Category Archives: birds

Redwoods, Raptors, and the Phantom Loop

Coast redwood near Century Lake in Malibu Creek State Park
A coast redwood stands above the other trees near Century Lake.

It was a chilly 45°F as I crossed algae-covered Malibu Creek on a foot-worn log. Following a brutally hot Summer with temps in the West San Fernando Valley reaching 121°F, the chill of the cold air felt especially good.

The plan was to do the Phantom Loop, but first, I was going to run over to the Forest Trail. The side trip was not only to check on the coast redwoods along the trail but to enjoy the calm beauty of the area. To say 2020 has been unsettling is like saying a rattlesnake bite is a little annoying — and the year isn’t over yet.

Coast redwood near the Forest Trail and Crags Road junction in Malibu Creek State Park
Coast redwood near the Forest Trail and Crags Road junction

After crossing the creek, I stopped to photograph the redwood near the junction of the Forest Trail and Crags Road. The sun had just risen, and behind the tree, orange-tinted sunlight illuminated the rocky ridge above the M*A*S*H site.

Continuing along the Forest Trail toward Century Lake, I counted four healthy-appearing redwoods and two struggling trees. Redwoods sometimes grow in a group of two or mote trees, and these were counted as a single “tree.” Near the end of the trail is a naturally-germinated redwood that has grown to about 5.5 inches in diameter. Remarkably, this young tree survived the 2011-2015 drought and the 2018 Woolsey Fire, and appears healthy!

I had just finished photographing the young tree when a Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned Hawk flew from a nearby oak and through the trees along the trail. It landed on the limb of an oak ahead of me but was in deep shade. In a much-enlarged image, the bird looks like a Sharp-shinned Hawk, but distinguishing the two species can be challenging.

Red-tailed hawk atop a coast redwood in Malibu Creek State Park.
Red-tailed hawk atop a coast redwood.

A few yards down the trail, a much larger raptor — a Red-tailed hawk — was perched at the top of the tallest redwood. The huge bird had its wings pulled back to expose more of its body to the warming sun. It looked like a giant penguin sitting atop a tree. As I approached, it began to preen its feathers, comfortable with its lofty position.

With a sigh, I left the Forest Trail behind and returned to Malibu Creek. This time I crossed the creek on a plank near the washed-out bridge. This was a more direct route than the fallen tree upstream but only worked because the creek was low. At the crossing, a passing runner asked if he was on the Bulldog Loop. I assured him he was and was a little envious that he was getting to experience that excellent run for the first time.

Morning view of Goat Buttes in Malibu Creek State Park
Morning view of Goat Butte and stream course of Malibu Creek

As usual, Crags Road and the High Road were busy thoroughfares. The easy running under the sprawling coast live oaks was pleasant, and the morning view of Malibu Creek and Goat Buttes outstanding.

In a few minutes, I’d reached Mulholland Highway and then followed the Grasslands Trail to the Liberty Canyon Trail. From Liberty Canyon, the Phantom Trail gains about 750′ in elevation over about 1.5 miles to a high point and ridgeline with excellent views of Saddleback Peak, Las Virgenes Canyon, Brents Mountain, Goat Buttes, Castro Peak, Ladyface, and Boney Mountain.

The air quality this morning hadn’t been too bad. From up on the ridge, I could see there was far less smoke to the west of Las Virgenes Canyon than to the east. Yesterday, I’d done a run in the eastern Santa Monica Mountains and had to cut the run short because of smoke. That wasn’t a problem today, and the run had been a good one.

Some related posts: Coast Redwoods Along the Forest Trail, Urban Highlands, Saddle Peak from the Phantom Trail

Red-tailed Hawk Encounter

The piercing gaze of a red-tailed hawk near the entrance to Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve
The piercing gaze of a red-tailed hawk.

Sometimes the behavior of wildlife is difficult to explain.

I’d just finished my run at Ahmanson (Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve) and was walking back to my car. I was about halfway between the dirt parking lot and entrance gate when suddenly, a large hawk swooped directly in front of me.

Incredibly, I was looking down on the bird! Banked to the left, it was below waist-level and turned around me like I was a pylon at an air race. It was so close I felt I could have reached out and touched its wing.

Time slowed as the bird flew past. I was awed by its size and studied the pattern of highlight-tinged brown feathers across its wings and back.

It landed on a wall to my left, about 15 feet away. I slowly removed my camera from my pack and, holding my breath, took a few photos.

It looks like it might be the same red-tailed hawk that carried a gopher snake to the top of a light pole here in April 2019.

Update August 14, 2020. I’ve replayed this encounter a number of times, and think I have a plausible explanation. As events unfolded there was a bit of commotion behind me, and after the hawk landed, some cawing off to my right. I suspect the hawk was being chased by a crow, and I was a convenient shield that could be used to break up the chase.

Some related posts: The First Snakes of Spring, Kestrel Encounter, A Raven Story

Kestrel Encounter

American kestrel on Lasky Mesa in Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve (Ahmanson Ranch)
American kestrel on Lasky Mesa

My weekday runs at Ahmanson Ranch will frequently include a dirt road on the east side of Lasky Mesa that is part of the Mary Wiesbrock Loop. There is a fence line along the road, and almost without fail, I’ll see a bird or two on the fence.

The most common fence-sitting birds on this stretch of road have been the Say’s phoebe, western kingbird, mourning dove, and lark sparrow. Occasionally, I’ve also seen a kestrel or northern harrier taking in the view.

While phoebes and kingbirds sometimes play bird games, hop-scotching from fence post to fence post, raptors are exceptionally wary and fly away at the slightest provocation.

Today, I was running down the road and spotted a dove-sized bird sitting on a fence post. As I approached, I could see that it was a kestrel and expected it to make a quick exit.

Slowing to a walk, I stopped directly across the road from the small falcon. It was about 20′ away, and didn’t take flight.

The only camera I had was my iPhone, so it had to do. I slowly took the phone out of my pack and tapped a camera app. The bird cooperated, and I took a few photos. But I wasn’t close enough.

Had the kestrel flown? I selected the 2X view. Still there. I took a couple more photos.

Finally, the falcon became impatient, and in a characteristic motion, jumped into flight.

This year I’ve seen kestrels on Lasky Mesa frequently, and suspect the mesa is about the right size for a mated pair’s territory.

Update August 5, 2020. The kestrels have been very wary lately, flying away just when I get within camera range. Here’s a photo of the male kestrel from this afternoon’s run.

Update July 30, 2020. I’ve seen at least one of the Kestrels just about every time I run on Lasky Mesa, but have been unable to approach anywhere near as close as described above. Here’s a photo of one of them perched on a fence post on the south side of Lasky Mesa. It was taken with the equivalent of a 230 mm telephoto lens. Based on its coloration in flight, it appeared to be a female.

Some related posts: American Kestrel Pair, Under a Falcon’s Eye, Bird Games, Red-tailed Hawk Encounter

American Kestrel Pair in Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve

American Kestrel Pair in Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve

Tuesday is usually a “short run day” for me. On Tuesdays, I usually run a mile or so west on East Las Virgenes Canyon fire road, and then fork left onto another dirt road that descends a short distance, and then climbs steeply up to Lasky Mesa. Once on Lasky Mesa, I check what’s blooming, crawling or flying in the area.

Today, as I was leaving Lasky Mesa, I scanned a grove of valley oaks for a pair of northern harriers I’ve been seeing on the mesa. I didn’t see the harriers, but another pair of much smaller raptors caught my eye.

The American kestrels were perched at the top of a valley oak tree, about 25 yards away. At that distance, they were difficult to positively ID, and nearly beyond the reach of my compact camera.

Usually a kestrel will fly from a perch as soon as it spots me, but this time the pair cooperated. I stopped running, grabbed the camera from my pack, and took a couple of photos. The female kestrel is perched above the male.

Related post: Under a Falcon’s Eye

Congregating Crows on Lasky Mesa

A few of the crows congregating on Lasky Mesa this Fall (2019)

Crows have been congregating on the west end of Lasky Mesa this Fall, and the number appears to be increasing. On a run earlier this week, a friend and I watched four crows chase a small bird — probably a kestrel — off the west side of the mesa.

Winter gatherings of crows are not uncommon. NPR recently aired a story about the problems created by thousands of Winter-roosting crows in Rochester, Minnesota. Closer to home, and on a smaller scale, in January 2017 I was astonished to see hundreds of crows circling about in Cheeseboro Canyon.

The Cheeseboro Canyon gathering was transient, and I hope the one on Lasky Mesa is temporary as well. Too many of the brash birds could adversely impact the limited number of kestrels and other notable birds that call Lasky Mesa home.

Follow-up on January 15, 2020. On several occasions have seen flocks of crows flying west from Lasky Mesa, toward Las Virgenes Canyon. When conditions permit, the crows use thermals to gain altitude and continue west. I’ve also noticed a general westerly flight trend of small groups of crows flying across Lasky Mesa. It may be that Lasky Mesa is a convenient waypoint on their way to a roosting/breeding location farther to the west.

Follow-up on January 3, 2020. Today, a kestrel was back in the valley oak on the west end of Lasky Mesa. No crows were nearby. Later in the run I came across a small group of crows pestering a pair of northern harriers.

Follow-up on December 24, 2019. Saw about 30 crows flying down the west side of Lasky Mesa and about 20 more in a nearby tree.

Follow-up on December 19, 2019. While I’ve seen some small groups of crows in the Lasky Mesa area this week, the large congregation appears to have dispersed.

Some related posts: Under a Falcon’s Eye, Bird Games, Crows in Cheeseboro Canyon, A Raven Story