Saturday, July 18, 2015

Summer Tanager and Brown-crested Flycatcher at Scissors Crossing

It took two days, but I finally found my primary target bird. I left the Inn in Julian each morning before dawn to drive 20 minutes over the winding mountain road to arrive at this desert creek bed at sunrise. After a couple of hours on the second day--there it is! Summer Tanager!

Summer Tanager
Summer Tanager in cottonwoods. San Felipe Rd, San Diego Co., California. July 5, 2015. Greg Gillson.
First discovered breeding here in 1998, Scissors Crossing contains the most nesting pairs of Summer Tanagers in San Diego County (up to 8 pairs in 2002). A few other nesting pairs have been discovered scattered about the county, but none are as regular. A few Summer Tanagers winter annually as vagrants in San Diego in ornamental shrubs along the coast. But these are the slightly smaller Eastern form with a smaller bill.

Scissors Crossing is a long ways from anywhere--especially when you want to arrive at sunrise, or before. It is 70 miles from San Diego, 50 miles from Escondido, on winding mountain roads, for the most part.


The exact birding location is north 1/2 mile on San Felipe Road [S2] from the intersection of CA-78. If you type it into your map app on your mobile phone it is: 21456 San Felipe Rd, Julian, California 92036. Really, though, it is 12.6 miles east of Julian, and takes about 22 minutes down the winding mountain road of CA-78 from Julian (at 4000 feet elevation). There aren't any public facilities nearby--no gas, food, drinks, restrooms. The only nearby homes are south back across highway CA-78 on S2 about 2 miles to the small unincorporated community of Shelter Valley (which does have a fire department and community center). It is 20 miles to Borrego Springs, on flatter roads and highway speeds.

Looking West across San Felipe Creek
Looking south across San Felipe Creek.
The first day I was there, July 4th, it was hot--88 degrees at dawn--and windy. The second day, July 5th, it was a wonderful 72 degrees and calm. That made hearing birds much easier the second day. For instance, the second day there were several singing Bell's Vireos in the river bottom woods. The first day I detected none.

Looking Southeast along San Felipe Creek
Looking southeast along San Felipe Road. The tall cottonwoods on the left are where you bird the (dry) creek.
My second target species came before the Summer Tanager. But actually identifying them was much harder and took more work.

There were about a dozen Ash-throated Flycatchers flying around the area, both in the desert scrub and in the cottonwoods and mesquite trees in the dry creek bed. On both days, about two hours after sunrise, a group of 3 or 4 Brown-crested Flycatchers started making racket high in the cottonwoods. Their calls were louder, liquid, and less harsh, but similar. And visually, they were almost identical, the Brown-crested with a slightly larger bill, yellower belly, and a hard-to-see slightly different pattern to the rust on the tip of the tail (rust reaching all the way to the end). Brown-crested Flycatchers are rare breeders here and at Borrego Springs, starting in 2000.

Brown-crested Flycatcher
Brown-crested Flycatcher in mesquite. San Felipe Rd, San Diego Co., California. July 4, 2015. Greg Gillson.
Okay, here's the deal. The creek bed and trees are fenced off. You have to park on the side of the road and watch (and listen) from there. There is really only one place to get close enough to the cottonwoods to see and hear these birds. Park off the road on the wide shoulder on the curve under the shade of a mesquite tree. Bird from there. The first day I parked at the San Felipe Monument. It is the little loop on the side of the road you can see on the left side of the satellite photo below. Then I birded along the road a half mile to the marked corner and the curve just beyond. The second day I stayed quite close to the marked area and saw and heard more birds (no doubt aided by calm winds).

Birding at Scissors Crossing
Birding at Scissors Crossing. Park where indicated.
My eBird list for July 4th.

My eBird list for July 5th.

When should you look?
Summer Tanager: May through August
Brown-crested Flycatcher: late May into August