Category Archives: wildlife

Curious Coyote

Curious coyote at Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve (Ahmanson Ranch)

This afternoon I was running down a single-track trail at Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve (Ahmanson Ranch), when I noticed a coyote on a parallel track across a small ravine. From time to time I would stop and watch the coyote, and from time to time it would pause and watch me. After a few minutes, it went its way, and I went mine.

Earlier in the run I’d been in the same area when a coyote, running at full speed,  came blasting down a single-track trail. It turned into the brush about 30 yards in front of me. I’d seen similar behavior once before when one coyote was chasing another. In this case a hiker followed the coyote down the trail. In my experience, it usually take more than a simple encounter with a hiker to panic a coyote.

Coyote at Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve (Ahmanson Ranch)
Another curious coyote. Click for a larger image.

Update February 18, 2021. The coyote pictured on the right was in the same area as the coyote in the title photo. When I first encountered the coyote, it had just crossed the trail and was below me. For some reason it reversed its course and climbed to a viewpoint above me, and watched as I ran up the trail. After a few moments it ran back down hill, retracing its original course across the trail. It was one of the most well-conditioned coyotes I’ve seen out at Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve (Ahmanson Ranch).

I have had a couple of unusual encounters with coyotes out at Ahmanson. One time, a coyote decided to run with me, as if on a leash.

Some related posts: Coyote Tag, Coyote Tag II, Coyotes Are Curious Creatures

A Windy Run, Walk, Ride, for Wildlife Research

Boney Mountain and Serrano Valley from Overlook Fire Road
Boney Mountain and Serrano Valley from Overlook Fire Road.

The Overlook Fire Road in Pt. Mugu State Park was nearly empty. I’d seen only two hikers between the top of the Fireline Trail and the top of the Wood Canyon Vista Trail. Maybe it was the wind. There had been 20-25 mph wind gusts much of the morning. Along the ridgelines, the gusts were even stronger.

Run, Walk, Ride 2020

I’d picked Pt. Mugu State Park to do a run in support of the Santa Monica Mountains Fund’s Run, Walk, Ride, for Wildlife Research. Many mountain lions have included Pt. Mugu State Park in their home range, including P-1, the patriarch of the mountain lions in the Santa Monica Mountains study.

According to the NPS website, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is the world’s largest urban national park. Wildlife in the Park is affected by issues resulting from the proximity of urban and wild areas. Among the problems are poisoning from anticoagulant rodenticides, limited genetic diversity, and vehicular deaths. Only by studying Park wildlife can we better understand and manage these and other issues.

Because water is usually available at several spots in Sycamore Canyon, it’s a great place to do a self-supported ultra-length trail run.

A very windy Pacific and the Ray Miller segment of the Backbone Trail
A very windy Pacific

So far, today’s run had taken me from Wendy Drive in Newbury Park to Serrano Valley via the Old Boney Trail. I’d circled past the old ranch in Serrano Valley and then descended the Serrano Canyon Trail to Sycamore Canyon. A short jog south in Sycamore Canyon put me at the bottom of the Fireline Trail, which I’d followed up to the Overlook fire road.

Next up was a scenic loop in La Jolla Valley. After that, I would work my way back to the Upper Sycamore Trail via Sycamore Canyon. From there, it would only be a few miles back to the Wendy Drive Trailhead.

The Santa Mountain Mountains Trails Council has been hard at work. Even though they can’t currently accept volunteer assistance, it looked like the Old Boney, Serrano Canyon, and Upper Sycamore Trails had been recently maintained.

Some related posts: It’s Raining Mountain Lion Tracks!; Mountain Lion Tracks on Rocky Peak Road; Mountain Lion Saga; Reagan Ranch Bobcat; Hawk, Bobcat and Rabbit

Northern Harrier on Lasky Mesa

Male Northern Harrier on Lasky Mesa in Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve
Northern Harrier on Lasky Mesa

I turned the corner, and about 60 yards away, a large, gray hawk was perched on a fencepost. It looked like it might be a male northern harrier. I stopped and snapped a couple of photos. If it flew away, at least I would be able to confirm the ID.

I was running on Lasky Mesa, a unique oak and grassland area in Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve. Better known as Ahmanson Ranch, the area is adjacent to West Hills, a suburb of Los Angeles. The open space park is a haven for several species of raptors, including red-tailed hawks, American kestrels, northern harriers and white-tailed kites.

In my experience, northern harriers are shy birds, and in most of my previous encounters, the birds have been on the wing. Moving closer, I walked a few steps, took a photo, walked a few more steps, then took another shot. Astonishingly, I was only about 20 yards from the bird, and it did not fly.

That’s when I heard the fast-paced footfalls of another runner approaching from behind. I held my breath and continued to photograph the harrier. Whether spooked by my presence or the approaching runner, the bird had had enough, and he finally took flight.

Northern harriers, and harriers in general, are unusual birds. They have evolved to subsist in open areas such as grasslands and marshes. Their physical features reflect the requirements of efficiently hunting in these habitats.

Northern harriers are adapted to use vision and sound to hunt their prey. Like owls, they have a facial ruff and asymmetric ears that are used to amplify and locate sounds made by prey. They also are reported to have feather adaptations for flying more quietly.

They are powerful, acrobatic birds. Their wings and tail are extraordinarily large for their body size. In aerodynamic terms, they use variable geometry to maximize lift or glide as needed. In slow flight, they can turn on a dime, leaving virtual skid marks in the sky. During strong Santa Ana winds, I’ve seen them dynamically soaring (like an albatross) on slightly-sloped Lasky Mesa.

Previously, I photographed a pair of northern harriers hunting on Lasky Mesa after sunset. It was a surreal experience to watch them in the diminishing light. They appeared to be working cooperatively, and their hunt was successful.

Some related posts: Northern Harrier Turning to Strike, Another Red-tailed Hawk Encounter, Kestrel Encounter

Another Red-tailed Hawk Encounter

Partially camouflaged red-tailed hawk in a valley oak

The afternoon was full of Fall. Oak leaves danced in a cool breeze, their shadows producing a familiar speckled pattern of shadow and sun, shadow and sun.

I was running northeast along the margin of Lasky Mesa in Upper Las VIrgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve, enjoying the Fall weather and smoke-free sky. I’d just passed a valley oak along the dirt road, when a thought bubbled up from my subconscious and asked, “Did you see what I saw in that tree?”

I stopped, turned around, and walked the few steps back to the oak tree.

Just feet from the road, partially camouflaged by oak leaves and shadows, was a red-tailed hawk. It seemed surprised, if not indignant, to have been discovered. I was equally astonished to have seen the bird.

Red-tailed hawk with a just-killed field mouse or other small rodent
Red-tailed hawk with its prey – a small mouse.

The pattern of its plumage now made perfect sense. The hawk had been nearly invisible while feet away and in plain sight. I took one more photo, and then left the bird to its reverie.

I smiled as I ran down the road, and wondered if this was the same hawk that had buzzed me in Red-tailed Hawk Encounter.

Update November 14, 2020. Was near the spot where the encounter described above occurred and photographed a red-tailed hawk with a small rodent it had just killed. Since it’s in the same area, it may be the same bird.

Chumash-Las Llajas Loop

Rocky Peak Fire Road between the Chumash Trail and Fossil Point
Rocky Peak Fire Road between the Chumash Trail and Fossil Point

Update of a post from December 30, 2006.

The Chumash-Las Llajas Loop is a scenic 9.3 mile trail run in the eastern Simi Valley. Run counterclockwise, it combines a  strenuous climb on a single-track trail and fire road with a fast-paced 4-mile downhill on a dirt road. The cumulative elevation gain/loss on the loop is about 1600′.

View of Oat Mountain from near the top of the Chumash Trail.
Nearing the top of the Chumash Trail

I like to do the loop starting at the Las Llajas Canyon trailhead on Evening Sky Drive. A short jog up Evening Sky Dr., then across a field, and you’re on your way up the Chumash Trail. From this point, it’s an approximately 1000′ climb over 2.7 miles of rocky trail to Rocky Peak fire road.

After turning left (north) on Rocky Peak fire road, a short downhill is followed by three-quarters of a mile of climbing to “Fossil Point.” A short detour off the main fire road leads to a cairn marking the high point. From here there is a panoramic view of Oat Mountain, San Fernando Valley, San Gabriel Mountains, Santa Monica Mountains, Simi Valley, Boney Mountain, Channel Islands, and Ventura Mountains.

Exposures of fossil shells are found near the high point. According to the area’s Dibblee geology map, these may have been deposited in shallow marine lagoons a couple million years ago.

From the high point, the loop continues north on Rocky Peak Road. At first, it descends steeply, then climbs to a hilltop with a few valley oaks. Partway up the hill, a roadcut reveals the long roots of the chamise plants on the hillside.

Road connecting Rocky Peak Road to Las Llajas Canyon.
Road connecting Rocky Peak Road to Las Llajas Canyon.

Following a short downhill, the road continues past a fallen valley oak killed by the 2011-2015 drought. There is a fork in the road here. The road connecting to Las Llajas Canyon goes up a short hill to an overlook of the canyon. From the top of the hill, there are more than 4 miles of downhill through the winding canyon. There used to be oil field equipment on the connector between Rocky Peak Rd. and Las Llajas Canyon, but it has been removed.

If the creek in the canyon is flowing, there are several places where the (usually) small stream crosses the road. In the Spring and early Summer, many species of wildflowers can be found in the canyon.

Cattle on the Las Llajas Loop
Cattle on the Las Llajas Loop

Some of the wildlife, and not-so-wild animals, I’ve encountered on the loop include rattlesnakes and other snakes, deer, longhorn cattle, roadrunners, and a kangaroo rat. Although others have seen mountain lions in the area, I’ve only photographed their tracks.

The loop ends with a short, steep climb up a paved road. At the top of the hill, turn left to return to the trailhead.

Here’s a 3D, interactive view of a GPS trace of my usual route. (It is also possible to start the loop at the Chumash Trail trailhead at the end of Flanagan Dr.)

The title photo is a section of Rocky Peak fire road between the top of the Chumash Trail and Fossil Point. It is from a run on October 6, 2020.

Some related posts: Chumash Trail Rocks & Snow, Exploring Las Llajas, Marr Ranch WildflowersThings Found on the Chumash Trail

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