Monday, May 11, 2015

Birds of Black Canyon Road, Ramona

After living here a year-and-a-half I am closing in on 300 bird species for San Diego County. If I lived a bit closer to downtown, and had more mornings off from work, I could chase all those fall and winter rarities visiting the vagrant-attracting parks right along the coast, some individuals returning to the same parks and favorite tree for several winters in a row.

Canyon Wren
Canyon Wren. Black Canyon Bridge, Ramona, California. April 5, 2015. Greg Gillson.
But, I'm still getting the lay of the land--even nearer my home in North County (northern San Diego County). Thus, when Nancy Christensen reported Bell's Sparrows nearby in Ramona, I passed up a nearly sure-thing Mississippi Kite reported down at the border at the Tijuana River Valley, to look for sparrows closer to home. Spectacular Lifer raptor or local form of a gray sparrow? I chose the sparrow--probably not the decision most birders would have made. After all, this kite was only the 4th San Diego County record and is a California listed rare bird as well. Did I make the right decision? That's the thing about birding. There is no wrong choice. So while you can read about Gary Nunn's experience chasing the kite, I'll share my experience searching for the sparrows.

My choice.
Black Canyon Road
Dawn on Black Canyon Road.
Bell's Sparrow is the southern California breeding form of what was formerly the Sage Sparrow, one of the typical birds of the Great Basin desert and chaparral. The northern interior form is now called Sagebrush Sparrow--a very apt name. I had recorded "Sage" Sparrows once in Ventura County, California in 1984. The summer date would indicate these were Bell's Sparrows. But I have no photos or written descriptions, no real memory of the event--just 5 birds recorded in the "general Mt. Pinos area."

Last winter I went over to Borrego Springs and closely documented the wintering "sage" sparrows there and came away with photos of both the Sagebrush Sparrow and the "Mojave" form (canescens) of Bell's Sparrow. These two are very similar. So now I wanted to document the nominate (belli) form of Bell's Sparrow.

There are some Bell's Sparrows just south of San Marcos up on a ridge of the Elfin Forest. One must hike the Way Up Trail. The hiking guide for this trail says it is "moderately difficult," and suitable for children--mountain goat children, perhaps. 1.5 miles over rugged dirt/rock and an elevation gain of 876 feet. When I reached the top I did not find Bell's Sparrows, or anything that would entice me to repeat that ordeal. I could only hear the rapid pounding of my heartbeats in my ears and my gasping breaths. There must be a place closer to San Marcos where I can find Bell's Sparrows closer to the road, perhaps something with only a half mile of hiking on relatively flat landscape? Enter Black Canyon Road.

Black Canyon Road
Black Canyon Road. Hills, rocks, dead tree tops--Black-chinned Sparrow habitat.
Black Canyon Road
Bare soil, sparse sage, yucca--perfect Bell's Sparrow habitat.
The birding I did on Black Canyon Road is only the first 3 miles. You access it from Magnolia Avenue, just as you pass through the small rather rural town of Ramona heading east on Hwy 78 toward Julian. Magnolia Avenue turns slightly and becomes Black Canyon Road. At Black Canyon Place the road leaves the last residential homes and turns to gravel. It winds up over a hill and comes out at the Black Canyon Bridge. That's it. Rather than turning left and continuing across the bridge on Black Canyon Road, stay right on Sutherlin Dam Road for about a mile to come into the back side of Lake Sutherlin.

Black Canyon Rd is accessed north of Ramona on Hwy 78 from Magnolia Avenue.
I heard a few singing Bell's Sparrows between 1 and 2 miles after the road turned to gravel. At one pull-out there is a fire road leading out west just south of a high bluff. Bell's Sparrows want widely separated small bushes on bare soil. Unfortunately, I didn't get any photos of the Bell's Sparrows, nor any really decent looks. But I did record several other species, both on the way in at dawn, and later on the way out in late morning.

Black Canyon Bridge
Black Canyon Bridge.
The riparian area at the Black Canyon Bridge was especially productive, giving me several new birds for the year back on April 5th. These included Cliff Swallow, Black-throated Gray Warbler, and Lazuli Bunting. Birding was so good there I remained 1.25 hours.

And the Canyon Wren was a new County Bird for me (#294).

Rufous-crowned Sparrow
Rufous-crowned Sparrow
Wrentit
Wrentit
Rock Wren
Rock Wren. Black Canyon Bridge, Ramona, California. April 5, 2015. Greg Gillson.
Black-chinned Sparrow
Black-chinned Sparrow
Orange-crowned Warbler
Migrant Orange-crowned Warbler on Black Canyon Road.
Lincoln's Sparrow
Migrant Lincoln's Sparrow at Black Canyon Bridge.
Then I drove the mile over to Lake Sutherlin and birded around there for an hour.

Lake Sutherlin
Lake Sutherlin
Lark Sparrow
Lark Sparrow at Lake Sutherlin.
Western Kingbird
Western Kingbird at Lake Sutherlin