TEJON RANCH | AT LAST WE GET TO GO BACK UP TO THE MOUNTAIN - HOW YA GONNA KEEP 'EM AWAY FROM THE RANCH
By Louis Tucker, Field Trip Leader for Los Angeles Audubon

Jason Koenig Photography

Tejon Ranch, by Jason Keonig Photography

Sometimes a postponement can deliver interesting surprises. Our annual winter Los Angeles Audubon Tejon Ranch trip got postponed due to the “ghost El Niño”; which decided to rain the week of our January 9, 2016 planned trip. It was kind of ugly that week with the rain, which wasn’t as bad in LA as it was up on the ranch — which is mostly in Kern County. During the week before January 9, I was in close contact with our super biologist/guide/staff member, Scot Pipkin; Scot was not exactly very positive about what was happening up there. You see, the dirt roads on the ranch can be very rough even in the best of conditions; but, when rain hits, and up there, when snow comes along with it, the high elevations are completely inaccessible. So, on Wednesday of that week, he and I decided that we would have to postpone our trip. Ugh!

Lark Sparrow, by Tommye Hite

Lark Sparrow, Photo by Tommye Hite

However, he came up with an alternate date —which we would have to wait several months, to make sure that the strange El Niño had truly passed. So, we did reschedule, which also meant that some of the original participants also had to drop out and new ones were added. We decided on May 7, 2016, the day before Mother’s day. I thought with the rain that happened up there and with a pinch of spring in the air, it would be a good time. This could mean the possibilities of remaining wild flowers, and some of the spring migration would be in full swing, as well as what happened several years before, the possibility of seeing California Condors — if we could get up on Martinez Ridge and Ray’s Perch.

Tejon Ranch view, by Tommye Hite

Tejon Ranch view, by Tommye Hite

Well, in the process of time, we lost Scot to a great new assignment in Santa Fe, New Mexico, coordinating an education program for the Audubon Society in New Mexico. This is something, given Scot’s knowledge of the natural world, I know he will be brilliant at. So, there is the “selfish” question: “What about us?” Never fear! Scot had been training docents for several years to lead trips around the ranch so that the staff at the ranch could tend to more pressing needs in maintaining the ranch and doing other Tejon business. Two of the three docents I already knew: Chris Gardner and Steve Justus. These two guys had been on most of the Tejon trips I had been on up there, and knew the terrain quite well. They were joined by Reema Hamman, someone new to me, but had been trained by Scot as well.

Blooming Beavertail Cactus, by Kerry Morris

Blooming Beavertail Cactus, by Kerry Morris

And, of course, no trip is complete without the warnings of “some of the things you may want to do, you may not be able to do” theme, because all winter and spring, it had been very sketchy up there in terms of the weather. (We were warned that we may not be able to get up to Martinez Ridge and Ray’s Perch, with its elevation above 6,000 feet because there may be boulders on the road and the roads could be slippery because of the rain that had taken place. The roads become slippery like clay. Ugh, again! I will admit to a silly childish flaw in my character right now: I tend to inwardly pout when I get bad news — however, I try not to visibly let on that this is happening to me internally. Ha! Our LA participants were Stephen Bernal, Nick and Mary Freeman, Mark Hansen, Tommye Hite, Jason Koenig, Kerry Morris, Julie Rush, Diane Smith and Jack Wickel. I think I prepared them for some eventual disappointment without gritting my teeth.

Swainsons Hawk, by Kerry Morris

Swainson's Hawk, by Kerry Morris

Up at Tejon, the day didn’t start out looking that promising. It was quite cloudy and chilly. As a matter of fact, the mountains were shrouded with heavy ominous clouds. But we jumped in the three SUV’s that the ranch provided for us and headed out to search for birds and other creatures. The first place we drove was in search of Tejon’s Burrowing Owls. Well, only one owl popped out its burrow and quickly flew off in the distance. Not exactly the looks we were hoping for, but, slowly traveling along over the near ridge there were three Swainson’s Hawks. That was a nice surprise. In the many times I’ve been on the ranch, I’ve only seen this species one other time. Swainson’s Hawks do go through the Antelope Valley; I guess timing is everything. There were two light race birds and one dark one. All along our journey there were Horned Larks almost everywhere. It’s amazing how these birds can so thoroughly be camouflaged even in very little vegetation, and then surprises you as they take off into the air.

Pronghorn Antelope, Photo by Tommye Hite

Pronghorn Antelope, Photo by Tommye Hite

Looking out of the south side of our vehicle we saw a doe Pronghorn Antelope lying down on the ground. The initial thought was that she might be in the process of calving, but, that didn’t seem to be the case. It was unusual to see a doe all by herself with not one sign of even a small herd around at all. That is very dangerous for her, given that there are any number of predator threats - as in coyote, black bear and mountain lion in these environs. Seeing us driving on the road, she got up and trotted off.

Pronghorn Antelope, Photo Jason Keonig Photography

Pronghorn Antelope, Jason Keonig Photography

We headed off to Big Sycamore Canyon. Getting over there proved easier than expected, given the steepness of one of the hills. No slipping and sliding yet. Once we level out up there, there are some very dilapidated structures, worn by weather and neglect, however not disturbing the wonderful ambiance of the scenery. We were hearing the chattering of songbirds which were not necessarily being that cooperative. We did see cooperative Lewis’ Woodpeckers, however. There were quite a few of them and if you were diligent and stayed focused you could get some wonderful views of their deep green mantles, rosy bellies, gray breasts and collars, the deep red face, and dark green head. This is a handsome bird, if you can catch the coloring in good light. The lighting was variable, in that it was still a bit cloudy. Walking around the hill we managed to see at least eight of these birds. There was the teasing of Ravens which we all wanted to make into a larger predator. A Red-tail did show itself, soaring around majestically.

Tri-colored Blackbird, Photo by Kerry Morris

Tri-colored Blackbird, Photo by Kerry Morris

Leaving Sycamore and the oak trees which are there as well, we went to a pond which is very dense with reeds to look for Tri-colored Blackbirds. And, we had Tri-colors and Red-wing Blackbirds chattering it up and flying around. Tejon has one of the few stands of Tri-colored Blackbirds in southern California. There were no Yellow-headed Blackbirds in this group of very gregarious birds this time. The chatter and fluttering around was incessant. This stand of reeds with the blackbirds gives one a text book comparison of Tri-colored and Red-wings. Although the Tri-coloreds do have red shoulders in the males, they are rarely seen. And in the male Red-wings, this is just what you see. It’s also sometimes difficult to distinguish the gurgling’s of these two species. It takes expert ears to gauge the harshness of the Tri’s versus the seemingly more fluid Red-wings.

Western Kingbird, Photo by Tommye Hite

Western Kingbird, Photo by Tommye Hite

It was time to move on. We went across the “flat lands”, eastward, which do run into Antelope Valley, to the south of the ranch. By the way, I’ve mentioned this before, but, Antelope Valley gets its name from the Pronghorn Antelope which used to roam freely in this valley; the Tejon Ranch is reintroducing them back to where they once flourished. We were headed over to the magnificent Joshua Tree Forest to look for Scott’s Orioles. On our way there, we had some sightings of Western Kingbirds fly catching and chasing away ravens. Also there were some Lark Sparrows, which are so distinct and above and beyond what “little brown jobs” sparrows can be. As we were traveling east on the valley floor, we saw our Pronghorn doe again; doing the same thing as she had earlier: lying down and the getting up and trotting away. The sky began to show a little promise. Clouds were breaking and the sun was beginning to make its presence felt.

Tejon Ranch Clouds, Photo Jason Koenig Photography

Tejon Ranch Clouds, Photo Jason Koenig Photography

In the Joshua Tree Forest, we had a repeat of a cameo appearance by the target bird. A beautiful male Scott’s Oriole jumped from on top of one of the trees and took off north, showing its brilliant yellow, black and white colors and quickly disappeared. I’m not really sure how many folks were able to catch the sight of this lovely bird. We left the cars to walk around in the forest. We were hearing Cactus Wrens and a few Mockingbirds. Of course, we wanted to see the wrens, but, got only to see the “Mockers”. In the fields there were other colorful flashes of beauty. Tejon Ranch hosts two species of bluebirds: Western and Mountain Bluebirds. The Mountain Bluebird is only there in the winter. But, the beauty of the Western Bluebird isn’t exactly “chopped liver”. There were adult birds foraging in the fields for their youngsters. Gorgeous! Most of the Joshua Trees had lost their blooms. Some still had pods on them, and some had dried up flowers. However, a decision was made. As it was lookinig much clearer, and the roads seemed to be cooperating, we decided to take the trek north into the mountains and get up to Martinez Ridge and Ray’s Perch. My internal pout disappeared!

Purple Wild Flowers, Photo by Kerry Morris

Purple Wild Flowers, Photo by Kerry Morris

On our way there, we had to go through Canyon Del Gato Montes, which still had some wildflower holdouts. There were still some poppies and blooming Beavertail Cactus. The magenta flower on that cactus is one of the more stunning things you can ever see in the desert. They were giving off such brilliant color. Tejon also has a number of different species of Buckwheat and some of them were in bloom as well. And, with some which had gone past time, you could still admire the rich chocolate brown of the dead flower. There were other stunning wildflower sights and unfortunately, I can’t name a one. But on the desert floor, it looked like an elaborate jeweled tapestry; a true feast for the eyes.

Blooming Beavertail Cactus, Photo by Kerry Morris

Blooming Beavertail Cactus, Photo by Kerry Morris

Tejon Ranch Oak Tree, Photo by Kerry Morris

Tejon Ranch Oak Tree, Photo by Kerry Morris

We began our steep climb. We actually did fairly well. The rough roads were not that bad at all. Going around one of the switchbacks, the lead vehicle had a real unexpected surprise. An owl flew in front of our vehicle from the north side of the road to the south side, another cameo appearance, and a special one, which only Steve Justus and I saw. This is quite unfair, because it was a Spotted Owl which then disappeared before I could announce it on the radio to the following vehicles. As we were climbing up the mountain, if you looked south, you could get such incredible views of the expanse of the ranch and also the western end of Antelope Valley. It is truly an awesome sight. You have to wrap your head around Tejon’s size — which is more than four hundred square miles and 270,000 acres. We could never cover it in a day. At the last gate that would let us into the area of Martinez Ridge, there was one Purple Martin, in a bare tree, singing. This was another brief appearance, and a beautiful one.
One of the unfortunate noticeable things up there that is really sad is the loss of great stands of conifers, due to the drought and the infamous bark beetle infestation. There is remarkable devastation.

Pronghorn Antelope, Photo by Kerry Morris

Pronghorn Antelope, Photo by Kerry Morris

We finally reach Martinez Ridge. This is such a great spot. This is also where “magic” can happen. If you look north from the ridge you look into the southern end of the central valley. Also, Tejon is part of the Tehachapi Mountain range on its western end. And, from the north, it is the southernmost part of the Sierra Nevada’s. Also along the ridge there are plans for the continuation of the Pacific Crest hiking trail through the ranch. This seemed like a great place to have lunch. There is a huge rock formation in the field which provides a few nice places to sit down and eat. Also, at the foot of this rock is more stone that is level. And, the indigenous peoples who lived in these hills carved out the stone and made shallow bowl like shapes in the stone for mortar and pestle. The indigenous people used these to grind up their herbs and to possibly make flour, and maybe other medicinal remedies.

Ground Squirrel, Photo by Kerry Morris

Ground Squirrel, Photo by Kerry Morris

With everyone enjoying what they had brought to eat, the group really loosened up and we had a lot of laughs while eating. As we were eating, a “happening” began to unfold which would present this question: “To eat or be eaten”? I’ve eaten up on these rocks a number of times but I’ve never witnessed the intense curiosity of the ground squirrels before. Ground squirrels started coming out from the cracks in the rock inspecting and I’m very sure looking for food. Even our goofiness and fun didn’t deter these little critters. They would come out and look and then scurry back into the cracks. There were Steller’s Jays calling in the background along with an occasional call from Mountain Quail. Neither would appear. But, the appearance of the ground squirrels caused something else to happen, in dramatic fashion. Appearing out of nowhere, —as if out of “thin air” (from where does that phrase come?)— a pair of Golden Eagles, flying at break neck speed. They were above, near, all around us; sometimes at one hundred feet or less. They seemed like a mated pair and they were foraging for food. It took me a while to put it together, until the “light bulb” went off in my head. These birds were hunting with big purpose. I’m sure they had youngsters back at the nest; and the ground squirrels attracted them. The funny thing about our being there was that we ended up being a “schill” for the squirrels. Those eagles flew fairly close to us, but, they would not fly into our group and grab a squirrel. They put on an aerial show for quite some time. At one point, the female landed on the ground quite a distance from us and stood there for a time, while her mate continued to fly around us.

Golden Eagle, Photo by Kerry Morris

Golden Eagle, Photo by Kerry Morris

Golden Eagle, Jason Keonig Photography

Swainson's Hawk, Jason Keonig Photography

Golden Eagle, Jason Keonig Photography

 

Golden Eagle, Jason Keonig Photography

 

Golden Eagle, Jason Keonig Photography

Golden Eagle, Jason Keonig Photography

Golden Eagle, Jason Keonig Photography

Golden Eagle, Jason Keonig Photography

I am now like a kid at Disneyland —(A little side-bar here)— you see, Golden Eagles are in my top five favorite birds. All five are part of the birds of prey/scavenger category. Most birders would probably pick other bird families, maybe based on coloration, their particular call or song, their habits and how they relate to us emotionally. My “faves” are “natural born killers”. Don’t judge me; especially you meat eaters (LOL?) I am fascinated with how they were created and designed to do what they do. Interestingly, Golden Eagles are No. 2 on this list; only because No. 1, the Gyrfalcon, is a rare visitor in the winter, south of very cold climes. Golden Eagles are mostly silent birds. They can achieve some amazing speeds in a stoop: a sensational 200 miles per hour. That’s really outrageous for such a big bird. The Peregrine, No. 3 on my list, exceeds it, but barely. This eagle can prey on almost anything it wants. (I recently read an article where a rancher in New Mexico was getting upset because a Golden Eagle was killing his cows!) That’s crazy! But, I do know they can take an animal the size of a White-tailed Deer. And, that’s a big animal. When they master their hunting skills, they aim for the lung of their prey. And, I guess, the size of the prey determines how and at what speed they can kill it. They may not be able to carry it; they’ll just eat it on the ground. OK, just in case you were asking, No. 4 is the California Condor, which is on the list for so many reasons - being North America’s largest vulture. That bird is just incredibly huge in every respect — feathered aircraft. And, No. 5 is a tie: the dark race of both the Rough-legged and Ferruginous Hawks — just because they are so “freakin’” beautiful. No subliminal message there, honest!

Well, I’m back from my self-indulgent little tangent. We watched the eagles in complete awe; catching every detail of these great birds. The sun would shed light on their golden hackles. It was sensational. As we packed up to go back down to the valley floor, they continued to fly around. This took place for at least forty-five minutes. As it was getting late and the sky was beginning to look threatening. With a possible threat of rain, that is not the place you want to be; on top of a mountain out in the open and having to go down slippery, craggy roads. But, stop for a moment. Can you imagine, driving away from a pair of beautiful, foraging adult Golden Eagles? We kept seeing them as we descended the mountain. Fantastic! So, we retrace our drive and come back to the Canyon Del Gato Montes with the last of the wildflowers. We got out of the cars again. And while we were exploring a bit, another little drama unfolded. A gopher snake managed to climb into the left rear wheel well of the Expedition some of us were riding in. This became a “madcap” adventure, trying to get the snake out from the wheel well. There were a number of people valiantly and earnestly trying to save this reptile, but, the snake wasn’t having it. And, how I would love to say that we were successful with this craziness. Alas, we weren’t. A few brave people tried and they all failed. It was strangely funny, in a way. Poor snake! It was not seen again. We had to drive away with it in the wheel well. Oops!

Up on one of the very steep ridges in the Canyon Del Gato Montes, we also spotted a doe Mule Deer. How this animal was moving along this ridge was really remarkable. The hill was practically vertical. And, of course, she quickly disappeared. Amazing! We went back through the Joshua Tree Forest taking the whole day and relishing the splendor of it all.

Tejon Ranch Field Trip Participants, Photo by Jason Keonig Photography

Tejon Ranch Field Trip Participants, Photo by Jason Keonig Photography

At this point our trip was coming to a close. We were saying “goodbye” to the Kingbirds, Lark Sparrows, Western Bluebirds, and all of the gazillion Horned Larks near the Joshua Tree Forest. The day ended up being really great. Tejon Ranch is truly a great escape from the craziness of LA, and it is so close. The “ghost El Niño” didn’t do the damage I thought would be possible up there. And, I think that all of the participants had a great time. How can you not, when there was at least a forty-five minute aerial show from a pair of Golden Eagles, beautiful flowers, pronghorn, singing birds and an outrageous landscape? Also, being in this incredible spot, which the Tejon Ranch Conservancy is committed to keeping the area wild. It is a place where all of your worries and cares just seem to vanish once you step on this property. Everywhere you turn there is some form of beauty; whether it is bird, mammal, reptile, insect, plant and tree life or just the whole landscape. Even things which are dead and petrified have their own strange beauty in the natural cycle of life. It is the wilderness “crown jewel” of southern California. May it stay forever wild!

Tejon Ranch field trip leader, Louis Tucker. Photo by Jason Keonig Photography

Tejon Ranch field trip leader, Louis Tucker. Photo by Jason Keonig Photography