Sketching at the Safari Park
I went with my mom either this week to hang out for a couple of hours at the San Diego Safari Park to watch and sketch birds. Work has been a little light this week so I thought that I would celebrate by hanging out and watching the truly odd birds that might hold still a little longer than the finches outside my window.
I’ve never gone to the Safari Park with the sole intention of just sketching birds, so I noticed that I wasn’t 100% sure where the best birding would be. Here’s a brief overview:
Wings of the World
Wings of the World is the first thing you see when you come into the park and therefore is a crowded mess full of children who are still full of energy and constantly yelling and trying to poke at the birds. The poor birds were mostly hiding making the children as upset as the birds probably are. There is also just one tiny bench in the aviary and it’s right near the front door and therefore you see no birds. Terrible birding. Just avoid this one or catch it on your way out when it’s less busy.
If you keep going and hang a right near the signs that point towards the Gorilla Forest, you’ll end up on the Lagoon Loop. This is a large shallow lake that contains mostly native California birds that have realized that there is a sweet lake in the middle of the desert of Escondido and have taken up residence accordingly. Of course there are “zoo birds” such as flamingos, pelicans, some foreign geese and coots, but they are stuck on little tiny islands in the lake and are mostly overrun with native species.
There aren’t a ton of benches and since this is still early on in the day for most kids, there is still lots of running around and screaming. However, if you keep going you’ll end up at the other side of the lagoon by the Snack Shack and Mombasa Cooker. This place is gold. You can sit in the shade under misters, snacking and watching the birds. There are a ton of weird “zoo birds” but also a wide selection of shorebirds (herons, egrets, etc) that have somehow found this place to make home. This area is pretty quite and the birds don’t seem to mind you. They aren’t super close, so break out the binoculars or scope to see them.
If you keep going past the lagoon, you end up at my favorite part of the park, Lorikeet Landing. For $4, you can purchase nectar at a kiosk outside the aviary and the lorikeets will hop right onto your arms to get some sweet nectar action.
There are no benches in this area, so it’s hard to really sketch in here. This area gets crowded pretty quickly, so I would recommend doing this early on in your day. The lorikeets get full fast, so that’s also another great reason. Since these birds spend all day hanging out on tourists, they aren’t skittish and it’s easy to get really great close up pictures and looks at them. There is also a great hand washing station outside the exit, so feel free to get dirty trying to take good shots.
Once you exit the lorikeet area, you’ll see two smaller bird cages on your left. These birds are pretty fun to watch, but it’s even better to keep going on down the path. On your right, a smaller unmarked path veers off and up a hill. Some of the best birding is up this hill in the Hidden Jungle. I’m unsure why this aviary isn’t ever full but we sat here for a good half hour before anyone else came in. This place is a total gem, full of very active exotic birds. They fly around, weave nests before your eyes, climb up the screened walls, and sing their little hearts out. A Superb Starling even came and dropped a leaf at my feet. Probably he was so excited to see humans that weren’t screaming and trying to touch him.
The birds are unbelievably friendly and after sitting there and sketching them for a while I noticed that some would get jealous once you turned your attention to other birds. They fly around trying to get your attention and it’s quite a delightful experience. There are several benches in both halves of this aviary so you can sit for as long as you need. It’s quite peaceful except there are birds that make that super creepy screaming that you always hear in scary jungle movies right before someone gets killed… totally freaked us out since it started with no warning.
This is all we did this week, but I’ll keep going with other areas of the park that I’ve been do previously that have great birding.
African Outpost Lake
Once you leave the Hidden Jungle, follow signs toward the African Tram and you’ll find yourself at the lake in the African Outpost part of the park. This lake has also been discovered by native California birds, and many have their nests in this protected area of the park. The lake contains several little islands that you can see by walking through the lake on wheel chair accessible criss crossing raised walkways. There aren’t really benches on the lake and the pathways are obviously just wide enough for one wheel chair in many places, so it might be difficult to step up tripods to take pictures. I would recommend that you just enjoy watching the birds while you walk through is area because if you keep going, you’ll end up at the Okavango Outpost, a restaurant (with bathrooms!) that has a large deck that overlooks the lake.
The Okavango Outpost has plenty of seating with umbrellas and misters to make it comfortable on hot days. Not only can you watch birds through binoculars or your scope, you are also tree level so you can see all the shorebirds’ nests complete with fuzzy babies (if you’re there the right time of the year) without having to strain your neck. There are hundreds of birds (no joke) hanging out here, so it’s better than many of the naturally occurring lagoons in San Diego for seeing large quantity of birds.
Unfortunately, now you have to walk a long ways to see more birds. There are a couple of them on the African Tram but it’s a long trek up to the opposite end of the park before you see more. If you are really into condors and bald eagles, it’s worth it. Although not the fastest way, I would recommend taking the Tiger Trail loop to get to the condors. Not only do you get to see the best shots of tigers you’ll ever see, you also get to walk along a plateau ridge with great views of the scrub brush and mountains that make up California. The area that you are seeing is owned by the Safari Park with the understanding that it will never be developed, preserving natural habitat for California species. You can see predators like hawks flying around searching for food and other native species that for some reason seem to prefer the desert instead of the plush zoo lagoon life. You’ll see a trail that takes off to the right and up to the Condor Ridge (although this isn’t clear on the map, trust me it’s there).
Condor Ridge is basically the zoo’s “native California” animals that you’ll just see if you spend any time in the outdoors in California. You’ll see bald eagles, owls, big horned sheep, and (of course) the great California Condor. The condor viewing area isn’t very large, but if you go to the very end past the roof, you can get some good shots. When I’ve been there, condors have taken off and flown around the enclosure so it’s not like they just sit there.
Although I’ve never actually made it to this area of the park, it’s supposed to be pretty neat. If you walk back to the beginning of the Condor Ridge area, you take a right turn and hike a slightly different trail basically right back up to where you just came from. This area is full of plants and no animals (hence why I’ve never been). You’ll see small songbirds running around and other native birds. I assume this area is crazy quiet because kids aren’t normally huge plant fans and who comes to a zoo to hang out in an area with no animals? Also, you have to walk a long way up hill to get here. If I were guessing, I would say that this is the next area of the park that they will renovate because I can’t believe that it’s making them very much money.
I love the Safari Park. We have season passes and take all out of town guests here when we get the chance. If you live in the North County area, I would totally recommend getting a season pass because it comes with two 50% coupons for guest tickets, so if you go only twice a year it pays for itself. It also comes with other coupons and unlimited tram rides. The membership normally goes on sale during the year, you’ll see $20 off coupons on things like LivingSocial or flyers in the mail. There is also a Keeper’s Pass that we have thought about getting because it gives you two free tickets to the park, free parking, and gets you into several members only events. Since the park is pretty new, it’s totally ADA accessible, has plenty of bathrooms, and there are gluten free food options at most of the places (the best one is a lettuce wrap at the Tiger Trail). If you have a reusable water bottle, they will fill it for free at any of the soda fountains so I normally bring my own.
So, next time you are in the area, check out the Safari Park and enjoy.