Sometimes The Things You Want For Christmas Come Late

By Louis Tucker

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Golden Eagle, Photo by Steve Ishii

I don’t think you can ever get enough of a good thing. Sometimes more is just better. The winter raptor trip for LA Audubon was a return to my “Happy Place”, the Tejon Ranch. And, I met a very enthusiastic group of people at the Sylmar Denny’s: Beatrix Schwartz, Derek and Dessi Sieberth, Dan and Calvin Bonn, Zachary Smith, Wendall Covalt, Joyce and Mark Brady and Marlene and Steve Ishii. In an hour we would be at Tejon, meeting our intrepid biologist guide Scot Pipkin, with help from two docents: Steve Justus and Chris Gardner.

It was an unbelievably beautiful day. (A kind of ridiculous statement, seeing as that happens in southern California many more times than not.) But, there was no wind on the ranch. The Ishii’s and the Brady’s decided to drive their vehicle and the rest of us piled into two ranch vehicles. On many of the roads up there, you really have to be confident about doing four wheel driving. A lot of it is rough terrain and it’s not easy. One of the great components of this trip for me was to introduce two young birders to each other: Dessi Sieberth, who is 12 and who is developing quite a reputation around LA as a birder and a conservation activist. He is meeting Calvin Bonn, who is 8, which is the same age Dessi was when he started. Calvin has been on a number of bird walks in the South Bay and at Ballona and is developing into a good birder as well. Both of these guys take copious notes on what they are watching and keep track of all of their discoveries. When I was a kid, this was an activity I did by myself, which was OK for me; but, somehow I think how much better it can be to have a friend, a peer to do it with. These two hit it off pretty well — I would say immediately, judging from the laughter in the truck all day.

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Ferruginous Hawk, Photo by Steve Ishii

At the 300th Street gate, at approximately 8ish, the bird activity is already hopping and flitting around. There were the ravens to tease; everyone wants to make them into some spectacular predator. But, also there were Horned Larks and some blackbirds. As we head toward the area where there are a number of burrows, we first spotted standing low on a hill, the bold, wide and clear chest of our largest buteo: a Ferruginous Hawk, motionless and majestic. We tried to creep closer for better looks which I think everyone got. We continued further and saw a couple of Burrowing Owls.

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Burrowing Owls, Photo by Steve Ishii

One in particular just had his head sticking out of the burrow. It is amazing looking out over a pretty dry desert landscape with very little color other than varying degrees of beige and brown trying to pick out a head and yellow eyes. Once in a while the owl will let you know it is there just by slightly turning its head. One owl flew a bit for us, showing the spotted patterns on the wings. I enjoy these almost comical creatures with their long legs and the spotting and barring on their bodies. And, like all owls, the way they can transform their shape is fun to watch. They were also obliging and giving us full body looks. So much fun to watch, and Tejon is one of the more reliable places here in southern California where you almost always see them.

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Ferruginous Hawk, Photo by Steve Ishii

Leaving them, we came across another Ferruginous Hawk, high atop an oak tree. This time we got to see the size of this bird from a profile, the large gape that seems to make the bill and head look pretty ominous. And, we got to appreciate the ferrite/rust in the shoulders, the mantle and the leggings. We were only to see these two birds; but, it was a good start for the morning. Along the way, there would be flocks of blackbirds, some Brewer’s and looking hard into the flock, there would be some Tri-colored Blackbirds as well. That is something that garners interest because we don’t see a lot of them lately.

It must be noted that this incredible drought which has hit the west, or it might be better said bludgeoned the west, has left its mark everywhere on the ranch. So, the number of rodents which eat seeds and the grasses don’t have much to munch on. The ground has lost a lot of its cover and ground squirrels and rabbits, mice and voles are very scarce now. It’s interesting since I pushed to have the winter raptor trip moved to Tejon, the alfalfa fields in the Antelope Valley, east of the ranch have more foliage; so, Ferruginous Hawks and Red-tails have moved over there because the rodents are there. Also, Red-tails are very tolerant of civilization. They are the “coyotes” of the birds of prey world. They are literally everywhere: cities, suburbs, and of course, wilderness.

We are searching the western end of the ranch, but, there are slim pickings. So, we start to move east. And, things start to pick up. We see Horned Larks in good sized flocks. And, we also see flashes of color. This would get more exciting during the day. Mountain Bluebirds in a good number were on the ground and jumping in the air. I have looked in so many bird books for at least an adequate description of the hue of this blue, and I am always disappointed. I can’t even try to describe it. The National Geographic calls the color on the back of the male, “sky blue”, maybe even azure blue. It is hard for me to put a definite tone to it. However, when the sun hits it, that blue is electric, neon maybe. it is really shocking how that color hits you. All through the day we would see these bluebirds in enormous flocks. I would guess throughout the day we saw somewhere between three to four hundred Mountain Bluebirds. For me, this is interesting. “Where do birds consistently winter; and do these birds just change location from time to time”. I mention this because when I moved to California in January of 1987, in my first trips to the Antelope Valley, that winter, in the western part of the valley as you’re driving west on Rt. 138, towards the 5 Freeway, on those rolling hillsides, I would see flocks upon flocks of Mountain Bluebirds, comparable to the numbers we were seeing in Tejon this day. It seems to me for the last twenty years these birds were down in numbers in the winter. And, to see this great number today was something to celebrate.

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Mountain Bluebird, Photo by Beatrix Schwarz

I got this picture of the earth and sky was wearing jewelry. Some great, enormous multi-layered necklace; or some magical translucent, amorphous, diaphanous tapestry, that was constantly changing shapes and sizes, glittering in the light. In the fantastical, as if some great queen of tremendous wealth were trying on this most expensive and precious necklace. There would be waves of bluebirds in the air and then on the ground. They were foraging, hovering, flitting, and busy, always giving shocking flashes of light and shade and just overall beauty. Seeing this fantastic demonstration of loveliness has stayed with me all this time, even as I write this. It seems really boastful to say: “You had to be there!” But, you had to be there. Stunning, just stunning!
We changed directions and started moving eastward and upward. Going through the Joshua Tree forest, looking for smaller birds and moving to the Canon del Gato Montes, things kicked up a bit. We get our first looks of Golden Eagles. All day we would see them soaring, foraging, flying over ridges and disappearing behind them. And, we would also see them on rocks or on the ground. It was a very bright sunny day and when the sun hit the hackles of these majestic birds, in good looks you could see the gold just pop. We were mostly seeing adult birds. I think I caught sight of some sub-adults, but mostly mature birds. Their soaring is so easy - not rushed, just riding thermals. Their broad wings making jaws drop. It was a kind of aerial serenade in the sky. Golden Eagles are residents of Tejon; but, they are joined by others in the winter. We had nine sightings of these phenomenal raptors during the day. Every time they appeared, everything stopped. The sight of them arrests you; and all you can do is look in wonder. And, look we did, almost in reverence and awe. I love these birds and it was fun for me to watch the younger two boys soak it all in. Dessi has seen eagles before but I think this might have been Calvin’s first Golden Eagles.

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Loggerhead Shrike, Photo by Steve Ishii

We would wind our way up higher. There were Loggerhead Shrikes as we left the Joshua Tree forest. And when we were in the various oak forests we would see Acorn Woodpeckers, with its clownish appearance and its yacking noises and the dark green velvet and rose breast of Lewis’ Woodpeckers and of course the occasional Scrub Jay, which doesn’t do too bad in the blue department as well. Gaining altitude also meant more eagles and near the top where there is this incredible vast panorama of mountain and canyons on the Kern County side there was a good place to get a bite to eat. We were at a place where there is going to be a rerouting of the Pacific Coast hiking trail and you could see into the San Joaquin Valley.

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Pronghorn Antelope, Photo by Steve Ishii

After lunch we would proceed more toward the back end of the ranch. Even in drought, this land is just spectacular. It’s also remarkable how resilient this land can be. Even parched, there is life. We even get to see a bobcat tearing down the mountain side after who knows what. That animal was like lightning; if you blinked you missed it. We are sometimes taking routes we’ve never taken before to see vistas more astonishing at every turn. We slowly wind our way down and back through the Joshua Tree Forest. And, leaving the forest near the 290th St gate, in the field, is a small herd of Pronghorn Antelope. And, time stands still once more. These beautiful graceful antelope are eating and also observing us. They don’t seem to be disturbed by our party. You watch them and your mind travels back in time, when things like civilization didn’t encroach on them and more of these animals roamed in complete freedom. These antelope are hanging on. They’ve got real four-legged enemies to be wary of: coyotes and mountain lions.


Pronghorn Antelope, Photo by Dessi Sieburth

But, there is another surprise, atop a tree: a Prairie Falcon. 34of39-PrairieFalcon-IMG 1726-2

Prarie Falcon, Photo by Steve Ishii

It almost appeared out of nowhere. And, there seemed to be some resolve in this bird. It gave us some really good looks and then took off. It’s coloring blending in so well with this desert setting. Flying purposely, showing its dark armpits, flew for miles in front of us. That was a nice finishing button for the day. A wonderful day. A day of excitement and a bit of serenity and peace and fun. A great day for the two new friends, who, I might add, razzed me mercilessly as we were in our truck touring the ranch. All in good spirits and fun. We are grateful to Scot Pipkin, Steve Justus and Chris Gardner who were so accomodating and helpful at every turn. There is a really wonderful and very helpful staff up at Tejon and they make our visits such a pleasure. I, personally, have never had a bad time on that ranch - not even a so so time. It has always been just great, and we are appreciative of them for taking the time for us.

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Tejon Birding Group, Photo by Beatrix Schwarz

Published Western Tanager Vol. 81 No. 4 March/April 2015