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"Easy Birder" Driving Routes

Palomar Mountain

Please note: portions of this route were severely damaged by the 2007 Poomacha Fire: habitat along Nate Harrison Grade was almost completely destroyed, along with much of the habitat coming up South Grade Road.  (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.)  The fire came up the hill and basically stopped at East Grade Road and the road going into the state park, so there is still good habitat along these roads.   The road to the Observatory was unaffected.  Click here for pictures of the damage. 

    Nate Harrison Grade is generally a good dirt road, but has enough bumps and potholes (especially near the top and after wet weather) to possibly "bottom-out" a standard passenger vehicle.  The roads up on the mountain proper are all paved.  The dirt road to the Lake Henshaw overlook is passable for a standard passenger vehicle, but often has "stuff" growing in the middle.

Approximate Length: 41 miles, including the two "out-n-back" roads to Doane Pond and the observatory

Approximate Birding Time: About 5.5 hours, including the three optional hikes and stop at the lake (based on one-mile stops)

Traffic: Almost non-existent along Nate Harrison Grade; light in the state park and the road to the observatory; moderate along East Grade Road, moderate to heavy on highway 76.

Facilities:  Restrooms are available at the state park, national forest campgrounds, San Luis Rey Picnic Area, and at Lake Henshaw.

Directions: Take I-8 east to I-15 north, and travel approximately 40 miles to the Pala/Oceanside exit (highway 76, NOT highway 78 in Escondido, which also goes to Oceanside).  Turn right onto 76, and travel approximately 13 miles to Nate Harrison Grade on your left (if you don't care to risk this road, go five miles further to S6 and take the paved road up to Palomar).  Start birding where the pavement ends.

Nate Harrison Grade begins in citrus orchards, which are your best prospects for Common Ground Dove and (surprisingly) Red-shouldered Hawk.  Other more "suburban/rural" birds such as Cassin's Kingbird and Hooded Oriole are more likely here as well.  The road climbs rapidly into good chaparral habitat, where Wrentits, California Towhees, and California Thrashers are common; in winter Hermit Thrushes can be quite numerous as well.  Both California and Mountain Quail can be found along here, as well as Greater Roadrunner and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.  This is also a great road for sparrows: look and listen for Rufous-crowned, Sage, White-crowned, Golden-crowned, and Fox (winter for the latter three), and Black-chinned (summer).  In the patches of oak woodland near the ranch (please respect private property) check for Acorn and Nuttall's Woodpeckers, Northern Flicker, Hutton's Vireo, Ruby-crowned Kinglet (winter), White-breasted Nuthatch, Oak Titmice, House Wrens, and Western Scrub Jays.  Occasionally Rock Wrens may be found along the open rock faces.  Once up into the pines you'll add Mountain Chickadee and Steller's Jay; listen also for such higher-elevation specialties such as Red-breasted and Pygmy Nuthatch, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Brown Creeper, Western Tanager (summer), and Olive-sided Flycatcher (summer).  This is also one of the best places in the county for Cassin's Vireo, as there is at least one territory along the Adams Trail, which crosses the road about a mile before you hit the park's "traffic circle".  A small population of Black-throated Gray Warblers breeds in this area as well.

Socked-in Pauma Valley from Nate Harrison Grade

View of the road and habitat (once the sun comes out)

Oak woodland along the grade

Above the clouds in the pines

Optional hike:  Doane Pond     At the stop sign (where there's a "traffic circle") go left and down towards the campgrounds, listening for Hairy Woodpecker and Purple Finch on the way.  After about two miles there will be a large parking area on your right; pull in here and park near the kiosk at the Cedar Trailhead.  This leads to little Doane Pond, which is worth a "circle" of its own: the wetland vegetation has birds you may not find elsewhere on the route, such as Common Yellowthroat, Black Phoebe, and Song Sparrows.  The pond itself is usually sparse birdwise, except for the occasional coot, Mallard, or Belted Kingfisher, but once in awhile surprises show up, like a Great Blue, Green or Black-crowned Night Heron.  Sit on one of the picnic tables and watch the open sky for awhile for Violet-green Swallows, Purple Martins (both in summer), and raptors, and the wires over the field for Western Bluebirds.  This can also be a good area for both Lesser and Lawrence's Goldfinches in season, and in invasion years, Pine Siskin.  The trees near the parking lot should be checked for migrant warblers, and in winter the grasses can be alive with Dark-eyed Juncos; be sure to carefully check the flocks for the occasional Pink-sided, Slate-colored or Gray-headed Junco.  The Doane Valley Nature Trail, an approximate one-mile loop trail, is a bit strenuous in spots but goes through deeper woods along a creek where Red-breasted Nuthatch might be a possibility.

Trail to Doane Pond

The boardwalk in the fall

Doane Pond and surrounding habitat

Scenes along the Doane Valley Nature Trail

To continue on the route, go back to the "traffic circle" and turn left, towards the park entrance (be sure to pay the day use fee on the way out).  Parking is limited between here and the intersection with S7, but there are pullouts; one of the best places to stop is the big parking area at the park entrance (about a half mile beyond the pay booth).  Bluebirds especially like this stretch, as well as Western Wood Pewees and Black-headed Grosbeaks in summer, and both White- and Golden-crowned Sparrows in winter.  Be sure to take the time to enjoy the view into Pauma Valley!

Open area along the entrance road

Entrance to the park

Pauma Valley (On a clear day you can see Point Loma!)

At the intersection, turn left and stop periodically to bird this road to its terminus at the Palomar Observatory.  Although not guaranteed, White-headed Woodpeckers have frequented this area in the past, so they're worth listening for (be aware that the similar-sounding Nuttall's is by far much more common here).  Cassin's Vireos are also possible in this stretch in summer; even Belted Kingfishers can occasionally be heard from the depths of the woods (from hidden Fry Pond, most likely).  Other mountain-loving birds to keep an ear out for include Purple Finch, Brown Creeper, Dark-eyed Junco, Chipping Sparrow, American Robin, Pacific-slope Flycatcher (possibly even Dusky), and Red-breasted Sapsucker.  A migrant or wintering Townsend's Warbler or two might be found along here as well among the abundant Yellow-rumps; listen also for the "odd" chip of the "Myrtle" Warbler.

Optional hike: Upper Observatory Trail  + Park in the Observatory Picnic Area lot and walk back out the gate to the trailhead.  A short walk down this trail offers a mix of habitat and can be good for chaparral birds as well as oak/pine woodland species (Hermit Thrush is possible in winter).  In migration this can be a good spot for warblers.  The turnaround point is past a shady oak grove with BIG rocks (the trail makes a steep downturn at this point); check any viewpoints for fly-by raptors or Band-tailed Pigeon (the parking lot can be good for the latter, too).  In winter juncos like to feed in the open dirt portion of the picnic area; check for oddities!

Upper Observatory Trailhead

Retrace your route to the intersection of S7 and S6, and continue straight down East Grade Road.  This road offers spectacular vistas and wonderful oak savannah habitat in addition to more pines near the top and chaparral as you near the bottom; in addition to the regular mountain fare look for Western Meadowlarks, Lark Sparrows and raptors in the fields (both Golden and Bald Eagles have been seen along this road, but rarely) and Phainopepla in the scrubby vegetation.  When some of the berry-yielding bushes are in fruit, flocks of Cedar Waxwings can show up.  As you descend you get back into Wrentit, thrasher, and towhee habitat, as well as grand vistas of Lake Henshaw (be sure to check out the new Vista Area the forest service just built!).  But even from on high you should be able to pick up the large flock of American White Pelicans and Western Grebes that dot the water. In winter, a large flock of Coots may be "mowing the lawn" near the water's edge.  Down at the bottom, check the riparian woodland for Black Phoebe, Orange-crowned Warbler, and Yellow Warbler in summer.

Scenes after a rare snow

Oak savannah habitat on the descent

Same area snowed in!

Henshaw Basin and habitat coming down East Grade

Hazy view of Lake Henshaw from the Vista Point

Same view after a winter storm

San Luis Rey River crossing

Turn left at the intersection with 76.  At one time you could drive into the Lake Henshaw area for free, but now they charge (I was told $7.00, but the sign says $5.00).  If a ten minute stop (and getting closer to the water) is worth that to you, then check in at the store/restaurant on the right; on my last visit they had a gate with a keypad, with no instructions as to how to enter, so you may have to get a code from the store.  Once in, look for a dirt road off to the right that runs in between the two buildings; take this, and circle down towards the lake, taking the first opportunity to get up on the little knoll on your left.  Find a good vantage point up here from which to scope the lake; at any time of year you should have the aforementioned pelicans and grebes (check the closer ones for a Clark's), in addition to Double-crested Cormorant, Great Egret (more likely in summer), and Great Blue Heron, as well as Western Meadowlark, Blue Grosbeak (summer), Brewer's and Red-winged Blackbirds, and Great-tailed Grackle in the dickey department.  In winter the possibilities grow with Canada Goose, gulls (mostly Ring-billed but also Bonaparte's), terns, and any number of other waterfowl (some of the specialty ducks to look for include Common Merganser and Canvasback).  This is also the most reliable place in the county for Bald Eagles; in fact, a pair recently began nesting!  Check the shoreline for Killdeer, Spotted Sandpiper, and other possible shorebirds, and keep an eye out for the occasional out-of-place rarity, such as Surf Scoter, Brown Pelican, and Snow Goose

If you don't care to shell out the five bucks, you can scope the lake from several vantage points along the main road, but the distance makes it more difficult to discern what you're seeing.  Very often the large flocks congregate down at the east end of the lake.  Keep an eye out for raptors and open country birds along here as well.  The Bald Eagle nest can be observed from the western end of the pullout with the Call Box, up the hill to the south. Please respect the birds and private property and observe only from this spot!  The route ends at the intersection with highway 79; you can turn right towards Santa Ysabel and return to San Diego via highway 78/62.

Lake Henshaw from the knoll

Optional Hike: San Luis Rey Picnic Area (fee area)If you're up for one more easy hike, a visit to the San Luis Rey Picnic Area can be very worthwhile, and might bag you some birds you may not see elsewhere on the route, as this area contains a lush deciduous/oak riparian habitat.  To get to this area, go west on Highway 76, past East Grade Road (where you came down the mountain), and look for the Rest Area sign which alerts you to the fact that you're getting close!  The picnic area is on your left and easy to miss; the entrance is actually several yards past where the little "picnic table" sign tells you to turn!  This is the best place in the county to look for nesting Willow Flycatchers; other summer residents include Black-chinned Hummingbird, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Yellow Warbler, and Lazuli Bunting.  A trail leads back along the river from the parking lot and goes a short distance to some boulders; besides the aforementioned species (plus the abundant Song Sparrows and Common Yellowthroats), look for all three species of goldfinch, Hutton's Vireo, House, Canyon, and Bewick's Wrens, as well as Belted Kingfisher and Purple Finch.  If the trail is flooded, a stroll around the picnic area may bag some of these species.

End of the trail at San Luis Rey Picnic Area

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 or irruptive species and are not to be expected.

  J F M A M J J A S O N D
Western Grebe          
Clark's Grebe                  
American White Pelican              
Brown Pelican                      
Double-crested Cormorant          
Great Blue Heron          
Great Egret                  
Green Heron                      
Black-crowned Night Heron                      
Canada Goose                    
Snow Goose                      
Mallard                    
Gadwall                    
American Wigeon                  
Northern Shoveler                    
Canvasback                      
Redhead                      
Ring-necked Duck                      
Lesser Scaup                      
Bufflehead                      
Common Merganser                      
Ruddy Duck                      
Turkey Vulture                  
Northern Harrier                      
Sharp-shinned Hawk                      
Cooper's Hawk                      
Red-shouldered Hawk                
Red-tailed Hawk          
Bald Eagle                      
Golden Eagle                      
American Kestrel                  
California Quail                
Mountain Quail                  
Wild Turkey                      
American Coot            
Killdeer                      
Spotted Sandpiper                      
California Gull                  
Ring-billed Gull                  
Bonaparte's Gull                    
Caspian Tern                      
Mourning Dove              
Band-tailed Pigeon          
Greater Roadrunner      ●                
Vaux's Swift                      
White-throated Swift                      
Anna's Hummingbird            
Costa's Hummingbird                      
Black-chinned Hummingbird                      
Selasphorus Hummingbird                      
Belted Kingfisher                    
Northern Flicker      
Acorn Woodpecker      
Red-breasted Sapsucker                  
Nuttall's Woodpecker        
Hairy Woodpecker                    
Ash-throated Flycatcher                    
Black Phoebe            
Say's Phoebe                      
Pacific-slope Flycatcher                    
Willow Flycatcher                      
Dusky Flycatcher                      
Olive-sided Flycatcher                    
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      
Purple Martin                      
Northern Rough-winged Swallow                    
Violet-green Swallow                  
Cliff Swallow                      
Mountain Chickadee        
Oak Titmouse        
Bushtit            
Red-breasted Nuthatch                    
White-breasted Nuthatch        
Pygmy Nuthatch                      
Brown Creeper                  
House Wren              
Bewick's Wren          
Rock Wren                      
Canyon Wren                      
Wrentit          
Golden-crowned Kinglet                      
Ruby-crowned Kinglet              
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher                    
Western Bluebird        
Varied Thrush                      
American Robin            
Hermit Thrush                  
California Thrasher          
European Starling                
Phainopepla                  
Cedar Waxwing                      
Orange-crowned Warbler                
Nashville Warbler                      
Yellow Warbler                    
Yellow-rumped Warbler                
"Myrtle" 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              
"Bell's" Sage Sparrow                      
Black-chinned Sparrow                
Chipping Sparrow                      
Lark Sparrow                      
Golden-crowned Sparrow                      
White-crowned Sparrow                    
"Slate-colored" Fox Sparrow                    
Song Sparrow            
Lincoln's Sparrow                      
Dark-eyed Junco          
"Pink-sided" Junco                      
"Slate-colored" Junco                      
"Gray-headed" Junco                      
Western Meadowlark                    
Brown-headed Cowbird                      
Red-winged Blackbird            
Brewer's Blackbird                  
Great-tailed Grackle                      
Bullock's Oriole                    
Hooded Oriole                      
Pine Siskin                      
Lawrence's Goldfinch                    
Lesser Goldfinch          
American Goldfinch                      
Purple Finch              
House Finch          
House Sparrow                      

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