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Memories of Anza-Borrego

California Quail - Callipepla californicaAnza-Borrego State Park has long been a favorite destination of mine. Even before my passion for bird photography, this desert’s beauty drew me to it. Not everyone “gets” the desert. Some see only dry desolation, devoid of life. But a closer look will show that life abounds here.

If spring rains deliver sufficient water, an amazing bloom of all manner of flowers will explode across the valleys and canyons. When this happens people gather from hundreds of miles away to drink it in. It’s either feast or famine for water in this desert. The cycles have gone on for aeons, and life here has adapted to these times of water wealth, and the long impoverished periods that follow.

This desert park is large, over 600,000 acres large. In 1967 a group of conservation minded citizens formed the Anza-Borrego Foundation and started raising funds to purchase old ranches and homesteads in the region, to annex into the park. In this way the boundaries of the park continue to expand.

As one can imagine, all the locations for finding birds would be impossible to describe without risking running out of space, or loosing the readership’s attention. So I will share a few tales on places I’ve enjoyed chasing birds.

If connecting to a sample of most of what the park may offer is of interest, the Anza-Borrego State Park Visitor Center is a place you should not ignore. Aside from some elusive thrashers, most of the birds making their home in this desert could make an appearance here.

Scott's Oriole - Icterus parisorumIf you enjoy out-of-the-way destinations, Plum Canyon is a place you could seek. Spring in this back-road get-a-way can deliver wildlife and/or wildflowers in peaceful serenity. If heading east on Route 78, travel 3.9 miles from Scissors Crossing, and look to your right after San Felipe Creek spills onto the open desert.

The water supplying the community of Borrego Springs California comes from Palm Canyon. Most of the water flows underground, but further up the slopes in the rocky eastern ravines of the Peninsular Ranges, water falls through the canyon, past an ancient palm grove, just two miles as the crow flies, from the Anza-Borrego State Park Visitor Center. There is a 1.25 mile hiking trail leading to the palm grove, from the upper end of the Borrego-Palm Campground.

The Borrego Sink is a low-lying area east of the community of Borrego Springs. It’s sad that this area is not the bird magnet it once was. The water table has dropped due to human, agricultural and golf-course consumption and the Mesquite forest, who’s roots descent more than 150 feet, can no longer reach the water they need to survive. Yet there are still some birds able to eek out a living here among the dead or dying trees. The Crissal Thrashers known to live in the sink are now quite hard to find. High clearance 4WD vehicles can access the sink from several directions. One is via the Dump Road east of the airport, and another is via Yaqui Pass Road south from where it intersects Rango Way.

Rockhouse Trail is a primitive dirt road that leads north from Route S-22, or the Borrego Salton Seaway. It leaves the pavement from just east of the junction of S-22 and Pegleg Road. It is the best route to Clark Dry Lake, and the best location I know in San Diego County to find the elusive Le Conte’s Thrasher.

Blair Valley and Little Blair Valley are located near Route S-2, and the Great Southern Overland Stage Route that Mark Twain wrote about in “Roughing It”. Here the flat, dry desert is interrupted by steep canyon walls. Among the desert birds found here are Scott’s Orioles.

Scissors Crossing is what locals call the intersection of California Highway 78 and County S-2. Also crossing here is San Felipe Creek. It’s journey from a few miles north through a series of cottonwood bosques takes a hard left here and turns east towards its end at the Salton Sea. A large cienega (marsh) fans out in the valley before releasing its water to flow down a narrow, rocky canyon and dump out in the open desert, only to disappear into the sands below. For those paying close attention, these three distinct ecosystems stack up close together and provide potential meetings with a variety of riparian, marsh, and canyon loving birds very near each other.

At 3400 feet in elevation, Culp Valley is up-slope from Borrego Springs (elevation 597’). The habitat here is still desert, but different from the desert floor below. Sage-scrub and chaparral dominate, and though many of the birds from down below will visit here too, those you may meet will change with the progression of the seasons. Some will stay year-round, some for summer breeding, some merely pass through, while others come only for the winter season.

The descent into Borrego Springs from Culp Valley passes several side trails, such as Tubb Canyon Trail. Further down Montezuma Grade, as Route S-22 is called, the views of the steep canyons are breathtaking. But be on the lookout for Desert Bighorn Sheep, as they are frequently seen on the rocky slopes above the road.

Once it was believed that most of the Swainson’s Hawk Migration took place through Texas. But then Hal Cohen moved to Borrego Springs and brought his hawk-watching skills from years in the upper mid-west and discovered the deserts of Anza-Borrego are also along a well travelled route from their winter homes in South America. From mid-March to the end of the month, folks stand vigil now to enjoy their sometimes spectacular numbers as they kettle up early in the morning to resume their northward journey. Some of the best viewing is from a half mile north of Christmas Circle in Borrego Springs.

The gallery below is larger than most I share, but I wanted the geotags (pins on the adjacent map) to highlight the sub-locations described above.

Click map markers to reveal further information