I have to confess that I get tips on bird locations from the San Diego Birding Yahoo group. It was one of these tips that sent us down to the Tijuana River Estuary. I’ve seen burrowing owls in captivity, but never in the wild. So, when someone on the list mentioned an owl close to the fence near the River Mouth Trail near the TJ River Estuary visitor center, we decided to try our luck.
The trail runs straight south from a small parking area. There are several trails in this part of the nature preserve. They are shadeless, but fortunately it wasn’t too hot. On the left is a Naval Airfield. The funny thing is, even though we were in the preserve, many birds prefer the airfield. We spotted several small groups of killdeers who seemed to be very content. On our side of the fence, there was a harrier hawk, some yellow throats, and lots of red-winged blackbirds. We scanned the airfield for burrowing owls, but all we could see were lots of ground squirrels. Even though this wasn’t what we were looking for, it was a good sign because the owls like taking over old squirrel burrows. As we reached the edge of the airfield and the helicopter landing pad, we noticed a yellow sign with a picture of an owl warning people not to fill in the burrow or dump gas or pesticides there. We’d found the owl’s house, but we didn’t see any owl. On the other side of the grassy patch of land was another yellow sign, but we didn’t see an owl there either. Undaunted, we scanned the area. After all, there could be other owl burrows that just hadn’t been marked. But all we saw were squirrels. We decided to walk a bit more, then check for the owl on our way back.
We headed west and got to a little patch of brackish water. R spotted a kingfisher sitting on a post. In the distance, in the more open area of the estuary, there were a lot of shorebirds, waterfowl, and pelicans. That section was inaccessible which was probably why all the birds were there. I watched a pelican and a grebe drifting about in one of the estuary inlets. The kingfisher flew off and R joined me by the water. Then he noticed the light-footed clapper rail swimming across the small stretch of water to the shore across from us. These are endangered and are found only in 5 counties in Southern California and some parts of Baja, Mexico. According to SeaWorld (http://seaworld.org/animalinfo/animal-info/animal-bytes/birds/light-footed-clapper-rail/) there are only 600 individuals in CA. We know for certain that two of those are living in the San Diego River Estuary (where a bird photographer pointed out the first one we saw to us and soon we saw its mate) and the Tijuana River Estuary, where after spotting the first one, a second one appeared. They gave a loud call (called “clappering) and then one mounted the other and they disappeared beneath mud covered grasses. We hope that this means in a month or so we will be able to see our first baby light-footed clapper rails as well.
We walked back to the airfield and the owl was standing about a foot away from the sign. These have got to be the cutest of birds. Since some of its body was hidden by the burrow, it looked like a feathery tennis ball with big eyes and a beak. The owl slowly moved its head to face us, then off to the side, then around to the back. Happy, we observed for a while and then walked back up the path.
To get to the Tijuana River Estuary Visitor Center and the River Mouth Trail, take I-5 S to Coronado Avenue and go West. To get to the trail head, turn left on whichever street is easier after Connecticut or East Lane (but 5th is your last chance). They all end on Iris. Go right on Iris and park at the end. If you want to go to the visitor center, stay on Coronado (which turns to Imperial Beach Blvd). Turn left on 3rd Street and then left on Caspian Way. There is a free parking lot.
Make a Day of It
I really like this area. Take a look at the trail map. There are several places to visit. Here are some of my suggestions. Sorry I haven’t written much about them: