San Diego Natural History Museum--Your Nature Connection[San Diego County Bird Atlas Project]

Reports from the Field
Winter 1998

Five Top Birding Spots in Poway
The Golden Eagles of El Cajon Mountain

Five Top Birding Spots in Poway

Poway isn't listed in the bird-finding guides, and we've yet to see any busloads of birders descending on the town. It isn't featured on Audubon field trips, and much of the area is decidedly urban in character. So Charlie and I were initially a bit skeptical when we received our target lists with 58 or 59 species of birds expected to breed in squares M10, M11, and N11. But it didn't take long for us become convinced that Poway is really a birding hot-spot just waiting to be discovered. In support of this claim, we present the "Top Five Birding Spots in the Poway area."

Poway Business Park and native grassland

This area was a splendid surprise. We'd driven by the grassy slope between Poway Road and the Business Park many times and assumed it was a non-native grassland. Upon closer examination, we found that this area actually supports one of the finer native grasslands in the county, with patches of coastal sage scrub interspersed. Several unusual plants occur here, including large populations of Coastal Barrel Cactus and Variegated Dudleya. This turned out to be a great area to see some interesting native birds as well. We found numerous singing male Grasshopper Sparrows, Rufous-crowned Sparrows with fledglings, and dozens of Western Meadowlarks. A California Thrasher was nesting in a prickly pear cactus, and a Mourning Dove nested on the ground. At least one pair of Blue Grosbeaks was residing in a patch of Sugar Bush. We located several pairs of California Gnatcatchers with fledglings in tow, along with nest-building Lark Sparrows.

Chicarita Creek

One of the few remaining riparian areas in Poway, Chicarita Creek is within a small open-space preserve adjacent to Sabre Springs Parkway. There's a pleasant interpretive trail that circles the preserve. The streamside zone supports a riparian woodland of sycamores, live oaks, and a few willows. We had a pair of Belted Kingfishers here that lingered late into the spring. Finally, in early May, we spotted the male with a fish in his beak, flying toward a bank with a likely-looking burrow. After some long minutes of hiding under trees waiting for the birds to approach the nest, we saw the male and female entering and exiting the burrow and calling back and forth to the nestlings. The family dined in style on lots of crayfish until the young fledged around the end of June. While scouting the area, we located nests of Black-chinned, Costa's and Anna's Hummingbirds in the adjoining willows and sycamores. A graded building pad upslope from the stream was home to Say's Phoebes and Horned Larks with fledglings.

Meadowbrook School

Located west of Pomerado Road, Meadowbrook School is at the intersection of several different types of habitat. Playing fields, coastal sage scrub, a grove of eucalyptus trees, and a small pond created conditions that were attractive to a wide range of birds. Cooper's Hawks and Western Flycatchers nested in the eucalyptus trees and found some good foraging areas in the adjacent fields. Two juvenile White-tailed Kites indicated possible nesting in the area. And nesting Sage Sparrows were in the sage scrub near the pond. The pond area, with just a couple of willow trees, also seemed especially attractive to migrants, yielding MacGillivray's Warbler, Black-throated Gray Warbler, and Rufous Hummingbird in the early spring months. California Gnatcatchers with fledglings and a pair of Yellow-breasted Chats were in the disturbed sage scrub north of the school. The chats noisily laid claim to a territory consisting of a pepper tree and some shrubs (his) and a big patch of star thistle (hers).

Old Poway Park

Comprising about 5 acres, Old Poway Park has a few oak trees, sycamores, and some eucalyptus and pepper trees. Judging by the abundance of pellets under one of the oaks, the park was a favorite feeding site for the Barn Owls that nested in an elm across the street. An American Robin was seen gathering mud and nesting material from Rattlesnake Creek, and a pair of Nuttall's Woodpeckers nested in a eucalyptus tree. Black Phoebes with fledglings perched on the park fountains. Upstream, we found Western Bluebirds nesting in an old sycamore tree and yet another nest of the seemingly ubiquitous Red-shouldered Hawk (five nests in Poway so far).

Beeler Creek

The upper portion of Beeler Creek includes a willow-lined riparian area adjoining slopes covered with chamise chaparral. The sand and gravel mine in Beeler Canyon yielded a pair of Great Horned Owls. The adjoining slopes and streamside areas had several calling Poorwills, a California Thrasher with fledglings, and a couple of pairs of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. The lower portion of Beeler Creek, along Old Pomerado Road, has a large area of sycamore and coast live oak riparian forest. A city-maintained trail next to the VFW lodge provides access. We found a group of Acorn Woodpeckers chattering away along the road, and a male Black-headed Grosbeak was on a nest in a dense willow thicket. A White-tailed Kite nest with four nestlings was tucked into the top of a coast live oak tree. At the lower end of the stream, a small pond was home to American Coot families and a vocal, though apparently unpaired, Pied-billed Grebe.

We've had a great time observing the birds in the Poway area. We eventually found more than 60 possibly breeding species in each of our squares, and at least 50% of these were confirmed as breeding. The one hint that we relied on was "Vote early and often." Oops, no, that was our hint for the recent election. Actually, the way we got many of our confirmations was by birding late and birding often. We found that surveying in the late afternoon and early evening was a good way to catch birds making those last few deliveries of food to their hungry nestlings. Not to mention a pleasant way to unwind after a day at the office.

--Kirsten Winter and Charlie Van Tassel

The Golden Eagles of El Cajon Mountain

I began to study raptors as a young boy growing up in Missouri. All of the current information being printed around 1960 painted such a bleak picture for the future of this regal family of birds that I was sure many of them would cease to exist in my lifetime. DDT contamination, governmentİfunded bounties, civilization creeping into the wilderness all threatened them. The Golden Eagle, wild of spirit, for which only the most remote locations will do, seemed the most sensitive of all.

In 1998 I integrated my birding for the San Diego County Bird Atlas in square O15, El Monte Park, with volunteering for the Golden Eagle survey led by Dave Bittner. Eagles nested in the past on El Cajon Mountain and are still seen nearby. But by 1997 no active nest was known. I always try to make the last day of the year special, so on 31 December 1997 I started my search for Golden Eagles nesting on El Cajon Mountain. But after four field trips I still haven't seen one. I call Dave Bittner for some insight from a veteran eagle watcher: "welcome to eagle watching." He explains that the birds aren't known to nest there consistently -- "don't feel bad; I cut my teeth on El Cajon Mountain back in the 1970s and never found a nest."

It's not till my eighth field trip that I finally see an eagle, appearing over the horizon at the very spot where I have spent so much time looking and seeing nothing. Then about 1.5 miles up a dirt road I come upon a Golden Eagle just taking off, very close, carrying a ground squirrel. It starts to circle, looking for an updraft. As it gains altitude, I'm struck by how well this bird uses the mountain to camouflage itself even while it's in flight. If I take my eyes off for a second I won't be able to find it again. By hugging the face of the mountain it takes advantage of updrafts, never flapping its wings, and it takes advantage the rich earth tones of the background, never going above the horizon.

On my next trip, 19 March, I'm joined by two adult Golden Eagles who seem quite curious, soaring within 60 feet overhead looking at me. After about 10 minutes they leave in the direction of the cliffs. But on the next few trips I get blasted with rain and hail, and on 29 March the top of El Cajon Mountain is dusted with snow.

Then the idea hit me to arrive at a good lookout position before the sun comes up. Shortly after sunrise the male should leave the nest to forage for breakfast. If I can see him as he takes to the air I will know that the nest is close by. On 3 April I leave the house at 4:15, and at 5:00 I'm at my lookout waiting for sunrise. As darkness gives way to first light the dark outline of the mountain takes form and detail. My optimism grows as it gets light enough to see the entire face of the mountain clearly. I'm afraid to blink or move my eyes for even a second, expecting to see an eagle at any moment. Before I realize it, an hour has passed. I search even harder, but another hour passes, then another. After five hours, I feel sure I can't have missed an eagle -- the nest must be on another face of the mountain. But after two more hours with no luck from another lookout and questions starting to mount in my mind I decide to call it a day. I fill out my field log card, then take one last look before leaving. I'm looking at the highest point on the mountain, lifting my binos to my eyes, and "oh my god" there it is, gliding across the cliff. It quickly does a U turn and disappears under a huge rock. The whole sighting lasted three to four seconds at the most. What an anticlimax -- all my effort has come down to three seconds. But this must be the nest site. About 15 minutes later a second bird appears on the horizon, circles above the suspected nest, and disappears again heading north, building my confidence that the nest site is here. It's about 3000 feet above me on an 80° incline, almost 2/3 of a mile away. I realize these birds don't want to kill something down here, then have to carry it all the way up there. They are living mostly on top of the mountain, out of sight from people, and when they return to the nest they just drop over the edge and quickly disappear under the rock.

On 4 April my wife Shannon Peters and I are not only eagle watching, we're birding for the Atlas as well -- in rubber boots walking down the middle of the San Diego River. We see two eagles coming down the valley and assume it's the El Cajon Mountain pair, but as they near the suspected nest site another eagle flies out to meet them. It immediately flies above them to get the advantage of height, then escorts them southwest, away from the suspected nest. The intruding pair offer no resistance as they disappear to the south over Blossom Valley. As the lone eagle returns to the mountain, its mate comes out to meet it, and now we can see the first bird is a male, smaller than the female flying out to meet him. They circle together, "sky hopping" in an undulating flight, higher and higher until we can no longer see them without binoculars.

I'm resolved to find a way up there and confirm whether there's a nest or not. Patty Heyden, ranger at Stelzer County Park, warns me that it's a long and dangerous hike -- she's heard of no one following my proposed route. But after talking to many people, poring over maps, and studying with scope and binoculars my planned descent, I'm as ready as I'm going to get. On 10 May Shannon drives me up Wildcat Canyon Road and I set out on one of the toughest hikes I've ever taken -- so many elevation gains followed by elevation losses that it could crush your spirit. After three and a half hours I reach a spectacular view point. All of the El Monte Valley is visible below -- and with binoculars I can see the rock the eagle disappeared under. Then after the roughest part of the hike, I see the rock about 300 yards away. As I approach, an eagle suddenly flies up from below, circles me, then heads north. When I finally get to the rock, I see whitewash below. I work myself down about 20 feet to where all I have to do is step around the corner. When I do, my heart sinks because there is no nest -- just a major roost. I see castings on the ground, and one in particular catches my eye. It's easily twice the size of any eagle casting I have ever seen. It has the foot of a raven protruding from it, and the balance looks to be ground squirrel fur. It's so fresh it's still steaming. It's now 3:00 PM and I told Shannon I would be down at 4:00. I study the way down with binoculars because once I start down there's no time to climb back up. Even though the nest is not where I thought, learning to climb the mountain was a big part of the puzzle. I think I may have been very close to the nest without seeing it.

It's 17 May and another important day is near if not already past. Young eagles can fledge this early, but this year things are going a bit slow; Dave Bittner tells me most of the nests in San Diego county still have young in them. So this is probably the last weekend I have to find the nest with babies still in it. I'm at my lookout again at 5:15 AM, watching as the sun begins to rise. Five hours later, I haven't taken my eyes off the mountain and I've still seen no eagles. For the first time since I started this I'm beginning to wonder seriously if I will ever find this nest.

In two more trips, though, I see the eagles hunting successfully, carrying their prey around the mountain, and watching me. I feel encouraged that eagles have hatched somewhere on El Cajon Mountain. Finally on 15 June Dave Bittner takes a helicopter and finds a nest -- though no eagles -- where I suspected. The view of the nest is obscured from below. You need to be on top of the mountain to look behind the rock to see it. Now all I want is to see a fledgling to confirm that breeding was successful this year. With all the effort invested, we still don't yet know the results.

On 27 June Kevin Macoubrie and I again make the long hike from Wildcat Canyon Road. Finally we arrive at the rocks above the nest -- and there is a fledgling yelping, chasing after an adult. If the adult slows down it looks like the baby will run into it. I hear yelping below from what may be a second fledgling, but then Kevin twists his ankle badly. We have to leave at once, climbing slowly down the south face over the next three hours, Kevin enduring his pain bravely. We are very lucky to get off the mountain without assistance and in the end are just glad to be down, seven and a half hours after we started.

The sighting of the baby lasted less than 10 seconds but I'll never forget it. I'm so much more intimate with this species and this mountain than I was on 31 December when I made my first trip into the field. In spite of the seclusion of these birds on the dangerous cliffs of El Cajon Mountain, it's still hard to believe that their future is safe. As we approach the year 2000, I wonder how many Golden Eagle nests will survive the 21st century in San Diego County. But I realize something all serious and experienced birders already know. You can travel all over the world but the best birding you can ever do is right where you live.

--David Seals

Winter 1998 Wrenderings | Wrenderings Archive | Bird Atlas Introduction