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