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"Easy Birder" Driving Routes

San Felipe Grade (S2)

    Paved all the way

Approximate Length: 17 miles

Approximate Birding Time: 3 hours (4 with the two optional hikes)

Traffic: Moderate, but can be noisy as this is the most popular grade with the big trucks...

Facilities:  None along this route, but there are restrooms at the two Cuyamaca campgrounds on the way up and restaurants in Santa Ysabel on the way home.

Directions:  To avoid Ramona and Julian, take I-8 east to the Descanso/Japatul Road exit (highway 79) and turn left (north) under the freeway.  Follow 79 through Cuyamaca State Park (note that 79 makes a hard left a couple of miles from the freeway) up to where it Ts with highway 78 near Julian.  Go right, and follow 78 down the grade to S2 (locally known as Scissors Crossing).  Turn left (north) on S2 (note that it zigzags) and start birding here at the crossing.

Early morning at Scissors Crossing

Optional hike: PCT @ Scissors Crossing  + (there's a mild rise at one point, but otherwise it's flat).  Just past where S2 heads north, the PCT picks up on the south side of highway 78.  You'll see a turnoff for the Sentenac Birding Trail on your left, which is an hour long loop, part of which goes through soft sand or water (depending on if the creek is running), so if you prefer a shorter, easier walk continue straight along the PCT, which eventually dumps out along S2, where you can simply follow the road back to your car.  If there's water in the creek and you prefer to keep your feet dry, you may want to skip the trail altogether and just walk the bridge down to the "southbound" S2 and back.  Any way you take it, this area can be quite productive, as this lush riparian area houses birds from the foothills not usually found in the desert.  Here, look for both Nuttall's and Ladder-backed Woodpecker (knowing their unique vocalizations helps here; beware of hybrids!), Northern Flicker, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Wrentit, Western Scrub Jay, Common Yellowthroat, Black Phoebe, and Song Sparrow year-round; Yellow-rumped Warbler and White-crowned Sparrow in winter, and Bullock's Oriole and Bell's Vireo in summer.  Look for Western Tanagers and other migrants in the spring; even herons are possible!  Other desert-related species can also be found here, such as Black-throated and Brewer's (winter) Sparrows, White-winged Dove, and Verdin.  Chaparral species which are also found in our deserts include California Thrasher and Towhee, Ash-throated Flycatcher (summer), and California Quail.  Check for migrating swallows as well; one year a large flock of Lawrence's Goldfinches had the place staked out!  For the first few miles up S2 the riparian area remains lush; listen for Blue Grosbeak, Yellow Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, and the newly-colonized Summer Tanagers in (appropriately) summer.  Although I missed it for purposes of this project, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo showed up during the summer of 2006, so they're worth keeping an ear out for!

Southbound PCT (taken shortly after a controlled burn)

San Felipe Creek

Further up the road the big trees die out for awhile, and the habitat becomes more open and scrubby, good for Loggerhead Shrikes, Northern Mockingbirds, and Scott's Orioles (summer).  Across the street the cactus and scrub are good for Phainopepla, Cactus and Bewick's Wrens, and Black-tailed Gnatcatcher.  Keep an ear out for Rock Wrens along the hillsides, and watch for Greater Roadrunners crossing the road.  Further up the grade listen for Mountain Quail in spring.

Optional Trail: San Felipe Valley Wilderness Area  (Very mild incline on the way down to and up from the valley, where the trail is flat.)  At about mile 5.5 (from Scissors Crossing) there's a parking area on the left and a short trail down to the creek; the Pines Fire of 2002 devastated much of this area, but vegetation is coming back and so are the birds (particularly Lazuli Buntings in spring and summer).  This hike might yield some birds otherwise hard to get from the road, such as Common Ground Dove, as well as sparrows and migrating warblers (Black-throated Gray Warbler and Indigo Bunting has been kicked up in here).  Dark-eyed Juncos seem to like this area in winter, and Lark Sparrows start flocking here in late summer.  Listen for Costa's Hummingbirds zinging in early summer.  Willow Flycatchers have been reported from deep within the partially burned willow riparian area, but have not yet been heard from the road.

Burned area

After a rare snow in the Volcan Mountains

Desert habitat on the east side of the road

Continuing on, you eventually reach oak savannah habitat and start picking up expected birds such as Black-headed Grosbeak (summer), Western Bluebird, Red-shouldered Hawk, Western Scrub Jay, Oak Titmouse, Acorn Woodpecker, White-breasted Nuthatch, and Chipping SparrowBlack-chinned Sparrows are repopulating the burned chaparral areas in summer, to be replaced by Fox Sparrows in winter.  Past the turnoff to Montezuma Grade, the rolling grasslands of the Vista Water District come into view; unfortunately the Mataguay Fire of 2004 took out much of this area as well, but there's still enough habitat to support Western Kingbirds in summer, American Pipit and Vesper and Savannah Sparrows in winter, and Lark Sparrows and Horned Larks year round.  Look for American Kestrels and other raptors (keep an eye out for specialties like Ferruginous Hawk and Prairie Falcon in winter and rarities like Swainson's Hawk in migration).  The riparian area along Buena Vista Creek was spared, however; listen for Bullock's Orioles, Blue Grosbeaks (both summer) and other riparian birds, and check the very small marsh for nesting Tricolored Blackbirds (Brewer's and Red-winged can also be plentiful in here, as well as Western Meadowlark).   Check the larger trees for nesting Great Blue Heron.  A stand of pines down the road is often good for Lawrence's Goldfinch, and possibly Mountain Chickadee, and the willow woodland that comes up to the road can have Yellow Warblers in summer.  The route ends at the intersection with highway 79.

Oak savannah habitat

View from the summit

Grasslands of the Vista Water District

Pines and willows near the end of the route

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 indicate vagrant or irruptive species and are not to be expected.

  J F M A M J J A S O N D
Great Blue Heron                      
Turkey Vulture                      
White-tailed Kite                      
Cooper's Hawk                  
Red-shouldered Hawk                  
Swainson's Hawk                      
Red-tailed Hawk      
Ferruginous Hawk                      
American Kestrel          
Prairie Falcon                      
California Quail    
Mountain Quail                      
Wild Turkey                    
Mourning Dove    
White-winged Dove                  
Common Ground Dove                      
Greater Roadrunner                    
Barn Owl                      
White-throated Swift                      
Anna's Hummingbird                  
Costa's Hummingbird                      
Northern Flicker          
Acorn Woodpecker          
Nuttall's Woodpecker    
Ladder-backed Woodpecker        
Ash-throated Flycatcher                
Black Phoebe            
Say's Phoebe                  
Western Kingbird                  
Loggerhead Shrike        
Warbling Vireo                      
Bell's Vireo                
American Crow        
Common Raven  
Western Scrub Jay  
Horned Lark                    
Northern Rough-winged Swallow                  
Violet-green Swallow                  
Cliff Swallow                      
Mountain Chickadee                    
Oak Titmouse        
White-breasted Nuthatch                
House Wren              
Bewick's Wren    
Cactus Wren    
Rock Wren              
Ruby-crowned Kinglet                      
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher          
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher                      
Western Bluebird          
American Robin                      
Northern Mockingbird          
California Thrasher      
European Starling              
American Pipit                      
Orange-crowned Warbler                      
Yellow Warbler              
Yellow-rumped Warbler                  
Black-throated Gray Warbler                      
Common Yellowthroat              
Wilson's Warbler                      
Yellow-breasted Chat                  
Summer Tanager                  
Western Tanager                    
Black-headed Grosbeak                
Blue Grosbeak              
Lazuli Bunting                  
Indigo Bunting                      
Spotted Towhee    
Green-tailed Towhee                      
California Towhee
Black-throated Sparrow    
Black-chinned Sparrow                      
Brewer's Sparrow                      
Chipping Sparrow                    
Savannah Sparrow                    
Vesper Sparrow                  
Lark Sparrow        
White-crowned Sparrow            
"Slate-colored" Fox Sparrow                      
Song Sparrow      
Dark-eyed Junco                
Western Meadowlark      
Brown-headed Cowbird                    
Tricolored Blackbird                      
Red-winged Blackbird          
Brewer's Blackbird            
Great-tailed Grackle                      
Bullock's Oriole                  
Hooded Oriole                      
Scott's Oriole                  
Lawrence's Goldfinch              
Lesser Goldfinch    
House Finch  

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