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Wednesday, January 8, 2014


            Given the news that 2013 was the driest year on record in California, it is easy to focus on the uncertainty our region faces for this coming year. Low precipitation means less green growth, which translates to fewer herbivores, which means no predators, right? All in all, a grim outlook for finding birds and wildlife with a group of people.
So, when it came time for me to meet with members of the Los Angeles Audubon for a day of Tejon Ranch birding, I had been preparing to explain why we were not going to see birds. The Antelope Valley side of the ranch has received only 4 inches of rain in the last 18 months. A high pressure system has set up shop over the west coast, causing warm weather that birds can travel freely in, without needing to “hunker down” in the canyons. Even the typically-ubiquitous yellow-rumped warblers (Dendroica coronata) have been scarce this winter. Fortunately, once we met at the 300th Street gate and piled into the Conservancy vehicles, I had little apologizing to do. Although our day’s list only reached 36 species (hardly a “big day” by any hardcore birder’s count), we saw some incredible birds and had a fantastic trip.
Dessi and Lou agree: Birding on Tejon Ranch is the best! Love the condor shirts. Photo courtesy of Beatrix Schwarz
The day’s events began somewhat typically, with large flocks of horned larks (Eremophila alpestris) roaming the flats around 300th Street and a smattering of sparrows (savannah and lark- Passerculus sandwichensis and Chondestes grammacus, respectively) flitting by. As we headed past the western boundary of Big Sycamore Canyon, we slowed down to scan for burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia). Although this site has yielded upwards of 16 individuals on a spring day, they’re a little trickier to see in the winter. We began creeping past, scanning all of the burrows for a half-visible head and a pair of yellow eyes. Nothing. Just as we were getting beyond where the owls are typically seen, something emerged from a burrow and flew uphill, behind us. We all craned our necks to get good looks at a lone burrowing owl, bending at its toothpick legs to bow at us. It’s hard to know if that’s a gesture of deference or admonishment.
As a guide, it’s always a relief to see the first crowd-pleasing bird of the day. If you see nothing else, you can always say, “at least we had that burrowing owl.” Riding on that success, we pushed westward, stopping in at Los Alamos Canyon, where we encountered vesper sparrow (Pooecetes gramineus), and the typical cohort of winter birds in southern California (e.g., western scrub jay, white-crowned sparrow, acorn woodpecker, California Towhee). Moving westward still, we were treated to great views of a light-morph ferruginous hawk (Buteo regalis), greater roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus), and tri-colored blackbirds (Agelaius tricolor).  
A beautiful valley oak. Photo courtesy of Derek Sieburth
At this point, it was time to get into some other habitats. Part of what makes birding on Tejon Ranch so great is that you can go from grassland to oak woodland to coniferous forest to Joshua tree woodland in the blink of an eye. We wheeled back eastward and began heading up the alluvial terrace west of Little Sycamore Canyon. Climbing through the blue oaks, past chaparral, and into the black oaks, we saw little. It wasn’t until we reached the upper ridges above Big Sycamore that we began encountering golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) and had an errant flock of gulls fly quickly overhead. Hardly a bird you expect to see flying above the chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum) and manzanita (Arctostaphylus sp.), but given our location, the time of year, and the size of the birds, we figured they were California gulls (Larus californicus). Cool! We then dropped down into Big Sycamore Canyon and were rewarded with fantastic looks at a Lewis’s woodpecker (Melanerpes lewis) and a quick glance at a loggerhead shrike (Lanius ludovicianus).
Lewis's woodpecker. Photo courtesy of Derek Sieburth
Typically noontime is regarded as a particularly un-birdy period of the day. The sun is high, weather is warm, and oftentimes, birds are taking a siesta. With that in mind, I was not expecting to see much as we headed east along the flats, towards Canyon del Gato Montes. But as we came up the rise east of 300th Street, an interesting silhouette caught our eyes. Four medium-sized birds with upright posture walking in the short grass. Shorebirds. Plovers. Killdeer? No. As we got our binoculars on these birds, they were decidedly drabber, slimmer, and smaller than killdeer. These were mountain plovers (Charadrius montanus).
Despite their drab appearance and relatively small size, this is a pretty significant observation. Mountain plovers are decreasing in numbers throughout their range (in 2003 a petition was made to put them on the Endangered Species list, that ultimately failed) and this species has not been documented on Tejon Ranch since before the formation of the Conservancy in 2008. A further scan yielded two more birds. Six mountain plovers-this was a sighting worth noting due to the birds nomadic movements in the winter. The cherry on top was a group of six mountain bluebirds (Sialia currucoides), which added another splash of color to the droughty landscape.
Mountain plover. Photo courtesy of Derek Sieburth
As the shadows got a little longer, we were able to spot sage thrasher (Oreoscoptes montanus) in Antelope Canyon and were treated to more views of golden eagle and Lewis’s woodpecker at our lunch spot in the high country. Travelling back down Canyon del Gato Montes (bobcat canyon), we spotted a pair of ladder-backed woodpeckers (Picoides scalaris) in the Joshua trees. Our final bird of the day was a male northern harrier (Circus cyaneus) gliding past as we were scoping a ferruginous hawk. Not a bad way to ring in the New Year and certainly a reminder to remain optimistic about the surprises in store for us in 2014. 

- Scot

Ferruginous hawk as seen through the scope.