Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

By Louis Tucker

Being a birder can present family relationship problems – especially on Mother's Day. This has been a problem of mine since I became a serious birder over thirty five years ago. When I lived in New York City, this was a really tough issue: my mother lives in White Plains, a mere twenty miles north of the city – a half hour train ride. Mother's Day is generally at the peak of the spring migration in the north east. (You have to send a lot of gifts and flowers and sugary phone calls – I guess I could be viewed as a "bad boy"!) However, Central Park, Bashakill Marsh in New York, or the Great Swamp in New Jersey was too much of a "candy store" to ignore. Mom never took an interest in my feathered friends. Oh well. . .

For the last twenty-six years I'm three thousand miles away in LA. I still do the gifts, cards, and sugary phone calls. But, I make an effort that everything gets to New York in a timely fashion. Sometimes the phone call may pop up a day early; because sometimes you’re in a wilderness area with no phone reception. That's what happened this year. I'm so glad my mom is gracious!

So, the big plan this year was to go back to the Tejon Ranch, because some of us just can't get enough of that place! This was a sort of impromptu but planned trip. And, the day turned out to be just stunning up there. I went up with the Sieburth family: Beatrix, Derek and Dessi. And, we met with Matthew Page and Karin Kersteter. We were all meeting our intrepid guide, Scot Pipken, who also brought along some wonderful folks from the area near Tejon, John and Theresa Barrios, and David and Maxine Stenstrom. The objective was to do parts of Tejon that are a bit off the beaten path and get into the high back areas of the ranch.

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Louis Tucker, Dessi Sieburth, Scot Pipken, Photo by Beatrix-Schwarz

Back to "Wonderland". We covered areas with interesting names like: Antelope Canyon - we didn't see any Pronghorn that day; Cordon Ridge, the Joshua Tree Forest - looking for Scott's Oriole, but came up empty; the part of Cordon Ridge around the water tank; Blue Ridge, Canon del Gato Montes, and Lopez Flats. A lot of our exploration was in the Kern County part of the ranch.

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Tejon Ranch Road, Photos by John Barrios

It is so fantastic to travel around in an area and not hear noises of the city, or noise of cars and trucks on the road; and to be so close to LA and feel as if you've journeyed off to a far off land. The bird song symphonic serenade was stupendous. Warblers singing high in trees—Yellow, Townsend's, Hermit, and Wilson's; or, singing and foraging low in bushes—MacGillivray's, or Orange-crowned. The sparrow family was well represented—White-crowned, Chipping, Brewer's, Lark, Savannah, Lincoln's, a splattering of Dark-eyed Juncos, and the rattling’s of both California and Spotted Towhees. There were spectacular splashes of color from bright Bullock's Orioles, Western Tanagers, Black-headed Grosbeaks, House Finch, Purple Finch, Lesser Goldfinch, and Lawrence's Goldfinch.

The ethereal sounds and brilliant color of Western Bluebirds were entertaining. There was the darting around of Anna's Hummingbirds, and raucous Acorn Woodpeckers with the Northern Flicker and Lewis' Woodpecker making their presence known. Flycatchers also sounded their calls - Ash-throated and Western Wood-Pewee and the omnipresent, and very dapper, tuxedoed Black Phoebe. In some of the wooded areas we found House Wrens and heard Bewick's Wrens. And up against the rocks were some Rock Wrens, of course flitting about from boulder to boulder. Some birds of more muted hues showed themselves—White-breasted Nuthatch, Oak Titmouse, flocks of Mourning Doves and Band-tailed Pigeons. Most of the Horned Larks have left, but there were still some around. There were fleeting appearances of Loggerhead Shrikes on tops of shrubs, California Quail running through the shrubs, and getting faint glimpses and hearing Mountain Quail.

As we gained altitude, we would see Western Scrub-Jays and hear their cousins, the Steller's Jay which were being somewhat elusive. Crows and Ravens were making us "antsy". It had been reported that California Condors were seen several weeks before we came and this was something that was a bit of a "request"— maybe more like a lively but friendly "demand"—even before we started our exploration. That is a tall order! I should probably say "big" order.

We continued to gain altitude and traveled along the ridge line. I think we were up a little more than six thousand feet and we were looking into the canyon below, when a Golden Eagle was spotted soaring low and gaining altitude. It soared around the ridge we were on from our left into a thermal. Looking over to our right above some conifers was a Bald Eagle soaring toward the same thermal. I looked down on the canyon floor and noticed what would be something totally crazy. "Condor", I said. It began rising on the same thermal. And then there was another, and another, and another, and one more. Five California Condors were soaring in the same thermal with the two eagles.

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California Condor, Photo by Beatrix Schwarz

I don't think I can adequately describe the phenomenon that was before our eyes. I think when I said "Condor" some of the people in the group might have suffered "whiplash" trying to turn around fast enough to catch this. This will probably be one of biggest thrills of our birding lives; especially mine— bird of prey enthusiast that I am—three of the largest species of raptors on the North American continent; all in the same air space. It was stunning, jaw-dropping, spectacular, and insane. It was a jubilant sight. Strangely enough, the eagles weren't being territorial toward each other. It seemed as though all of these birds were just enjoying soaring and riding the thermals. The condors dwarfed the eagles. I didn't think that could be possible. And, soaring in there with those big species was a Red-tail; which looked almost insignificant. The Bald Eagle was somehow out of place; because there is no big water spot on the ranch. And, I thought maybe it had drifted up from Quail Lake to the south of the ranch. But, that bird quickly disappeared. Wow!

The Golden Eagle would appear and vanish several times during the rest of the day; but, for a long while, the condors just enjoyed the thermals; it's interesting watching them doing that. What makes them so huge is that their wingspan, more than nine feet is not only impressive in its length; but, the depth, front to back is really spectacular. It almost seems as if the two wings were like bed sheets, which they would adjust according to how they would ride the thermal. You would see them fully extend their wings, and tuck them in just a bit; and from underneath they would seem like a large ruffle. I can tell you that it was quite difficult to move away from this show. We watched them for a long time. And, a few of these birds got very high in the sky. They are so big that, I'm sure that a few of them got higher than ten thousand feet and you could still see them.

I, personally, gave a little thanks to God for this display. I must admit these displays get me a bit metaphysical and grateful to be able to see such a fantastic show. This, to me, is a wonderful "gift" from on high and I relish it. (Now, don't get your "undies" in a bunch. I'm not a member of the "flat earth society". And, I know that this planet is more than seven thousand years old. I just believe that we need to be good stewards of this beauty and be thankful as was requested in Genesis.)

Moving on… There was more. We were now pretty much on the back end of the ranch. We could clearly see Castac Lake in Lebec. There was more to see and, more to get excited about. Meandering around the back end, we were seeing aerial feats of Violet-green Swallows. That was a bit of a prelude to seeing a small but rather vocal flock of Purple Martins. The Martins were quite entertaining; they would fly about and then they would sit in a bare tree and then fly again.

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Tejon Ranch 2014, Photos by John Barrios

However, a sort of grand finale was done all around us. We had more sightings of condors, soaring around. This time there were six in the flock. All in all, we had seven separate condor sightings that day. And, as to not be completely ignored, a male Lazuli Bunting was singing quite loudly at the top of a conifer. Now, if his song weren't beautiful enough, the sun hit this bird like a spotlight and the bird was on stage, so that the blue on the back and throat and the cinnamon/mustard colored breast, and the white belly and wing bars bounced off this bird in such a way as if I were seeing it anew. This bunting, the martins, the condors and, oh, a lonely Turkey Vulture made this a spectacular, majestic feathered pageant.

A few people on this trip got some "life birds": the condors, and the martins. The jubilation and flying high which we felt was difficult to contain. Tejon Ranch rarely disappoints, and, on Mother's Day, we had a lot to celebrate. I'm not sure if seeing three of our largest birds in the same air space could ever be duplicated. I have to wax exuberant over this experience. This is an experience I will never forget. I was happy to see even more of the ranch than I had seen in all my other trips up there. There is so much to explore up there. We are all quite grateful that our knowledgeable guide Scot is the perfect person to take us around. I would be quite remiss if I didn't mention the flashes of wildflowers, which were somehow quite unexpected since there has been so little rain in Southern California this winter. There were poppies and lupine and some colorful species of buckwheat. Also a lot I can't remember. But, the hills had orange, purples, yellows and reds in them. Not a lot, but enough to let you know that even in drought there is still some life.

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Poppies at Tejon Tanch, Photo by Derek Sieburth

Oh, by the way, a little addendum: my mom now often calls and tells me about some of the birds in her area. She tells me of Boat-tailed Grackles now invading the northeast—these birds were strictly southeastern historically—and about the expanding territory of Black Vultures in New York, going farther north and not migrating. And, speaking of not migrating, about how the Canada Geese no longer migrate back there. She also told me, and sent a newspaper clipping, of a story about Great Blue Herons setting up a nesting colony in very "ritzy" Bedford, New York, Martha Stewart country, which is in northern Westchester County. In the article it told of the "gentry" of Bedford was so excited to have these birds in their area. I told her: "Yah, they're exited now; but, wait until the colony expands and those birds start crapping all over the place. That will throw all the good will right out the window!" She laughed riotously. Meanwhile, she delights in seeing the first Robin of spring. And, the Blue Jays crack her up. Maybe my Mother's Day escapes have had a bit of an effect on her. Now, if I could only get her interested in opera…

Published Western Tanager Vol. 80 No. 6 July/August 2014

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