The Magical Tejon Ranch Tour

By Louis Tucker, Field Trip Leader

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Oak Tree at Tejon Ranch. Photo by Derek Sieburth

Saturday. January 4, 2014 was a date I had been looking forward to for a very long time. I was passionately invested in introducing participants from Los Angeles Audubon to winter raptor watching up at the Tejon Ranch. I had made a request to Scot Pipken who would then forward that request to Tejon officials for a possible raptor trip in the beginning of January. And, I wanted Scot to guide us around the ranch. He has such an incredible knowledge of the Ranch history, of its wildlife, plant life and what the climate is like up there. We started plans as early as the beginning of July 2013, so that the word could get out for publication in the Tanager. And, I thought it necessary to limit the participation to around a dozen people because I wanted the LAAS group to be carried around in the Tejon vehicles for safety measures; thinking that winter months in southern California make for wet and muddy and unsafe travel on dirt roads in the mountains.

Well, the fears of soggy, muddy, unsteady roads in the western end of the Tehachapi Mountains were quickly quenched as southern California is one of the driest places on earth this winter. So, there would be little danger of slipping and sliding. A bit of a footnote: had it rained, we would have to cancel. It was quite a beautiful day and only a bit chilly in the morning. As the sun rose, the weather was quite comfortable.

Tejon Ranch is, to me, a magical place. Not being a person who is “amused” in amusement parks, it is “Disneyland” for me. It is quite vast in terms of acreage. It is 270,000 acres and 420 square miles; which makes it about 40% the size of the state of Rhode Island and as big as the city of Los Angeles. It is approximately 60 miles north of LA and borders Interstate 5 as you’re going toward Bakersfield and stretches east towards the town of Lancaster. It is the northern end of LA County and most of it is in Kern County, with altitudes around 3,000 ft and going upwards of 6,000 feet. And with some of the roads there, you could actually think that you’re on an amusement park ride with some roads going almost vertically up and down like a roller coaster. There were more than a few moments like that.

The worry would be, since it has been so dry, what would the birding be like? No rain means no fertile ground and green grasses. That means the possibility of slim birding. With a lack of good vegetation, prey would also be limited. No rodents means very few birds of prey. This was to be a raptor trip, after all. I nervously didn’t want to disappoint our participants, although birding is a case of “sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you”. And, our participants were very eager to take this trip. Participating were: Tommye Hite, Beatrix Schwarz, Dessi and Derek Sieberth, Steve Bernal, Don White, Norm Vargas, Sarah Shaw, John Oliver, and Anne LaHue. We were guided by Scot Pipken and also aided by Chris Gardner, who drove the second vehicle.

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LAAS Group, Tejon Ranch field trip, Jan. 4, 2014. Photo by Beatrix Schwarz

Around 8:15 a.m., at the 300 St. West Gate, flocks of Horned Larks were flitting around blending so well with the desert background. There were Savannah and Lark Sparrows as well. Not to mention big Raven to get everyone jittery, because they want to see a hawk. We loaded into the SUV’s and headed to the Burrowing Owl Terrace, west of Big Sycamore Canyon around 8:45 am to search for Burrowing Owls. I should say owl; because that was all we were able to pull out from the area where their burrows are. We’re seeing how dry this desert place really is. Usually, one can bet on almost half a dozen in this area. But, this solo was a welcomed appearance. It’s a funny creature and perfectly blends in with its surroundings, and finally flew off. More Horned Larks were making themselves known. Around 9 am, we headed to Los Alamos Canyon which has a number of oaks. And, that yielded Band-tailed Pigeon, White-breasted Nuthatch, Western Scrub Jay, Acorn Woodpecker, Oak Titmouse, some beautiful looks and sounds of Western Bluebirds, California Towhee, Vesper Sparrow, Western Meadowlark, House and Purple Finches. Although the start of the day was sort of slow, seeing these flashes of color against the desert backdrop perked us up a bit.

Around 9:45 a.m. came the first appearance of one of the “big boys”. A beautiful light race Ferruginous Hawk was flying around before us as we rode toward Western Avenue. Our largest buteo is always a wonderful sight. In the sun, as you look at the bird’s back in flight as it is hit by the sun, shows the rust on the wings in contrast with the flashes of white that are in the flight feathers. Its pale head and the white at the base of the tail was just flashing at us. The hawk was not the only spectacle that caught our attention. On the hillside, a Greater Roadrunner was appearing and disappearing among the large rocks on the hill. The cartoonists are not that far off base as they characterize this unique cuckoo. You have to have a bit of a chuckle in you when you see it. There were more Horned Larks, Lark Sparrows and House Finches, as well as a large flock of blackbirds, with quite a few of Tri-coloreds with the Brewer’s. It has been a while since I’ve seen Tri-colored Blackbirds and their appearance brought some optimism of good things to come.

Hope went rewarded, when around 10:15 a.m. we began our climb into the hills to the Upper Terraces. The very reason I wanted to do Tejon this winter instead of the western end of the Antelope Valley paid off. In the sky, like a dark feathered airplane, soared our first Golden Eagle. We would see 3 up there. The absolutely majestic flight of this bird, on a thermal and hanging in the air and watching it soar so slowly is really awesome. The eagles were pretty high up, and you at first had to rely on what its singular silhouette suggests. There was one Turkey Vulture soaring around as well, just trying to confuse the issue. In contrast was a flock of about 20 California Gulls in the air flying away from us. We were seeing wonderful contrasts: light and dark. There were more Acorn Woodpeckers, Western Bluebirds, a Spotted Towhee, White-crowned Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos. Our minds, however, stayed on the eagles.

Around 12 p.m., we were in Big Sycamore Canyon and walking on the grounds, we had some good looks at a Red-tail, another Roadrunner, and our first appearance of a Lewis’ Woodpecker. There are moments while writing this, I will find myself in trouble. This is one of those moments. Field guides, and I will salute all of the artists’ renderings, just don’t do this bird justice. And this is the thrill one gets from actually doing bird observations; it is very difficult to portray iridescence, and subtle color variations. The very dark green back and wings of this woodpecker changes with differences in light. There is a very red face, dingy white breast and collar, with a pink/rose belly. It is a stunning divergence from most of our black, white and red colored woodpeckers. Also popping up were a Loggerhead Shrike, White-breasted Nuthatch, more Western Bluebirds and Juncos.

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Lewis's Woodpecker at Tejon Ranch, Photo by Derek Sieburth

Around 1 p.m. on the flats east of the 300th Street Gate afforded us with wonderful surprises. We were watching obviously birds of the plover family, and strangely not expecting Mountain Plovers, which turned out to be Mountain Plovers. Our guide Scot was heap big excited about that finding. So were we, to see half a dozen of them on the south side of the road.

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Mountain Plover at Tejon Ranch. Photo by Derek Sieburth

And, on the north side of the road, were about half a dozen Mountain Bluebirds. OK! I’m really not trying to step on toes, but, the deep sky blue on the backs of the males, can only be captured when you go out and run into this species. When the sun hits the backs, it is positively electric! I think artists and photographers do a great job in the attempt to truly depict this bird; however, seeing it in the field, is almost shocking, this deep sky blue. It’s an absolute stunner. And, more Horned Larks. Moving on farther in Antelope Canyon, around 1:10 pm gave up an elusive Sage Thrasher.

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Rock Break at Tejon Ranch. Photo by Beatrix Schwarz

At 1:45 p.m. with everybody’s stomach making noises of a “rock band” of the individual’s choice, we had lunch in an area where the indigenous people used rocks in the ground to grind herbs and herbal remedies for medicinal purposes. This proved to be a very active birding spot as well. We were pretty high up in altitude near an area which will be part of the Pacific Coast hiking trail which is in the process of being rerouted. There were some Red-tails, Acorn Woodpeckers, Lewis’ Woodpeckers, Steller’s Jays were heard, American Robin and more Juncos. And the amazing soaring flight of 4 Golden Eagles. At least one juvenile was seen. We may have seen five to seven Golden Eagles. Some were “repeat offenders”.

All in all on the Golden Eagle count, we had eleven Golden Eagle sightings. And, yes some were repeaters. I don’t think we saw eleven different birds. Although some predator species like Prairie Falcon and Merlin didn’t show up, the eagle show was really worth it.

Now at 3:15 p.m. we were headed down the mountain to Gato Montes (Bobcat Canyon) to our beginning spot at the 300th St. Gate. This gave us a Ladder-backed Woodpecker, more House Finches and a Loggerhead Shrike, a gorgeous “Grey Ghost: (Male Northern Harrier), and two Ferruginous Hawks; the final one as we were outside the gate and gawking at this magnificent Buteo as it as perched on a low fence post. I think this trip had everyone really “amped”. And, although there were some big misses of common winter raptors at Tejon; missing were sightings of Prairie Falcon and Merlin, specifically, and the Pronghorn, the Antelope which gives Antelope Valley its name. Also, I thought I had staked out a dark race Ferruginous Hawk from the previous month, just beyond the Burrowing Owl Terrace. (Birds - they have wings and fly...........)The species list on Tejon only racked up about three dozen. In spite of that, the performances of these birds was really spectacular and brought big satisfaction. As I said, this is my “Disneyland”.

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Ferruginous Hawk at Tejon Ranch. Photo by Beatrix Schwarz

And, we weren’t through. We made a stop at Quail Lake on our way out. The main target was to find the Common Goldeneye. We spent an hour there as the sun was setting and we racked up an additional seventeen species: Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead, Common Merganser, Ruddy Duck, Pied-billed, Eared, and Western Grebes, Double-crested Cormorant, Great-blue Heron, another Northern Harrier, Common Yellowthroat, White-crowned Sparrows, plus the targeted Common Goldeneye, as Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Phainopepla were only heard. This was all with the magnificent backdrop of a multi-colored sunset.

This was a wonderful trip. Everyone wants to return, post-haste. I’m glad I made the gamble. This is magnificent country.

And, I don’t want to spoil this report with a downer; but, we so need rain. We can argue until we’re blue in the face about climate change. Something is happening out there; and as this trip was simultaneous with what is being reported about the air coming out of China, and that lately that grizzly air is reaching us in the latest newspapers - we must do something. Man is causing some monster problems. If you’ve seen the pictures of Beijing, it’s as if that air makes pea soup look like clear broth. It’s affecting everything. We’ve got a lot of pristine areas to protect, and, when you visit an area like Tejon Ranch which is really in our backyard, you really see how necessary it is to protect and preserve these wild areas. This is home to life that lifts the human spirit. It makes your heart soar like the eagles. We can’t lose that. I look forward to more trips to Tejon.

Louis Tucker

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Leader, Louis Tucker (center) and trip participants. Photo by Tommye Hite

Originally published by Los Angeles Audubon's Western Tanager Vol. 80 No. 4 March/April 2014