Antelope Valley Field Trip Report

By Louis Tucker

13MAWT AV-FTR burrowing-owl-001 byAmyWorrell

13MAWT AV-FTR burrowing-owl-002 byAmyWorrell

Photos of Burrowing Owl, by Amy Worell

The Antelope Valley, west side, was introduced to me via a phone call to LA Audubon asking about where can I find winter raptors in southern California?

This phone call was made when I moved to LA back in January of 1987.  And, I made the trip to the AV on January 17, 1987 where I got my life Ferruginous Hawks and Prairie Falcons.  I was given a hint of a route to take, and I essentially followed Avenue D (Route 138) going west from Route 14 through the west part of the valley until it met with the on-ramp to the 5 Freeway.  I was in raptor heaven with all of the winter buteos which normally winter there and with the incredible amount of Golden Eagles I saw along the way.

It must be noted that in 1987, there was much more agricultural land and open spaces.  Open land with Joshua trees, desert bushes and cactus were so much more plentiful back then.  Then in subsequent years, something happened.  I call it the "Malling of America" which finally hit the Antelope Valley.  The housing boom and commercial development went, I think, over the top.  The open spaces began to disappear: fewer Joshua trees and desert bushes.  The agricultural fields were beginning to vanish and the livestock on some of the farms were also disappearing.  The prey began to disappear and so have the raptors.

On a typical day back in the late eighties, I could see as many as nine to a dozen Golden Eagles along Avenue D.  And, with the exception of a  surprise cameo appearance of a female Rough-legged Hawk in December 2011, that species vanished from the valley twenty years ago.  There are no Golden Eagles in this area today.  The eagles are on the Tejon Ranch, but they no longer venture out into the rest of the valley.  There are a couple of reasons for this, I think―Golden Eagles love big open spaces to forage―those spaces are no longer as open.  Rough-legs like remote places as well and also they can't compete with the more powerful Red-tails, which are like the coyotes of the bird of prey world.  I find the Rough-leg situation interesting; being from New York, I remember seeing my life Rough-legs while driving north on the old West Side Highway in New York City and many more around the metropolitan New York area, foraging and not seeming to be bothered by the east coast bustling civilization.

But, I've digressed!  There were fifteen participants: Amy Worell, Wayne Schwartz, Don White, Norm Vargas, Sarah Shaw, John Lobel, Beatrix Schwarz, Derek and Dessi Sieburth, Bhaskar Krishnamachari, Tommye Hite, Jim Moore, Judy Matsucka and Evi Meyer.  Some of these folks were "repeat offenders" which was great.  This year we had a pretty brisk morning up there – very low temperatures for California; which seems as though southern Cal is in the middle of a cold snap.  However, for those who braved the early morning cold, there were some rewards.  Around the Nebeker Ranch, here are some highlights: there were Ferruginous and Red-tailed Hawks, several Prairie Falcons and, in two different places, a male and female Merlin.  Kestrels were around.  Some wonderful looks at a male Harrier and a new species for this trip, at least when I have led it: a pair of Burrowing Owls.  One kept itself well hidden in the brush and the other hunkered down and watched us as we watched it.  There was a good number of Snow Geese and a flock of Canada Geese flying with one wayward Ross' Goose.  Also, there was a very cooperative Loggerhead Shrike sitting on a wire.

13MAWT AV-FTR Merlin photo-by-Bhaskar-Krishnamachari DSC 0166

Merlin, Credit Bhaskar Krishnamachari

13MAWT AV-FTR Merlin-Photo-by-Beatrix-Schwartz 299 edited

Merlin, Credit Beatrix Schwartz

Moving westward from the ranch, along Avenue A bordering and sometimes in Kern County, there were wonderful "pop ups" of Mountain Bluebirds in fields.  Also, there was a sighting of the interior race of Sage Sparrow.  Horned Larks were also around, but, not as plentiful as in times gone by.  In one field, and in the sky above the field, there was a crazy gathering of Raven.  There were at least two hundred in the sky and as many on the ground.  Thoughts of Alfred Hitchcock were startling at that moment.   There was also a spectacular soaring exhibition done by a dark morph Ferruginous Hawk―a stunningly chocolate bird which caused us to pause and watch for a while.  We were on our way to Quail Lake, with a lunch stop at Holiday Lake.  Holiday Lake had low water levels and not a lot of birds it once hosted.  However, it did host some Canada Geese, Mallards, a nice number of Green-winged Teal and a Canvasback.  And....wait for it.. there is, or was, an incredibly busy and murderous owl on the premises.  There was an owl pellet gathering by a few that was EPIC.  It was hard to imagine and see so many pellets in one small area.  If I were to guess, there must have been somewhere upwards of fifty pellets found by Sarah Shaw.  That was impressive.

After lunch, we proceeded on to Quail Lake.  Stepping out of our vehicles, we had a flyover of a Sharp-shinned Hawk, over the parking lot.  Other highlights there, as the wind began to pick up were: Common Loon, some more Canada Geese, a good number of Buffleheads, Lesser Scaup, about two dozen Common Goldeneye, (some gave us stunning looks), Ruddy Ducks and Pied-billed, Eared, Western and Clark's Grebes.  All through the day we had visitations of Northern Harriers.  This was a beautiful day which started out quite cold and got warmer as we moved westward and as we saw more species.  I thought it a good idea to move south of Quail Lake to see in the hills there that we might just have another cameo appearance of a Rough-legged Hawk like last winter.  Unfortunately, no such luck.  Some folks had to leave, and some of us were lingering, which proved profitable.  We had a royal guest appearance of an adult Bald Eagle, as we were about to exit south of Quail Lake.   It flew up and settled in a tree just west of the lake.  The great thing about big birds of prey is that they like to sit at the top of a tree.  And, since this tree was full of leaves, we were grateful that it perched right on top.   Although, it was some distance from us, we had great looks; and it was the last raptor of the day.  What a wonderful sight to drive away from.

13MAWT AV-FTR eagle-photo-by-judyMatsuoka DSCN3487

Bald Eagle, Credit Judy Matsuoka

13MAWT AV-FTR eagle-pics-by-sarah-shaw 002113MAWT AV-FTR eagle-pics-by-sarah-shaw 003

Bald Eagle, Credit Sarah Shaw

It was a wonderful trip; but, it left me with mixed feelings.  I wonder about the future of these fantastic raptors in the accessible parts of the Antelope Valley.  One of my favorite "monster" raptors is the Golden Eagle, and this is the second winter in a row that I've not seen any there.  Several winters before the last two, in 2009, we did have three.  But, I think of 1987, when I just stumbled across good numbers of them almost at every turn, and I sigh.  I take some consolation in knowing that they are in Tejon Ranch, and every time I've visited there, I've seen at least three on each occasion.  The Rough-legs situation remains a mystery.  I know they come down to the Carrizo Plain and some are seen down in Riverside near the San Jacinto Wildlife Area most winters.  In the Carrizo, Rough-legs seem to disappear soon after December.  As a general rule in raptor migration, the last to come down are the first to go back.  I've always found those birds in December, and go back in January or February and don't see any.  I also know that the Rough-leg is being pushed out on their breeding grounds by the "bird of prey coyote", the Red-tail.  They have smaller and less powerful feet and can't compete with their more aggressive cousin.  Whereas there is little to no development in the Carrizo, the Antelope Valley had a development boom in the nineties that like everything else went bust.

So much of that area has been decimated by development.  Vacant lots, which used to be full of so much desert flora and fauna, are becoming ugly dumping grounds for people to unceremoniously leave their unwanted garbage and belongings.  So, a desolate desert spot is now a desolated, scattered "landfill".  That would seem to be great for rodents; but, the rodents preferred the alfalfa fields of yore.  If I am asked to lead next winter's trip to the AV, I will have to seriously rethink what to do.  Perhaps an approach might be to do this trip in conjunction with the naturalists and biologists on the Tejon Ranch.  You get the same variety of raptors, plus Golden Eagles and also a possibility of a Rough-leg, which did migrate through this past fall.  You also get to see the growing Pronghorn Antelope herd―which is a very awesome sight indeed.  You may miss all of the waterfowl down at Quail Lake―Oh well . . .

Cheers, Louis Tucker


Published Western Tanager Vol. 79 No. 4 Mar/Apr 2013