Birds on the brain, in the sky, and, thirdly, up close

Where to see your fine-feathered friends

American kestrel
  • American kestrel

My ten-year-old has birds on the brain ever since she got a pet parakeet, and she’s eager to see some that don’t live in cages.

Natalie at Free Flight Exotic Bird Sanctuary in Del Mar (858-481-3148) explained that “some of our birds are here for day-care, and some are residents. Right now, we have 40 to 50 parrots and 1 crane. People come to visit and interact with the birds, but how much interaction is entirely up to the bird. The more the bird knows you, the more comfortable they are with you...that’s why some people get a membership, so they can come visit often. We sell food for 50¢ that you can offer the birds. We also have a koi pond, and you can feed the fish for 25¢.”

Parrot at Free Flight Exotic Bird Sanctuary

Parrot at Free Flight Exotic Bird Sanctuary

Natalie offered a few tips for visitors. “Don’t wear dangly earrings or anything with beads or sequins, because the birds will go for it and bite it. I also suggest wearing a light, close-fitting jacket; it’ll give you a little protection from the birds’ claws if they choose to land on your arm.” The sanctuary is open daily 11 a.m.–4 p.m., Wednesdays 11 a.m.–2 p.m. Admission is $7; children under 14 pay $3. Summer docent programs for kids are available; check website for details.

“Most of the birds here have been injured and don’t really fly; we have them here for educational purposes,” said Angie at Living Coast Discovery Center in Chula Vista (619-409-5900). “They’re kept in enclosures that allow you to get really up close. We have egrets, ruddy ducks, and the black oystercatcher in our Shorebird Aviary, which is a netted, walk-through aviary. We also have a Raptor Row, where you can see hunting birds like falcons, hawks, and owls. And then there’s Eagle Mesa, where we have a golden eagle and a bald eagle. If you come around 2:30 p.m., you can see our public feeding. The kids like to watch them eat. We get frozen mice and chicks donated to us. The birds are unable to hunt, but they can kind of have that feeling that they’ve hunted. And we do a Q&A session.”

The center also offers VIP Animal Encounters ($50 for up to six people), two of which are bird-related: “Meet a Burrowing Owl” and “Meet a Hawk or Falcon.” “It’s more up close and behind the scenes. You get to go into the prep room with an educator. That’s where the birds get their care, where their food is prepared — you may even get to feed a bird. You also learn about bird handling and equipment. We also have 1.5 miles of walking trails that lead from the Center to San Diego Bay. On the way, you can see the migratory birds that are coming through. We’re on a flyway, which is basically the birds’ migratory highway — they follow air currents. It’s easy to do a little research and see what birds will be around at any given time.” General admission to the center is $14; children under 18 and seniors over 64 are $9. Open 10 a.m.–5 p.m. daily.

Farther south in Imperial Beach, the Tijuana Estuary Visitor Center (619-575-3613) offers free guided bird walks on the first, third, and fifth Sundays of the month at 3 p.m. “You just show up for the walk and we have binoculars we can loan you,” said employee Joyce. “On the trail, we have about 250 nesting pairs of an endangered bird called the light-footed ridgeway rail; that’s what we’re famous for.” Joyce said that the center is situated on “a salt marsh, created by the ocean as it pushes tide water in where the Tijuana River empties.” It’s a great place for birds. “We have snowy and great blue egrets, Blue and green herons, the white-faced ibis, long-billed curlews, Cooper hawks, and the American kestrel. Snowy plovers and least terns hunt in the tidal channel. So many birds live here...if you come on the walk, you’ll learn a lot. And we have educational programs for the kids: 7- to 12-year-olds can come for Junior Rangers on Thursdays from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. It’s not specifically about birds, but birds are included because it’s about the whole ecosystem.” The Estuary Center is open Wednesday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–5p.m.

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