Lincoln's in winter) and raptors.  The sycamores in the parking area and campground often have American Robins in winter and American Goldfinches year-round.

Kumeyaay Lake  in summer

Same spot in winter

The "Back Lake" on a foggy day


The east-bound trail

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 out-of-place, vagrant, or irruptive species and are not to be expected.

  J F M A M J J A S O N* D
Eared Grebe                    
Pied-billed Grebe                
Double-crested Cormorant                      
Least Bittern                    
Great Blue Heron                      
Great Egret                    
Snowy Egret                      
Green Heron                      
Black-crowned Night Heron                      
Northern Shoveler                      
Ring-necked Duck                      
Lesser Scaup                      
Ruddy Duck                    
Turkey Vulture                      
White-tailed Kite                
Sharp-shinned Hawk                      
Cooper's Hawk                      
Red-shouldered Hawk              
Red-tailed Hawk                
American Kestrel                  
California Quail                  
Common Moorhen            ●          
American Coot                  
Clapper Rail**                      ●
Virginia Rail                      
Caspian Tern                      
Mourning Dove        
Rock Pigeon                      
Vaux's Swift                      
White-throated Swift                  
Anna's Hummingbird    
Costa's Hummingbird                      
Black-chinned Hummingbird                
Selasphorus Hummingbird                      
Belted Kingfisher                    
Northern Flicker                      
Nuttall's Woodpecker      
Downy Woodpecker            
Ash-throated Flycatcher                    
Black Phoebe    
Say's Phoebe                      
Pacific-slope Flycatcher                
Cassin's Kingbird                  
Western Kingbird                      
Loggerhead Shrike                      
Warbling Vireo                      
Bell's Vireo                  
Hutton's Vireo              
American Crow              
Common Raven      
Western Scrub Jay          
Northern Rough-winged Swallow                
Tree Swallow                  
Cliff Swallow                      
Barn Swallow                  
Red-breasted Nuthatch                      
White-breasted Nuthatch                      
House Wren            
Marsh Wren                    
Bewick's Wren    
Rock Wren                      
Canyon Wren        
Ruby-crowned Kinglet                
California Gnatcatcher                  
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher                    
Western Bluebird                      
American Robin                      
Swainson's Thrush                      
Hermit Thrush              
Northern Mockingbird                
California Thrasher            
European Starling                    
American Pipit                      
Orange-crowned Warbler              
Yellow Warbler                    
Yellow-rumped Warbler            
"Myrtle" Warbler                      
Black-throated Gray Warbler                      
Common Yellowthroat      
Wilson's Warbler                      
Yellow-breasted Chat                      
Summer Tanager                      
Black-headed Grosbeak                  
Blue Grosbeak                    
Lazuli Bunting                    
Spotted Towhee    
Green-tailed Towhee                      
California Towhee    
Rufous-crowned Sparrow            
Black-chinned Sparrow                      
Chipping Sparrow                      
Grasshopper Sparrow                
Savannah Sparrow                      
Lark Sparrow                      
Golden-crowned Sparrow                      
White-crowned Sparrow                
"Slate-colored" Fox Sparrow                    
Song Sparrow      
Lincoln's Sparrow                      
Western Meadowlark                
Brown-headed Cowbird                  
Red-winged Blackbird              
Great-tailed Grackle                      
Bullock's Oriole                      
Hooded Oriole                    
Lesser Goldfinch    
American Goldfinch                      
House Finch    
House Sparrow                      

*Kumeyaay Lake was not surveyed in November

**Reports of Clapper Rail at Kumeyaay Lake are becoming more numerous, so this species may become a regular fixture in the future.

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