COVID Protocols

An indulgent feast for the senses, this one-week winter trip to warm and birdy San Diego is a great way to start off your 2023 birding with a bang! Biodiverse San Diego County lays claim to being the “birdiest” in the United States, with 515 species recorded among its many wild yet serene habitats. The southwestern-most spot in the lower 48, it hosts birds attracted to its nearshore ocean, sandy beaches, coastal estuaries, grasslands, coastal scrub and chaparral, oak woodlands, pine forest and desert. From specialty species like California Gnatcatcher and Allen’s Hummingbird to mind-boggling numbers of wintering ducks and shorebirds, coupled with (hopefully) warm, sunny skies to scare away any mid-winter blues, this will be a golden visit to the Golden State.

Tour Highlights

  • Treasure Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, haven for rare and ancient Torrey Pine and the swifts, thrashers, woodpeckers and wren-tits that call them home
  • Look for endangered California Gnatcatcher at San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve, nearly 1,000 acres of preserved coastal wetlands – a rarity in the state.
  • Bird Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge, where the Tijuana River meets the sea, and watch for hunting hawks, breaching whales, and furtive Ridgway’s Rail
  • Brush up on local species and drink in its ecology on an early-trip visit to the world famous San Diego Zoo
  • Bird high and low at Palomar Mountain State Park, 1,862 acres where the average elevation is 5,000 feet above sea level, and where we may see many mountain birds, including Steller's Jay, Mountain Chickadee, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Common Raven, White-breasted Nuthatch, Dark-eyed Junco, Band-tailed Pigeon, Oak Titmouse, and Red-breasted Sapsucker
  • Marvel at Anza Borrego State Desert Park, the largest state park in the lower 48, covering more than 935 square miles. Here we may see Gambel’s Quail, Costa’s Hummingbird, Phainopepla, White-winged Dove, Verdin, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Northern Harrier, American Kestrel, Lesser Goldfinch, Black-throated Sparrow, Common Ground Dove, and Loggerhead Shrike, among others!

Trip Itinerary

Tues., Jan. 10: Arrivals


Welcome to San Diego! Please plan to arrive no later than 5:00 PM today. Our hotel is about 15 minutes by taxi or Uber from the airport. For those arriving at the hotel earlier (by 2:00 PM), we can take a short walk on the bike path along the nearby San Diego River channel, where we likely see 10-15 species of waterfowl, half a dozen species of herons, and about 15 species of shorebirds.

Returning to our hotel, we meet up with any later-arriving participants, and enjoy an introductory dinner close to our hotel where we get to know each other and go over our plan for the week.
Accommodations at the Hilton Garden Inn (D)

Wed., Jan. 11 : Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve | San Elijo Lagoon | Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge


Today we visit several great coastal birding locations, beginning with Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, located high above Torrey Pines State Beach. This area is a haven for rare and ancient Torrey Pines and the swifts, thrashers, woodpeckers and wren-tits that call them home. The ancient and endemic Torrey Pine is critically endangered and is only found in coastal Sand Diego County and on Santa Rosa Island, off shore near Santa Barbara.

We next visit San Elijo Lagoon, which protects 979 acres of coastal wetlands, sadly among California’s last undeveloped patches. San Elijo contains many habitat types connected by hiking trails, including ocean shore, wetland lagoons, upland coastal sage scrub, and chaparral and riparian areas. We may see endangered California Gnatcatcher here, and from shore, Black-vented Shearwater, Surf Scoter, and Western Grebe. Gray Whales are migrating south to their breeding areas off of Baja California, and they often can be seen from shore.

We next visit Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge, a 1,072-acre wetland located where the Tijuana River meets the sea. It is part of the 2,800-acre Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve, one of just 28 such reserves in the US. Here we may see hunting hawks, breaching whales, and furtive Ridgway’s Rail. We end the day here, perhaps watching the sun set into the Pacific with the hills of Mexico a mile to the south. The San Diego Christmas Bird Count regularly records over 200 species—so you can certainly expect to see many dozens during our first full field day, including Brandt’s Cormorant, Cassin’s Kingbird, Long-billed Curlew, Marbled Godwit, Bufflehead, Wrentit, Pacific Loon, Royal Tern, Snowy and Great Egrets, and of course Brown Pelican.
Accommodations at the Hilton Garden Inn (B,L,D)

Thurs., Jan. 12 : La Jolla | Lake Hodges | San Diego Zoo


After starting with an early morning search of the gorgeous La Jolla coastline, we move inland, just a little, and visit the grassland and coastal sage scrub habitats near Lake Hodges. Western, Clark’s and Pied-billed Grebes, White-throated Swift, Blue-gray and California Gnatcatchers, Greater Roadrunner, California Thrasher, American White Pelican, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Oak Titmouse, and White-tailed Kite are some of the many birds we hope to see.

We have a chance to stretch our legs a bit with a leisurely, easy walk adjacent to this fairly large lake. Then we head to one of the world’s premier zoos, where we have a chance to not only see the wonderful exhibits, but learn about the important conservation work being pursued by the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.

Then, it’s back to our hotel, probably with time for birding in nearby Balboa Park, whose 1,200 lushly planted acres are a haven for many species in this urban-adjacent oasis.
Accommodations at the Hilton Garden Inn (B,L,D)

Fri., Jan. 13 : Palomar Mountain State Park | Lake Henshaw


This morning we head inland, driving up the western flank of the north-south Peninsular Range, to birding locations within the 1,862 acres Palomar Mountain State Park, where the average elevation is 5,000 feet above sea level. En route to CalTech’s Palomar Observatory, we pass through grasslands and coastal sage scrub, fire-adapted chaparral vegetation, and oak woodland, arriving in a forested landscape dominated by pine, fir, and cedar trees that make the park one of the few areas in southern California with a Sierra Nevada-like atmosphere.

We have a picnic lunch near trout-stocked Doane Pond, nestled in scenic Doane Valley, where we expect to see some mountain birds like Steller's Jay, Mountain Chickadee, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Common Raven, White-breasted Nuthatch, Dark-eyed Junco, Band-tailed Pigeon, Oak Titmouse, and Red-breasted Sapsucker. Eventually we head back down to the lowlands, stopping to scope Lake Henshaw, a shallow, sprawling reservoir north of the city that is a favorite of fishermen and fishing birds alike. We may see flocks of American White Pelican and assorted flocks of waterfowl our group can have fun identifying. Our lodging for the night hosts California Quail, Band-tailed Pigeon, California Scrub-Jay, Steller’s Jay, Pine Siskin, Lesser Goldfinch, Lark Sparrow, and Spotted Towhee, which should be waiting for our arrival.
Accommodations at Quiet Mind Mountain Retreat (B,L,D)

Sat., Jan. 14 : Julian | Cuyamaca Rancho State Park


After an early morning walk near our lodging we explore the quaint, historic gold mining town of Julian—a place so different from the hustle-and-bustle of San Diego, located approximately one hour east, that you might think you’ve been magically transported to another world (one that is famous for its superb apple pie). Specialty shops line the historic streets, with unique attractions that range from wineries to gold mines to a wolf preserve.

After lunch we head to nearby Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, with 24,700 acres of oak and conifer forests and expansive meadows; over half of the park’s acreage is designated as state wilderness. Some birds we hope to see here include Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Spotted Towhee, Red-shouldered Hawk, Hairy Woodpecker, Williamson’s Sapsucker, Fox Sparrow, Pygmy Nuthatch, Western Bluebird, Purple and Cassin’s Finches, and Ferruginous Hawk. After enjoying an afternoon exploring this historic park, we head back to our lodging. After dinner, (and weather and energy permitting) we spend some time enjoying the night sky under a partial (last quarter) moon.
Accommodations at Quiet Mind Mountain Retreat (B,L,D)

Sun., Jan. 15 : Borrego Springs


Today we head further inland, with an early departure dropping down the eastern flank of the Peninsular Range into Anza Borrego Desert State Park. We pass through oak woodland and chaparral, where we likely see species like Oak Titmouse, California Thrasher, and California Scrub-Jay that we probably also saw at some of our earlier sites. But by the time we reach Anza Borrego, the bird species change dramatically. This is the largest state park in the lower 48, covering more than 935 square miles. Here we may see Gambel’s Quail, Costa’s Hummingbird, Phainopepla, White-winged Dove, Verdin, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Northern Harrier, American Kestrel, Lesser Goldfinch, Black-throated Sparrow, Common Ground Dove, Loggerhead Shrike, and so many more. Roosting Long-eared Owl are a distinct possibility, as is Prairie Falcon. Gray Flycatcher winter in small numbers, and we should see at least five species of wren: Rock, Marsh, House, Cactus, and Bewick’s.
Accommodations at La Casa del Zorro (B,L,D)

Mon., Jan. 16 : Anza Borrego Desert State Park


Today we add additional places, and species, to our list of desert birds birding Anza Borrego. Owing to its size and landscape diversity Anza Borrego shelters an astonishing proliferation of plant and animal life, including the endangered Peninsular Bighorn Sheep. We have no trouble finding places to explore on this last morning—palm oases, rock formations, and natural history trails are all great choices. We could probably spend two weeks here, but we need to head back to civilization tomorrow unfortunately!

Tonight we enjoy a celebratory dinner, going over our bird list one last time, choosing trip highlights and favorites, and swapping contact information with new-found friends.
Accommodations at La Casa del Zorro (B,L,D)

Tues., Jan. 17 : Departures


We’re up and off to the airport this morning. It’s a two-hour drive from our hotel to the airport, and we plan for noontime drop-offs. Please plan your flights out after 2:00 PM. If you have a later flight or plan to stay on and explore San Diego on your own after the tour, this is a great time of year for whale watching, and there are myriad outfitters to choose from. Fun! (B)

  • Southern California Birding and Nature Tour in San Diego County, Naturalist Journeys, Anza Borrego State Desert Park, Palomar Mountain State Park, San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve, Torrey Pines State Park, Coast to Cactus Birding and Nature tour

    Black Phoebe on a cactus by Mike's Birds via Wikimedia Commons

  • Southern California Birding and Nature Tour in San Diego County, Naturalist Journeys, Anza Borrego State Desert Park, Palomar Mountain State Park, San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve, Torrey Pines State Park, Coast to Cactus Birding and Nature tour

    Nuttall's Woodpecker by Becky Matsubara via Creative Commons

  • Southern California Birding and Nature Tour in San Diego County, Naturalist Journeys, Anza Borrego State Desert Park, Palomar Mountain State Park, San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve, Torrey Pines State Park, Coast to Cactus Birding and Nature tour

    California Gnatcatcher by Pacific Southwest Region USFWS via Creative Commons

  • Southern California Birding and Nature Tour in San Diego County, Naturalist Journeys, Anza Borrego State Desert Park, Palomar Mountain State Park, San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve, Torrey Pines State Park, Coast to Cactus Birding and Nature tour

    Palomar Mountain Overlook by Pacific Southwest Region USFWS via Wikimedia Commons

  • Southern California Birding and Nature Tour in San Diego County, Naturalist Journeys, Anza Borrego State Desert Park, Palomar Mountain State Park, San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve, Torrey Pines State Park, Coast to Cactus Birding and Nature tour

    Big Spy Hop Gray Whale Joe McKenna via Creative Commons

  • Southern California Birding and Nature Tour in San Diego County, Naturalist Journeys, Anza Borrego State Desert Park, Palomar Mountain State Park, San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve, Torrey Pines State Park, Coast to Cactus Birding and Nature tour

    Abromia Maritima, USFWS Pacific Southwest Region, Lisa Cox, via Wikimedia Commons

  • Southern California Birding and Nature Tour in San Diego County, Naturalist Journeys, Anza Borrego State Desert Park, Palomar Mountain State Park, San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve, Torrey Pines State Park, Coast to Cactus Birding and Nature tour

    Tijuana River Estuary, Osbomb via Creative Commons

  • Southern California Birding and Nature Tour in San Diego County, Naturalist Journeys, Anza Borrego State Desert Park, Palomar Mountain State Park, San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve, Torrey Pines State Park, Coast to Cactus Birding and Nature tour

    Least Tern pair feeding a chick. USFWS Pacific Southwest Region USFWS from Sacramento via Creative Commons

  • Southern California Birding and Nature Tour in San Diego County, Naturalist Journeys, Anza Borrego State Desert Park, Palomar Mountain State Park, San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve, Torrey Pines State Park, Coast to Cactus Birding and Nature tour

    Female Western Snowy Plover by Pacific Southwest Region USFWS via Wikimedia Commons

  • Southern California Birding and Nature Tour in San Diego County, Naturalist Journeys, Anza Borrego State Desert Park, Palomar Mountain State Park, San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve, Torrey Pines State Park, Coast to Cactus Birding and Nature tour

    Anza-Borrego Desert State Park by RuggyBearLA, via Creative Commons

Cost of the Journey

$3590 DBL / $4290 SGL

Browse below for trip reports and species lists from past versions of this and other tours from this destination.

California

Birds & Wine

Death Valley

Sierras to Seacoast

  • Jon Atwood

    Jon Atwood recently retired from his position as Director of Bird Conservation for Mass Audubon, where his work focused on grassland birds and full-life cycle conservation of Roseate and Least terns. He has been a practicing ornithologist and conservation biologist for more than 40 years, using behavioral studies of rare and endangered bird species to inform conservation planning. After completing his master’s and doctoral degrees in Southern California, where he studied Santa Cruz Island Scrub-Jay behavior, Least Tern breeding biology, and the taxonomy of gnatcatchers living in the deserts of North America, he moved to the East Coast in 1986. Building on his experience as a Master bird-bander, he worked at Manomet Bird Observatory and collaborated in the analysis of the first 30 years of Manomet’s landbird banding program. He also spearheaded federal protection of the California Gnatcatcher under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, led a long-term study of factors affecting Least Tern colony site selection, and contributed to early studies of Bicknell’s Thrush in New England. After leaving Manomet, Jon directed the Conservation Biology program at Antioch New England Graduate School where he taught Ornithology, Research Design, and GIS while mentoring more than 70 master’s and doctoral students. Jon has led field trips in Mexico (Yucatan and Baja California), Costa Rica, Belize, the Galapagos, the Amazon basin of Ecuador and Peru, Kenya, Southern California, Southeastern Arizona, Montana, and Maine.

    Other trips with Jon Atwood

  • David Yee

    David started birding at the age of 10. By high school, birding was his passion. He went to college at UC Santa Cruz, majored in biology, and bird science was always his focus. David went on to become a full-time chemist, but birding remained his passion, and according to his wife, his obsession. He has authored the Annotated Checklist of the Birds of San Joaquin County. He was the Regional Editor of North American Birds, Northern California Region. He has travelled extensively, and enjoys guiding throughout the US, Mexico, Central America, and Southeast Asia.

    Other trips with David Yee


Photo credits: Sliders: Cactus on Coast, Matt Lamers lamerbrain via Wikimedia Commons; Gull-billed Tern, Pacific Southwest Region U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from Sacramento via Wikimedia Commons; Torrey Pines State Park cliffs, Dirk Hansen via Creative Commons; Elijo Lagoon, Rennett Stowe via Creative Commons; California Quail, Pacific Southwest Region USFWS via Creative Commons;

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