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“A Cape Cod Destination Icon For 40 Years”

Our Birding Trip to the Southwest

No questions answered this week.

I’m away on a special trip. It’s a gift/trip to my son Casey, who, after years of procrastination, finally decided to turn twenty-one-years old. The other members of the family thought it would be fun to take Casey to Las Vegas for his monumental day. We could all see the shows, enjoy the nightlife and make bags and bags of free money at the casinos. We planned the perfect trip, except for one thing: nobody checked with Casey. It turns out he wasn’t keen on going to Las Vegas. What? How could he not want to go to Vegas? What twenty-one-year-old doesn’t enjoy nightlife and making bags and bags of free money? The answer is Casey, that’s who. Instead, he wanted me (just me) to take him on a birding trip. Aww! What a kid. Upon hearing the news, I quickly scrapped the Vegas plans and put together a trip to the U.S. Southwest. The Southwest not only has cool birds, but it most certainly has better weather than Cape Cod in January. Plus, I didn’t have to travel with the entire family…a win, win, win.

We started our adventure in San Diego. Most major cities aren’t very birdie, but San Diego is different. It’s pleasant, year-round weather not only draws streams of humans, but also attracts lots of birds. San Diego sits at the extreme southwestern corner of the U.S. Migrating birds stop there on their way south and can’t go any farther. (At one time many birds would continue on to Mexico, but now they are stopped by a big fence on the border.) San Diego is famous for its huge naval base; in honor of the Navy, the people at Hertz Rental Car gave me a battleship to drive, or so it seemed. But no worries. I learned to drive back in the days when people actually drove stupid giant cars, so I quickly figured it out.

Only fifteen minutes from the airport is Cabrillo National Monument. There’s a $5.00 entrance fee, but who cares since the monument is beautiful. It sits high above the entrance to San Diego Harbor, and the view is stunning. The first thing we did was stop at the visitors center and ask the ranger advice on the best places for birding. The ranger, who was a rather heavyset man, with a long white beard, gave us some suggestions. After thanking Santa, we headed down the trail. We immediately came upon a water pipe that the Park Service had just installed. Since it was it was a government job, the pipe leaked. That was good news for us. The dripping water attracted all sorts of birds, including thrushes, several species of towhees, Western Scrub Jays, kinglets, White-crowned Sparrows and one very handsome Costa’s hummingbird (at least, that’s what we decided it was).

Cabrillo is also famous for a trail that links several tidal pools, but on this day we saw more people and dogs on the trail than birds (it was like being back on Cape Cod), so we moved on. About ten minutes down the road is the tiny Formosa Slough. This area was packed with water birds. There were all sorts of widgeons, shovelers, teal and lots of American Avocets in their ghostly gray-white winter plumage. Formosa Slough, which sounds like the name of a Kentucky Derby winner, is very much in an urban setting. So, while you are enjoying the birds, be prepared to hear the sounds of traffic, fire trucks and the true California specialty, leaf blowers. (It was like being back on Cape Cod.)

Only five minutes from the slough is Sea World. Forget that place. But across the street from Sea World is the very muddy, but very bird-filled, San Diego River. A small access road runs along the river and it provides excellent views of godwits, curlews, Black-necked Stilts, Redheads (ducks, not Norwegians), plus tons of other birds. As I watched the vast array of birds I couldn’t help thinking of the irony. Across the street people were paying big money to see wildlife imprisoned in tanks and cages, while a few feet away we were watching free birds…for free. Free is always better.

In the four hours we spent birding in San Diego we saw nearly seventy different species of birds, but it had gotten dark so we decided to leave the coast and head east towards the Laguna Mountains. We spent the night in the Viejas Indian Reservation (in a fancy hotel, not in a teepee or something exciting like that). I chose the reservation because it’s near the entrance to the noted birding area of Cuyamaca (don’t ask me how to pronounce it) Rancho State Park. A few years ago a nasty forest fire severely damaged the area and I guess some of the birds have moved away, but it was fine for us. We spent hours hiking around the Paso Picacho (again, don’t ask me) campground and saw all kinds of forest birds, including Mountain Chickadees, Steller’s Jays, Pygmy Nuthatches, Western Bluebirds and untold numbers of very colorful Acorn Woodpeckers. We also saw several mule deer with ears so huge they gave me Ross Perot flashbacks.

When lunchtime arrived we headed straight for the charming alpine town of Julian, CA. Julian looks like a western movie set, yet it’s a very real town, with real shops, including its own birding shop (which admittedly was fashioned after a certain bird shop on Cape Cod). But most folks come to Julian for the apple pies. I counted at least six different pie bakeries on Main Street, but I only ate pie in two of them. (My doctor has me on a strict two-pie-a-day limit.) The pies were awesome, but it was time to leave the mountains and head for the desert, and hopefully some surprising desert birds. Stay tuned.