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Friday, June 19, 2015

Lions, Condors, and Buckwheat, Oh My! By Dr. Mike White, Conservation Science Director

At the risk of sounding like a braggart, I’m going to say I have one of the greatest jobs in the world.  How many people can say that their job allows them, no requires them, to explore one of the most amazing conservation properties in California?  Well, that’s me!  At 270,000 acres, spanning four major ecological regions that support dozens of unique and special status species, Tejon Ranch is one of the most remarkable landscapes where I have ever had the opportunity to work.  I also get to explore and share it with other like-minded people, which makes it even more special.  And when you get to see and experience the natural world in a way that one rarely has the privilege of experiencing, and seeing things that you can’t see anywhere else on Earth, well that makes for a pretty good day at the office.  I want to share a few recent experiences that I have had at Tejon Ranch that makes me wonder if I should be paying the Tejon Ranch Conservancy rather than the reverse.

Early last week, I was showing a colleague from out of town around the Ranch.  It was about 8:30 am and a warm spring morning.  I was driving and we were deep in conversation.  As we came around a bend in the road, what do we see but two young mountain lions resting in the shade on the side of our road not 20 yards in front of us!  Now mountain lions are not rare in California, but those of you that have spent lots of time outdoors will agree that this is not a common species to see.  In fact many naturalists, hikers, hunters, and other outdoor enthusiasts have never seen a mountain lion in the wild, and there may be no other animal in California that folks would like to see more when out in natural areas (from a safe distance of course!).  But lions appear to be abundant on Tejon Ranch based on the frequency with which we capture them in our remotely triggered wildlife camera traps (for example, see the video below).  The two I saw last week were the fourth and fifth mountain lions that I have seen in my life, and the other three were also on Tejon Ranch.  Am I lucky?  I would say incredibly so.

The following weekend, I was out with our friends from the Kern California Native Plant Society (CNPS) chapter.  I generally visit parts of the San Joaquin Valley side of Tejon Ranch with Kern CNPS, because it is a shorter drive for them and there are lots of rare and endemic plants on that side of the Ranch.  But particularly given our drought conditions and how late in the season it was, we decided to drive around to the Antelope Valley to look for Tehachapi buckwheat, which is a later blooming plant. Tehachapi buckwheat (Eriogonum callistum) is an endemic species, which means it is a species restricted to a specific area, and is considered seriously endangered in California by CNPS.  In the case of Tehachapi buckwheat, the area it is restricted to is limestone outcrops on certain ridges on Tejon Ranch – this is the only place on the planet that you can see this plant species.  Well we found it alright! (see below).  While it is considered “seriously endangered” in California, it is actually quite abundant where it occurs, and all of the known locations on Tejon are on conserved lands.  It is a beautiful plant, growing in a really unique habitat type, and unlike mountain lions not hard to see.  So here is a very cool plant that occurs nowhere else in the world that I can essentially drive to on my lunch break. 

Tehachapi buckwheat growing on a limestone outcrop.  Photo by Mike White.

Tehachapi buckwheat growing out of a limestone outcrop with manzanita and chamise above. Photo by Mike White.

Five California condors roosting in a large white fir.  Photo by Mike White
 But it gets better.  That same weekend I had the pleasure of taking two good friends of the Conservancy, Loi and Adele Nguyen, on a tour of the Ranch.  Adele is one of our California Naturalist-trained docents and Loi is a great photographer with a love of raptors.  After unsuccessfully looking for a family of long-eared owls that nested in one of our desert canyons earlier in the year, we headed up to the high country to look for California condors at a location with large white firs that they seem to have adopted over the past few years as a roosting area.  Loi very much wanted to get some pictures of condors when the morning light was still good.  As we pulled into the area, my heart sank as there were no condors to be seen!  We drove around a little more looking for some raptors for Loi to photograph without much luck, and decided to head back to a hill top from which we could see the known condor roosting area.  Still no birds in sight.  But as I start thinking about Plan B, I am surveying the roosting area with my binoculars, and I see two condors rise over the ridge!  As we drive back to the roosting area, the condors settled into one of the large firs.  We have a great view from the ground below, a pretty special sight indeed.  However, now things just get, well, incredible!  A couple more condors fly in, then a couple more, then a couple more, until I can see 11 condors either sitting in trees or flying overhead.  I mean right overhead!  It was if they were circling over and watching us while we were watching them.  If you have heard the sound that the wingbeats of a large bird make when flying nearby, even something as small as a raven, you can only imagine what the sound of a bird with a 9-foot wingspan can make! Kind of makes you feel like you’re back in the Pleistocene (who needs Jurassic Park?!).  We sat in one location for over 2 hours as 13 condors took turns cruising over us, roosting in trees, and interacting with each other.  I have seen quite a few condors at Tejon Ranch in the 7 years I have been here, but have never experienced anything quite like this.  It was definitely one of my most memorable wildlife experiences, but you could also say it was “just another day at the office!”

A condor coming in for a landing.  Photos by Loi Nguyen.

A condor leaping from its perch.  Photo by Loi Nguyen.

For me, being in wild places gives me great pleasure, and is why I have worked hard in my career to protect, enhance, and restore them.  However, as I have had the opportunity to explore and learn about Tejon Ranch, I am increasingly realizing what a truly exceptional place this is, and how incredibly lucky I am to be able to spend a significant amount of time here.  I hope that you all will take the time to come visit us and experience it for yourselves.  Who knows, maybe you’ll have the experience of your lifetime too!

“Condor Love” by Loi Nguyen.  The juvenile has a black head and the adult an orange head.