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San Elijo Lagoon

Approximate Birding Time: Anywhere from 30 minutes to 4 hours, depending on which trail(s) you hike

Facilities:  There are restrooms at the visitor center off Manchester and at the State Beach.

Directions: The trail along the south side of the lagoon can be taken in sections or all at once; the narrative below will take you to the easternmost access point and allow you to work your way westward and eventually to the Visitor's Center.  These are not "official" trail names, but simply convenient titles...

El Camino Real Trail       To reach this trailhead, take I-5 north to Lomas Santa Fe Drive in Solana Beach, and turn right.  Follow Lomas Santa Fe to the four-way stop (Highland Drive, 1.0) and turn left.  Follow Highland Drive as it winds down the hill and ends at El Camino Real, where you'll turn left.  Follow El Camino Real for 0.4 mile to the trailhead on the left (if you hit the sharp right turn you've just missed it).  This portion of the trail takes you through a eucalyptus forest and sage/chaparral, plus some wetland habitat (including just enough willow forest to attract Yellow Warbler and Yellow-breasted Chat in summer), although it tends to be dry at this end.  This is a good area for songbirds and migrants; look for Hermit Thrush, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and various sparrows in winter; Black-headed Grosbeak, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, and Bullock's Oriole in summer; and Black Phoebe, Anna's Hummingbird, both towhees, Hutton's Vireo, and Red-shouldered and Cooper's Hawks year round.  Although not "countable", Nutmeg Mannikins have been seen here with some regularity, so they may become somewhat established.  Open-country birds such as Western Meadowlark, Loggerhead Shrike, Say's Phoebe, Northern Harrier, and White-tailed Kite can be found past the "forest".  This section and the "Powerline Trail" (described next) can easily be done in one hour-long round trip; simply continue straight at the intersection.

Jungle feel of the "El Camino Real Trail"

Getting out into the open

Powerline Trail    To reach this trailhead, retrace your way back up to Lomas Santa Fe towards the freeway.  But just before the freeway, turn right onto Santa Helena (0.9).  Follow this road all the way to the end.  This trail takes you down through the sage and along a power line right-of-way, where you start to pick up associated birds such as Bushtit, California Thrasher, Wrentit, and California and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers.  After about five minutes you reach the intersection with the main east-west trail; turning left will take you to an overview of the marsh with "potholes" of wetland that often have water when the rest of the lagoon is dry.  These little pockets often have ducks, American Avocets, Black-necked Stilts, and White-faced Ibis Soras, Virginia, and Clapper Rails can sometimes be heard in this area, and migrating swifts and swallows are often at eye level, especially when the marine layer is low.

Wetland "potholes"

Transect Trail      +  (There's a bit of a dip between the parking area and the main trail...)  Head back up Santa Helena and turn right on Santa Rosita (the second four-way stop), then left on Santa Florencia (0.2), and yet another left on Santa Inez (0.2), where you can park at the end of the street.  This trail also joins with the main east-west trail, but you can also go straight to the paved dike that crosses the lagoon.  The sage scrub you first wind through can have California Gnatcatcher, and the tules at the dike can have Least Bitterns and rails (although you have to be a rail to squeeze through the hikers' gate).  Depending on how much water is in the lagoon, you can get great looks at waterfowl in the winter (if you're here at first light you might be treated to unusual geese like Snow or Greater White-fronted in with the Canadas).  Shorebirds can be found year round, especially Black-necked Stilts and American Avocets, even if the water is low (there's usually at least one puddle near the trail's terminus at Manchester that hosts a Greater Yellowlegs or other solitary shorebird), and White-faced Ibis are possible as well.  This can be a good spot for the occasional Eurasian Wigeon, as well as "Euram" hybrids.  Belding's Savannah Sparrows can be found here along with the similar but larger Song Sparrows.  Be aware that suburban birds such as Hooded Orioles (summer) hang around the homes!

Checking out the ducks along the "Transect Trail"

Rios Avenue Trail       Retrace your way back to Lomas Santa Fe and turn right, under the freeway.  Continue to Rios Avenue (0.9) and turn right.  Take this road to the very end.  You get a grand overview of the lagoon here; scan for herons (Little Blue on rare occasions), grebes (including Eared), ducks, terns (Elegant are often abundant and noisy in spring and summer), gulls, American White Pelicans, and raptors (Osprey often perch on the tall stumps in the lagoon).  From here you have a choice of which direction to go; I usually take the eastbound trail, as it makes a nice "noose loop", taking you right down to the lagoon for some close-up looks at herons year-round, waterfowl in the winter, and terns in season (including Least), and it can be a good place for California Gnatcatcher and Belding's Savannah Sparrow as well.  When the lagoon is dry, shorebirds are often attracted to the mudflats (this can be a good spot for Semipalmated Plovers), and American Avocets nest closer to the freeway.  A sudden upheaval of birds may mark the presence of a Peregrine Falcon.  There's also a little euc "forest" near the freeway that can be good for migrantsCalifornia Quail and wintering sparrows (including Lincoln's and Golden-crowned along with the more expected White-crowned) like to hide in the brush around here as well.  The westbound trail gives you a bird's-eye view of the marsh and can sometimes be an easy way to see Common Moorhen, Virginia Rail, and Sora (on rare occasion even Clapper Rails can be heard here), as well as various ducks that like to hide in the reeds (including Blue-winged Teal, which is uncommon but increasing on the west coast).  The ponds near the railroad tracks are also favorites of Red-necked Phalaropes during migration.  Once you're down the hill, the trail is basically flat, but coming back up can be a workout... 

View of the lagoon from the end of Rios Avenue

Eastbound trail (note that the lagoon is drier than in the above shot)

Euc jungle

View of morning traffic from the upper trail...

Along the westbound trail

Cardiff State Beach (fee)       This is worth a stop (during the week, anyway) to add some coastal birds to your day list.  There are several beach accesses, but the best is the actual mouth of the lagoon, between Cardiff and San Elijo State Beaches.  To get there, retrace your way to Lomas Santa Fe and turn right.  At Highway 101 (0.1, the second light after Rios) turn right, and after 1.6 miles turn left at the light and into the park.  (If you absolutely don't want to pay the fee, there's a nice overlook along San Elijo Avenue from where you can scope the beach and ocean.)  Mouth access is at the far north end.  Here in winter (when there aren't too many people) you can find Heermann's, Glaucous-winged, Western, California, and Ring-billed Gulls, as well as the occasional Royal and Caspian Tern.  Common shorebirds include Sanderling, Willet, Marbled Godwit, and Black-bellied Plover, but you might also be able to spot a Snowy Plover.  Check for unusual gulls; one spring a Glaucous Gull was found here. Be sure to scan the ocean; Brown Pelicans sail low over the waves year-round, Western Grebes often gather off shore, and you should be able to find a loon or two in winter.

View of the lagoon mouth at Cardiff State Beach from San Elijo Avenue

Visitor Center Nature Trail      Turn left out of the park onto 101 northbound, and turn right at Chesterfield (0.3).  Turn right again onto San Elijo Avenue, and follow this road as it winds around and eventually joins with Manchester.  Shortly after the stop sign at Manchester you'll see the sign for the San Elijo Lagoon Visitor's Center on the right (the parking area, open 9:30 - 4:30, is 0.7 miles from the turn onto San Elijo).  The terrific little loop trail takes you through more wetland (you may actually see rails and Marsh Wrens in here) and alongside the lagoon.  Birds in the lagoon are similar to what you'd see along the Rios Trail, but are often closer to the trail here.  On the return loop you pass through a nice willow riparian forest with Bell's Vireo, Yellow Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat in summer, and Downy and Nuttall's Woodpeckers, American Goldfinch year-round, plus other specialties and migrants.  California Gnatcatchers can also be found here, although they're easier to find on the south side.  Also not countable, feral Cockatiels have been seen here on more than one occasion.

Sage habitat at the Visitor's Center

Riparian forest along the Nature 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 irruptive or vagrant species and should not be expected. 

  J F M A M J J A S O N D
Common Loon                      
Eared Grebe              
Pied-billed Grebe        
Western Grebe              
Clark's Grebe                      
American White Pelican              
Brown Pelican          
Double-crested Cormorant  
Least Bittern                  
Great Blue Heron        
Great Egret  
Little Blue Heron                      
Snowy Egret      
Green Heron                    
Black-crowned Night Heron              
White-faced Ibis                
Canada Goose                    
Greater White-fronted Goose                      
Snow Goose                    
Northern Pintail            
Blue-winged Teal                
Cinnamon Teal        
Green-winged Teal          
American Wigeon            
Eurasian Wigeon                      
Northern Shoveler      
Lesser Scaup                      
Ruddy Duck          
Turkey Vulture                
Northern Harrier                  
White-tailed Kite            
Cooper's Hawk              
Red-shouldered Hawk            
Red-tailed Hawk        
American Kestrel          
Peregrine Falcon                    
California Quail          
Common Moorhen                    
American Coot      
Clapper Rail                    
Virginia Rail                  
Black-bellied Plover                
Semipalmated Plover            
Snowy Plover                      
American Avocet      
Black-necked Stilt  
Greater Yellowlegs          
Lesser Yellowlegs                
Long-billed Curlew                  
Marbled Godwit            
Western Sandpiper          
Least Sandpiper              
Long-billed Dowitcher          
Short-billed Dowitcher              
Red-necked Phalarope                    
"Olympic" Gull                      
Glaucous Gull                    
Glaucous-winged Gull                      
Western Gull  
California Gull              
Ring-billed Gull        
Heermann's Gull              
Bonaparte's Gull                
Caspian Tern        
Royal Tern                
Elegant Tern              
Common Tern                      
Forster's Tern    
Least Tern                    
Black Skimmer                    
Common Murre             ●*          
Mourning Dove
Rock Pigeon        
Vaux's Swift                  
White-throated Swift                
Anna's Hummingbird
Selasphorus Hummingbird                      
Belted Kingfisher                  
Northern Flicker              
Nuttall's Woodpecker    
Downy Woodpecker                
Ash-throated Flycatcher                    
Black Phoebe  
Say's Phoebe            
Pacific-slope Flycatcher              
Willow Flycatcher                      
Olive-sided Flycatcher                      
Western Wood Pewee                      
Cassin's Kingbird      
Loggerhead Shrike                  
Warbling Vireo                      
Bell's Vireo                      
Hutton's Vireo                    
Cassin's Vireo                      
American Crow
Common Raven      
Western Scrub Jay  
Northern Rough-winged Swallow                
Tree Swallow                
Cliff Swallow              
Barn Swallow                    
House Wren  
Marsh Wren
Bewick's Wren
Ruby-crowned Kinglet              
California Gnatcatcher  
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher                  
Hermit Thrush              
American Robin                      
Northern Mockingbird    
California Thrasher    
European Starling        
Cedar Waxwing                      
American Pipit                    
Orange-crowned Warbler      
Yellow Warbler              
Yellow-rumped Warbler        
Black-throated Gray Warbler                      
Townsend's Warbler                    
Hermit Warbler                      
MacGillivray's Warbler                      
Common Yellowthroat
Wilson's Warbler                      
Yellow-breasted Chat                    
Summer Tanager                      
Black-headed Grosbeak              
Blue Grosbeak                      
Lazuli Bunting                    
Spotted Towhee    
California Towhee
"Belding's" Savannah Sparrow          
Golden-crowned Sparrow                    
White-crowned Sparrow          
Song Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow                      
Western Meadowlark                  
Brown-headed Cowbird                
Red-winged Blackbird    
Brewer's Blackbird                
Great-tailed Grackle                  ●    
Bullock's Oriole                    
Hooded Oriole                
Lesser Goldfinch      
American Goldfinch                
House Finch
House Sparrow          
Nutmeg Mannikin                    

*Common Murres are normally only to be expected in winter and migration in San Diego County.

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