One of my favorite birding spots in San Diego County, the San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve is a stopover for masses of migrating shorebirds in fall, a wintering refuge for all kinds of waterfowl, and a nesting area for several endangered species.
Birding here is like stepping back to an earlier time when freshwater creeks still met the ocean in peaceful estuaries, and Snowy Plovers and Least Terns gathered and laid their eggs undisturbed.
Eventually, urbanization took a toll. By 1887, dikes and levees had been built to make roads, duck-hunting ponds, and sewage settling ponds. The mouth of the lagoon backed up, and water quality suffered; the daily tidal cleansing of ocean waters could not breach the sand bar that formed at the inlet to the estuary.
Recent periodic dredging of the lagoon mouth by county, state, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials has restored the estuary to its naturally healthy condition and made it a prime example of how habitat restoration can bring an estuary back to life. The extraordinary number and variety of birds that can be observed now, compared to 20 years ago, makes the place extra special. — Joan Easton Lentz
Southern California coastal wetland: sandy beach, mudflat, shallow lagoon, salt marsh, freshwater marsh, and coastal sage scrub.
Trails adjacent to nature center are flat and wheelchair-accessible. Other trails are flat to moderately steep.
More than 300 species, including California Brown Pelican, Light-footed Clapper Rail, Western Snowy Plover, California Least Tern, California Gnatcatcher, Least Bell’s Vireo, and Belding’s Savannah Sparrow. Also, cormorants, coots, gulls, Ospreys, White-tailed Kites, Northern Harriers, ducks, swallows, warblers, and sparrows. In coastal sage scrub: California Quail, Anna’s Hummingbird, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Cassin’s Kingbird, Wrentit, and California Towhee.
When to go
Year-round. Elegant Tern in summer.
Nature center, restrooms, and boardwalk with nature trail. Bird surveys on second Monday, 7:30-noon, Rios Ave. Bird walks on second Saturday, 9-11, Rios Ave.
Nonprofit ecological reserve. Admission free. No permissions required. Nature center open 9:30-4:30.
A scope is helpful but not necessary. Rios Ave. trail leads through coastal sage scrub.