In this Issue
Reports from the Field
News and Updates
Native Birds at the Wild Animal Park and in the San Pasqual Valley
The San Diego Wild Animal Park is known for its collection of exotic birds, but the list of native species residing there is just as impressive. Local habitat is shrinking, and the park's 2200 acres are becoming increasingly important for resident as well as migrating birds in the San Pasqual Valley. Here is a birding tour through the park and the surrounding valley, in my adopted squares J12 and J13.
Heading East from Escondido on Highway 78
My favorite view of the valley is heading east from Escondido at the top of the grade on Highway 78 just past Old San Pasqual Road. The road widens, and you can see the dark green hills of coastal sage scrub with the San Dieguito River down below. If it's dark out (either A.M. or P.M.) there are often Barn Owls flying across the road along this grade. Unfortunately, I have also seen a number of them killed here. Ospreys occasionally fly across the road here too, probably heading for Lake Hodges. At the bottom of the grade turn left onto Cloverdale Road. The disturbed grassland just past the stables is where you can see American Pipits, Horned Larks, Western Bluebirds, Say's and Black Phoebes, Cassin's and Western Kingbirds. The riparian habitat leading to the new Eagle Crest housing development offers views of the Belted Kingfisher and nesting Red-tailed Hawks. Living in the oak woodland at the end of the main road are Acorn and Nuttall's Woodpeckers, Plain Titmice, and Orange-crowned Warblers.
Back on Highway 78 less than 1/4 mile east is a small bridge where, in December, I watched in amazement as 23 White-faced Ibises flew over my car as I was driving to work. The ibises were heading down to the small pond on the left side of the road. I was also amazed that I narrowly missed running into the oncoming traffic, so the best bet is to pull off onto the dirt shoulders to do your birding! The American Avocet and Black-necked Stilt can usually be spotted at this pond, and occasionally the Wood Stork that has been frequenting the Wild Animal Park for the past 10 years stops here. A few years back this Wood Stork did convince another one to come to the park. They built a nest at the overflow pond (near the East Africa pond) but failed to produce any offspring. They tried from at least 1989 to 1991 but with no success. With another unsuccessful attempt in the pond west of Dairy Mart Road in the Tijuana River valley (V11) in 1987 these are the only known attempts of the Wood Stork to nest in California. It has been about three years now that only one has been sighted at the Wild Animal Park, but the bird stays year round, being for many years the only Wood Stork seen in California in winter.
A little farther down the road from the bridge, on the right side, is a large cattle pond off in the distance. Two days after I spotted my 23 ibises, my husband Dan saw 250 there! So much for my exciting encounter. Usually filled with coots, Northern Shovelers, Ruddy Ducks, and Canada Geese, the pond also attracted an immature Bald Eagle this winter. It stayed for about a month before migrating north and was a great comparison to the two immature Golden Eagles that were commonly observed at the park. The pasture/grassland in this area is where numerous species can be sighted including the American Kestrel, Savannah Sparrow, Horned Lark, Greater Roadrunner, Western Meadowlark, kingbirds and phoebes.
Within the Wild Animal Park
The presence of year-round water, food, and abundant cover has turned the park into a native bird's paradise. The park is especially important to nesting herons, egrets, Cactus Wrens, California Gnatcatchers, roosting Turkey Vultures, wintering waterfowl, and various raptors.
Along Highway 78 between 17th Avenue and Bear Valley Parkway in Escondido there was once a large grove of eucalyptus trees that was a favorite roosting spot for Turkey Vultures. When the majority of the trees were cut down in the early 1980s, the population shifted to the Australian Rain Forest in the Wild Animal Park. At dusk it's quite an experience to hear lions roaring, see herds of wildebeest and Southern White Rhinos milling about in East Africa, and watch hundreds of Turkey Vultures fly in to roost for the night. Also observed roosting with the Turkey Vultures are the immature Golden Eagles, Red-shouldered Hawks, and Zone-tailed Hawks.
For the past four or five years there have been at least two Zone-tailed Hawks sighted in the area. Just recently, we heard that the gardener at Oak Hill Cemetery in Escondido feeds out the gophers he catches to the Zone-tails as well as to the ravens, Red-shouldered and Red-tailed Hawks. This possibly keeps them in the area because we see them every year at the park. I work as an animal keeper at the park hospital's Infant Isolation Unit (one of the two nurseries at the park), and we see the Zone-tails soaring over the hills by the hospital grounds quite frequently. Once, one was flying down a hill as I was walking up, and I got a very close look at the black and white banding in its fanned-out tail. I don't know who was more startled by the close encounter, me or the hawk.
Although the park's hospital will be moving in two years to a new site closer to the main entrance, we are currently surrounded by coastal sage scrub interspersed with prickly pear cactus. The coastal sage scrub provides important nesting sites for the California Gnatcatcher, while the cactus is vital for the large population of nesting San Diego Cactus Wrens. Indeed, the Wild Animal Park is the type locality for this rare subspecies. Of the park's 2200 acres, roughly 1300 remain in their natural state. Most of this area can not be developed because of its protected status. This undeveloped park property provides wonderful habitat for a wide variety of birds including, at the proper season, Lawrence's, American, and Lesser Goldfinches, Western Bluebird, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Marsh, Canyon, Bewick's and Rock Wrens, Hermit Thrush, California Thrasher, Common Ground Dove, Greater Roadrunner, Anna's, Costa's, Black-chinned, Allen's, and Rufous Hummingbirds, Nuttall's Woodpecker, Phainopepla, Loggerhead Shrike, Rufous-crowned, Lark, Chipping, and Sage Sparrows, Cooper's and Sharp-shinned Hawks, and Bullock's, Hooded, and Scott's Orioles, the last a rare but annual winter visitor.
There are three main ponds at the park, located in the enclosures of East Africa, South Africa, and Asian Swamps. South Africa and Asian Swamps can be seen only from the monorail. The pond in East Africa is easily accessible along the hiking trail in Heart of Africa. During the breeding season the trees surrounding the East Africa pond are teeming with hundreds of nesting Black-crowned Night Herons, Snowy, Cattle, and Great Egrets, and Great Blue Herons, making this heronry the most diverse if not also the largest in the county. During winter and migration, the ponds provide an important staging area for an impressive number and variety of waterfowl. The list includes the Canada and Snow Geese, Bufflehead, Blue-winged, Green-winged, and Cinnamon Teal, Northern Pintail, American Wigeon, Gadwall, Lesser Scaup, and Ring-necked Duck, plus the Pied-billed and Eared Grebes. Scanning the reeds in Heart of Africa you can also see the Green Heron, Common Moorhen, Belted Kingfisher, and nesting Great-tailed Grackle! The area around the South Africa pond is where a Vermilion Flycatcher was sighted on the Christmas Bird Count.
In the steep and rocky enclosure of mountain habitat, seen only via the monorail, there have been nesting Barn Owls every year since the park opened in 1972, near the top of the enclosure in a cave. Field keepers have already sighted three owlets this season. Although I hear Great Horned Owls quite frequently, I have yet to see a nest. I did hear of two Peregrine Falcons in the area in the winter but have not been fortunate enough to see them.
The San Pasqual Valley and the San Dieguito River
The San Dieguito River runs from the mountains, through Ramona, past the Wild Animal Park to Lake Hodges, and eventually makes its way to the ocean by Del Mar. This riparian habitat attracts many migrating birds. If you're going to the park, stop by the San Pasqual Battlefield and hike down to the river. In just a short time, near the washed-out Santa Ysabel Road, Dan and I were able to see Blue and Black-headed Grosbeaks, Yellow-breasted Chat, Wilson's, Townsend's, Yellow, and Yellow-rumped Warblers, and nesting Bell's Vireo. In the surrounding fields, look for the Northern Harrier, White-tailed Kite, and Common Ground Dove. In April, a Swainson's Hawk was seen traveling through the valley, not far from the immature Bald Eagle and the two immature Golden Eagles. Although Golden Eagles are regularly seen at the park, this is the first year I can remember seeing a Bald Eagle, more commonly sighted at Lake Wohlford and Lake Henshaw.
A Valuable Link
The Wild Animal Park is known for its efforts in breeding many endangered exotic birds and mammals. The California Condor is one captive native species that has been bred at the park and now numbers 147 individuals from a population of 22 when they were all brought into captivity in 1987. Fifty of those birds have now been released back into the wild. We are a breeding facility, and our goal is to prevent the extinction of animal species. We are now emerging as a valuable link for the native species in the San Pasqual Valley by preserving the native habitat they need to survive. When you visit the park bring your binoculars to see not only the rhinos but also to do some serious birding!
Debi Espinoza-Bylin, Senior Animal Keeper/San Diego Wild Animal Park