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.
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.
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.
When I left the house to drive over to Ahmanson Ranch, the temperature in West Hills was 92 °F. It had been five months since it was that warm.
It’s been my experience that the first hot weather of Spring is often associated with an uptick of snake sightings. Over the past seven days or so, I’d seen a very young rattlesnake and a couple of small gopher snakes, but so far, that was it. With the warm weather, I thought I might see a snake on my run today, I just didn’t expect it to be in this manner.
Lost in thought, I was just about to the entrance of Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve (aka Ahmanson Ranch) when I was startled by a large red-tailed hawk flying from right to left directly in front of me. Something long was dangling from its talons.
I stopped and watched as the raptor, fumbling with a large snake, awkwardly flew onto the top of a street light. The snake was dangling precariously from the light, and the bird seemed to be having a little trouble holding it.
The snake looked relatively heavy-bodied, and at the time I thought it might be a rattlesnake. That brought to mind a story of a hawk somehow dropping a rattlesnake into a car. However improbable, I didn’t want to approach the hawk and frighten it. I have enough problems with rattlesnakes on the ground and don’t need them falling from the sky.
I got what photos I could with my phone and headed out for a run.
You know how it is when you’ve seen a snake — anything sinuous on the trail sets off the brain’s snake alert. During my run I saw a couple of stick snakes, but no real ones. Finishing my run, I pressed the Start/Stop button on my watch and started walking across the parking lot.
What? I squinted my eyes… Was the hawk still perched on the street light? No way, more than an hour had passed!
Continuing across the parking lot, I could see the hawk was still there, but where was the snake?
Cautiously, I approached the light post. I didn’t want to agitate the hawk or stumble onto an upset rattlesnake.
Sometime during my run, the hawk had dropped the snake — a gopher snake — and was waiting to retrieve it. It lay upside down on the street — sans its head. Rattlesnake or not, the hawk had removed the dangerous bit first.
I’ll be curious to see if the snake is still in the street tomorrow.
Update April 11, 2019. The following day (Tuesday) no trace of the snake remained, but the red-tailed hawk was still there — perched on an adjacent street light. On Wednesday the bird was gone.
Nearly to the top of the Beast, I was thinking how scraggly the valley oak at the top of the hill looked when my thoughts were interrupted by the cacophonous cawing of a raven perched in that tree. For the purpose of this story, let’s call him (or her) Ed.
That Ed would be in an oak tree, clamoring away, wasn’t so unusual. Ravens are loquacious birds that always seem to have something to say. As I crested the hill I mimicked his vocalizations, and in so many words, we exchanged greetings.
I ran past the oak, expecting Ed to quiet down, but the exclamations continued behind me. After a few seconds Ed flew past, toward the trailless center of Lasky Mesa — caw, cawing all the way.
I expected that would be the last I would see of Ed, and thought how unusual his behavior had been. His pronouncements were very persistent and seemed very urgent.
I continued to run on the dirt road on the south side of the mesa. As I ran, I watched Ed flying above the grass and brush about 70 yards to my left. His flying was a little erratic and he continued to caw. Crazy bird…
As I watched, Ed turned and started flying toward me. At first I thought, “Interesting.” He was some distance away and I thought surely he would turn. But he continued to fly directly at me, ranting all the way.
I stopped running. Ed had not changed course and was making a beeline for me. He was flying lower than usual, and I began to wonder if I should be concerned. Was this bird OK?
Spellbound, I watched the bird’s intentioned approach and was astonished when Ed swooped past me and deftly landed on a “Restoration Area” sign three or four feet from where I was standing.
Ravens are BIG birds, and I started to talk to this one like it was a black lab.
“What’s wrong big guy?”
“What are you trying to tell me?”
The raven watched me, repeatedly cawing, cawing, cawing. Clearly he was concerned; clearly he was trying to tell me something. I just did not understand.
In a rush of feathers, Ed took flight. He crossed the road, flew back over the brush ahead of me and to my left, and swooped low to the ground.
And that’s when the coyote burst from the brush in front of me and scurried across the road, Ed in chase.
I shook my head and grinned. Ed had been trying to tell me there was a predator nearby!
It’s common for birds and other animals to sound an alert or even pester a predator, but Ed had behaved more like a devoted dog worried about his friend.
Animals often have stories to tell, we just have to listen.
I was in that other-world you can reach when running, lost in thought and dreaming of dreams. As I approached the valley oak on the western edge of Lasky Mesa, I wondered if the tree was going to survive. Even though last Winter had been wet, it had been a hot summer, and this once-elegant star of TV and film was still struggling with the deleterious effects of five years of drought. Leaves grew in clusters along its spindly limbs as if it had been burned in a wildfire.
Nearly under the scraggly valley oak, I slowed to a walk to look at it more closely. Glancing upward I did a double-take… Perched on a bare limb at the top of the tree was a small raptor. So small, that it had to be an American kestrel.
Kestrels are extremely wary birds with acute vision, and I was surprised it had not flown as I had run toward the tree. I’ve seen and heard kestrels many times at Ahmanson Ranch, but never this closely. The diminutive falcon was only about 15′ above me. My camera was in my pack and just about any movement was going to spook the bird.
Ever so slowly, I turned my back to the bird and walked a few steps away from the tree. Wishing I had eyes in the back of my head, I carefully removed my camera from my waist pack, turned it on, made sure it was set correctly, and partially extended the zoom lens. Turning back toward the tree, I expected the falcon to be gone, but it had not flown.
I took a set of bracketed photos and then another. I needed to be a little closer. I took two or three slow steps toward the tree. As I raised the camera, the female kestrel — burnt orange across the back and upper wings — had had enough. With a powerful stroke of her wings she turned and leapt to flight, once again leaving me to my thoughts.
Dusk is a dangerous time. Death glides through the shadows, stealthy and quiet. Retreat to your burrow, stop munching those sprouts, silent wings and sharp talons are out and about.
It was after sunset and I was in the last miles of a run at Ahmanson Ranch. A few minutes earlier I’d noticed a pair of northern harriers crisscrossing the grasslands of Lasky Mesa. Now on the east side of the mesa, with the light fading, I saw them again. This time they were flying together — one in lead and one in trail — and making a low, sweeping pass, just a few feet off the ground.
Northern harriers have an owl-like facial ruff, and can hunt using sound, as well as vision. Obviously hunting for prey, they continuously made small adjustments to their flight paths, overflying one interesting spot and then another. There were calls between the birds — a dialog seemingly related to the hunt.
Was that movement? I’ll check. No. Did you check there? Yes.