Category Archives: wildlife

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 November 16, 2020. I’ve been encountering an unusual number of red-tailed hawks this Fall, or maybe encountering the same hawk several times. See Another Red-tailed Hawk Encounter for additional photos.

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

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.