Nestled at the southern end of the Santa Ana Mountains, this wild place is one of the last areas in southern California where you can see rare Engelmann oak woodlands, hillsides covered in chaparral, and vernal pools. The fleeting bodies of water, California specialty birds, and wintering Lewis’s Woodpeckers are the main draws for birders.
For the best birding, walk on any of the trails in the morning hours. You often don’t have to go far to see Wrentit, Hutton’s Vireo, California Towhee, California Thrasher, and Lawrence’s Goldfinch. In spring, I usually start at the Vernal Pool trailhead to check for dabbling and diving ducks, shorebirds, White-faced Ibis, and raptors.
Near a group of historic adobes, I check the 400-year-old coast live oak for nesting Acorn Woodpeckers and migrating warblers, then head out on the Adobe Loop Trail. It passes through a riparian area that can hold some of the best birds, including warblers, orioles, Western Tanager, and nesting Pacific-slope Flycatcher. On my way back to the trailhead, I stop to listen for Blue Grosbeaks singing in an old olive grove. — Charity Hagen
Charity Hagen is a volunteer docent at the Santa Rosa Plateau. She leads regular bird walks on the reserve and is writing a book about birding on the plateau.
Oak and sycamore riparian woodlands, bunchgrass prairie, chaparral, vernal pools.
Mostly flat, a few steep trails. Interpretive trail behind visitor center and trail to vernal pools are wheelchair-accessible.
More than 200 species. Winter and spring: American Wigeon, Northern Shoveler, Ruddy and Ring-necked Ducks, Long-billed Dowitcher, Greater Yellowlegs, Merlin, Prairie Falcon, Lewis’s Woodpecker, Horned Lark, Hermit Thrush, Grasshopper, Vesper, Fox, and Golden-crowned Sparrows, Dark-eyed Junco, Red-breasted Sapsucker. Spring: White-faced Ibis, Blue and Black-headed Grosbeaks, migrating warblers. Year-round: White-tailed Kite, Western Meadowlark, Hutton’s Vireo, Oak Titmouse, California Thrasher, California Quail, Wrentit, Spotted and California Towhees, Lawrence’s Goldfinch. Rarities: Snow and Ross’s Geese, Eurasian Wigeon, Whimbrel, Black-bellied Plover.
When to go
Winter through spring is best, when vernal pools are usually full and temperatures are mild.
Visitor center has maps, exhibits, and restrooms. Four main trailheads have outhouses, as does the adobe area. Bird walks offered regularly; call visitor center for dates.
County reserve. Entrance fee $3 for adults, $2 for children. Reserve open daily sunrise to sunset. Visitor center open Tuesday through Sunday 9-5.
Bring a spotting scope for viewing ducks in vernal pools. In winter, ask at visitor center for recent Lewis’s Woodpecker locations, which change from year to year. Check birdbaths in front and back of visitor center for up-close looks at shy species like Wrentit and Fox Sparrow.