Category Archives: birds

The First Snakes of Spring

Red-tailed hawk with gopher snake at Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve (aka Ahmanson Ranch).

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.

Red-tailed hawk waiting to retrieve a dropped gopher snake at Ahmanson Ranch.
Red-tailed hawk waiting to retrieve a dropped gopher snake.

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.

A Raven Story

The Flying Raven, Ex Libris for The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe,1875, Édouard Manet, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Flying Raven, Ex Libris for The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe,1875, Édouard Manet, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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.

Related post: Hawk, Bobcat and Rabbit

Under a Falcon’s Eye

An American Kestrel (female) at Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve.

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.

Hummingbird Stories

Annas hummingbird on showy penstemon, near Eagle Rock in the Santa Monica Mountains

Even though it was Summer, it was cold. Except for the clinking of our climbing gear, it was still and quiet at 13,000 ft. The sun had not yet risen, and I was perched on an icy step just below the bergschrund of Palisade Glacier. Tom had just crossed the large crevasse, and the brightly colored red rope ran through my hands as he worked up the ice of U-Notch couloir.

After a few moments, the rope stopped. My view of Tom on the steep ice slope above was obscured by the lip of the bergschrund, but from the clanking of the ice screws, it sounded like Tom had paused to put in some pro. It was early in the climb, and while keeping tabs on what was happening above, I surveyed the glacier below.

Even if the glacier was minuscule by Pacific Northwest standards, it was the largest in the Sierra Nevada, and my first “real” glacier. Most of the snow on its surface had melted, exposing the gray glacier ice. Also uncovered were parallel crevasses where the ice had flexed over a buried ridge or projection and cracked. We had bivied on the glacier just for the experience, peering into turquoise blue crevasses, and listening to its creaks and groans.

Now in the brightening light, my gaze followed the ice-sculpted canyons down into the Owens Valley and then across to the Inyo Mountains, along whose crest the sun would soon emerge.

What the — suddenly there was a loud buzzing at my ear, and in the second it took to identify the sound, a hummingbird landed on the climbing rope, just a few inches from my gloved hand. I stayed as still as possible and hoped Tom would not move. Curious eye met curious eye and we just pondered each other, asking in so many words, “What are you doing here?”

On another Sierra climbing excursion, Phil and I were hiking from the South Fork Kings, over the Monarch Divide, to the turrets in the Gorge of Despair. On a late summer morning, in a high, gilia-covered meadow, we paused to take some photos of wildflowers. There was much buzzing about the meadow and several hummingbirds.

Watching the activity, we stood in awe as a pair of hummingbirds flew at ground level from opposite ends of the meadow. Just feet above the wildflowers, they flew directly at each other, meeting in the middle of the meadow and then zooming upward together in a frenzy of flight. The pair then circled back and repeated the maneuver.

My most recent hummingbird encounter was Saturday at Stoney Point. I had done my usual circuit through the array of massive sandstone rocks, stopping at various boulders to do particular rock climbing moves. Earlier, I had watched some rabbits “playing chase” with a ground squirrel. I say “playing” because that’s what it looked like. Neither animal appeared particularly concerned, and the squirrel would weave and wind, running first from one rabbit and then another.

I had worked around to the back of Stoney Point and had just passed Maggie’s corridor.  I heard buzzing and the familiar “tsk-tsk” of an upset hummingbird, followed by the equally familiar warning whistle of a ground squirrel. Hummingbirds are territorial, and I just assumed that I had stumbled upon some kind of weird territorial dispute. I looked for the hummingbird and for a moment did not see it. The squirrel whistled again, this time very near. This was odd. A squirrel will usually dive for cover when a threat is close.

Then I saw the hummingbird. It was about three feet away, backlit by the sun, and perched in the bare branches at the top of a sumac bush. As I watched, it continued to “tsk-tsk” its concerns. Then, in an explosive intake and expulsion of air that very briefly swelled its body, it expelled the loud warning note that I had mistaken to be the warning whistle of a squirrel!

The title photo is of a male Anna’s hummingbird on showy penstemon, near Eagle Rock in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Related post: Bigberry Manzanita – A Hummingbird Hotel