Category Archives: wildlife

Mt. Pinos Adventure Run to Mesa Spring

Mesa Spring Trail near the top of San Emigdio Mesa
Mesa Spring Trail near the top of San Emigdio Mesa.

For many that enjoy the outdoors, there is an insatiable desire to go where we have not been, learn what we do not know, and discover what we have not experienced.

Each time I’ve done the out and back trail run from Mt. Pinos to Mt. Abel, I’ve been curious about the Mesa Spring Trail. The trail leaves the Tumamait Trail at Puerto del Suelo, a saddle about 0.6 mile east of Mt. Abel Road, and descends to a campsite at a spring on the margin of San Emigdio Mesa. The mesa is the large alluvial fan shown on this Google Terrain Map overview.

The Mesa Spring Trail is part of an old trail shown on the USGS 1903 Mt. Pinos topo map. The old trail was part of a route that connected the Cuyama River to the historic El Camino Viejo a Los Ángeles. It followed Dry Canyon, went over Puerto del Suelo, and to the valley that is now the Pine Mountain Club. Like so many trails, it must have evolved from a hunting and trade route.

Google Terrain map showing San Emigdio Mesa and my route from Mt. Pinos
Google Terrain map showing San Emigdio Mesa and my route from Mt. Pinos

The Mesa Spring Trail is usually accessed from the West Tumamait Trailhead on Mt. Abel Road. But it occurred to me that starting at the East Tumamait Trailhead on Mt. Pinos might be an enjoyable way to do a longer out and back run. The Mesa Spring Trail looked like it might be similar to the North Fork Trail — a little less used and a bit more remote.

I left the Chula Vista parking area a little before 7:00 a.m. and started chugging up the road to the East Tumamait Trailhead at the Mt. Pinos Condor Observation Site. I planned to skip the usual side trips to Sawmill and Grouse. The spring was at a much lower elevation, and I wanted to get there before the temperature sizzled.

Once on the Vincent Tumamait Trail, it took a little over an hour to reach the top of the Mesa Spring Trail. The junction is marked with a new sign and tree branches on the ground. It is about 5.7 miles from the Mt. Pinos parking area.

Plant communities change dramatically with elevation.
Plant communities change dramatically with elevation. This Jeffrey pine forest is at about 7000′.

The first couple of miles down from the junction, the trail more or less follows the drainage. About 10 minutes from the junction, a large pine tree had fallen and completely blocked the trail. I worked around the right (west) side of the tree, where some orange fence posts had been placed. A few minutes beyond the collapsed tree, the trail wandered around the right side of a pretty meadow and then back to the “V” of the dry stream.

For the next mile or so, the trail followed a typical down-canyon route. On the way down, there were some spots where I stopped, turned around, and made a mental note of what the trail did. It wasn’t so much a matter of getting lost, as it was not wasting time at an ambiguous spot on the way back.

About 2.3 miles down from the saddle, the trail climbed out of the canyon, taking a counterintuitive turn to the right. After reaching a ridgeline, the trail turned back left and continued downhill. But its wanderings were not over. The trail was working across the gullies at the top of the San Emigdio Mesa. It went up, down, and around, but eventually did go to Mesa Spring. There were “ducks” marking the route, but it really helped to have looked at a map and have a general idea of where the trail would go.

Mesa Spring is on the northern margin of San Emigdio Mesa.
Mesa Spring is on the northern margin of San Emigdio Mesa.

Mesa Spring is a pretty green spot in a group of pinyon pines. As I neared the spring, I saw some coyote-like ears bobbing through the sagebrush, and not long after that, a deer bounded through the trees. At the spring, a squirrel leaped from the edge of the water-filled cistern to a nearby tree and various birds flittered in the pines. I heard a trickle of water near the cistern’s base but planned to get water at Sheep Camp, later in the run.

With its bounty of pinyon pine nuts, acorns, juniper berries, game, and more, San Emigdio Mesa provided vital resources for the local Chumash.

Although the Mesa Spring Trail continues down the mesa, the spring was my turnaround point. I had waited for a day when the weather was better for this run. A weak low-pressure trough moving through to the north had stirred up a little wind and taken the edge off the recent heatwave. It had been cool on the crest, but at 6000′ it was already hot in the sun. It was time to get moving, and in a few minutes, I was retracing my steps and headed back to Mt. Pinos.

With a stop at Sheep Camp, the run & hike worked out to about 20 miles, with an elevation gain of around 4700′. Here are a few photos taken along the way, and an interactive 3D view of the trail run.

Some related posts: Mt. Pinos to Mt. Abel Out & Back – Plus Sawmill Mountain, Grouse Mountain and Sheep Camp, Up, Down and Around on Mt. Pinos’ Tumamait and North Fork Trails

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

Ahmanson Trailhead Rattlesnake

Southern Pacific rattlesnake at the Victory Trailhead of Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve.

I pressed the START/STOP button on my Garmin watch and started to walk over to the horse/hiker entrance at the Victory Trailhead of Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve (Ahmanson Ranch). This “end of an Ahmanson run” routine is something that I repeat around 150 times a year. It’s so routine, it’s rote. I’m not thinking about rocks or ruts, or how far I have to go. It’s a time I can relax and reflect on the run, the weather, or whatever.

Continuing toward the trailhead entry, I pulled the water bottle from my pack. Lifting my head to take a drink, and still on auto, I began to step over the first of two large wooden beams forming the entrance.

Some primitive, protective mechanism recognized the threat before I did, and I stopped mid-stride. Then it registered — a sizable Southern Pacific rattlesnake was undulating through the boxed-in area between the two beams of the entryway.

Moving quickly through the entry and into the grass, the snake barely reacted to me. With single-minded resolution, it continued on a beeline toward the brushy area near the trailhead. A single shake of its rattle was all the bother I was worth. Here’s a short video of the rattlesnake.

California kingsnake in Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve, a.k.a. Ahmanson Ranch.
California kingsnake

Surprisingly, this was the first rattlesnake I’ve seen this year at Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve . I’ve seen numerous gopher snakes, a couple of California kingsnakes, a California whipsnake, and the tracks of many rattlesnakes, but no actual rattlesnakes. Others have described various rattlesnake encounters at Ahmanson — one friend saw three on one ride!

Note: Most of these snakes were old enough to have survived the November 8, 2019, Woolsey Fire.

Some related posts: The First Snakes of Spring, Big Southern Pacific Rattlesnake at Ahmanson Ranch, Southern Pacific Rattlesnake

Tarantula Hawk with a Tarantula

Tarantula hawk with a paralyzed tarantula.
Tarantula hawk wasp drags her hapless prey to her burrow.

I was running down a narrow trail at Ahmanson Ranch, concentrating on the irregular terrain, when I suddenly found myself jumping over something on the trail. As my consciousness caught up, it asked,

“Was that a tarantula?”

“What tarantula has a stripe of orange on its back?”

Landing, I stopped and looked back up the trail. Totally unperturbed, a female tarantula hawk wasp, its bright orange wings gleaming in the sun, was diligently working to move its paralyzed prey to a nearby burrow.

The quintessential elements of a nightmare, I watched as the large wasp assessed the huge spider. I could hear the question as she turned away from the spider, and then reading the ground with her feet and antennae, determined if she could drag the beast uphill over a small bump. Then, question answered, she proceeded to do so.

Here’s a 30 second video of the wasp with the spider.

Related post: Tarantula Hawk, Sting of the Tarantula Hawk, September and October are Tarantula Months