Category Archives: nature|wildlife

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.

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Black-hooded Parakeets in Big Sycamore Canyon

Black-hooded Parakeets (Nandayus nenday) in Big Sycamore Canyon

Indigenous to Southeastern Bolivia, southwestern Brazil, Paraguay and northern Argentina, much of the information on the web about the Black-hooded Parakeet appears to originate from these papers by Kimball L. Garrett:

POPULATION STATUS AND DISTRIBUTION OF NATURALIZED PARROTS IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

POPULATION TRENDS AND ECOLOGICAL ATTRIBUTES OF INTRODUCED PARROTS, DOVES AND FINCHES IN CALIFORNIA

The raucous calls of these parrots can be heard throughout Big Sycamore Canyon. This pair was near the Danielson Multi Use Area.

From yesterday’s run from Wendy Drive to the Chamberlain Trail.

Update March 28, 2017. Here’s another pair of the Nanday Conures photographed on a recent run in Malibu Creek State Park along Crags Road east of Century Lake.

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Big Bird, Little Bird

Red-tailed hawk and flycatcher in Blue Canyon, Pt. Mugu State Park

Running along the recently repaired Blue Canyon Trail, I stopped to photograph a hillside of poppies. The shrieking, piercing cry sounded like it was just a few feet above me, and reflexively I ducked and looked upward. A large red-tailed hawk flew from the top of a sycamore tree to another tree. Just as I started to relax, there was another shriek, and another red-tail flew from the same tree.

These were loud, aggressive calls and reminded me of an unusual encounter some years ago with a red-shouldered hawk and a bobcat. Noting the nest at the top of the tree I assumed the birds were upset that I stopped by their tree. I snapped a quick picture of one of the red-tails and headed on down the trail.

As with the encounter with the red-shouldered hawk, there was an edge to calls of the red-tails that seemed urgent, and it wasn’t until I examined the photos later I saw their ire might have been directed at something else.

The silhouette of the smaller bird looks like it might be a flycatcher — maybe a western kingbird. Red-tails are the star cruisers of the local bird world and it’s not unusual to see smaller birds harass them relentlessly like so many X-wing fighters.

According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds, “Western Kingbirds are aggressive and will scold and chase intruders (including Red-tailed Hawks and American Kestrels) with a snapping bill and flared crimson feathers they normally keep hidden under their gray crowns.” A search online found numerous reports of kingbirds harassing red-tail hawks.

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Winter Colony of Crows in Cheeseboro Canyon

Winter colony of crows in Cheeseboro Canyon

With a storm approaching and rain only an hour or two away, I’d been debating where to turn around. I’d just climbed the steep hill between Upper Las Virgenes Canyon and Cheeseboro Ridge and decided to continue down to Cheeseboro Canyon. As I drew closer to the trail’s junction with Cheeseboro Canyon, I began to hear a cacophony of cawing crows.

At the junction crows literally filled the sky (video). It seemed the call was out and crows were coming from all directions to join the flock.

Though I’d never seen such a large aggregation in Cheeseboro Canyon, it is common for the American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) to form large foraging and roosting flocks in winter. Winter is tough on animals and isn’t surprising that the social and intelligent crow would cope with Winter in this cooperative fashion.

Leaving the crows behind I started the trip back to the Victory trailhead. It would take about an hour and I hoped the rain didn’t get there before I did!

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Strawberry Peak, Switzer’s and the Old Colby Trail

Strawberry Peak and Colby Canyon
Strawberry Peak and Colby Canyon

The Colby Canyon Trail is one of the historic trails of the San Gabriel Mountains. When Switzer Camp was established in 1884, Colby Canyon was an irresistible gateway leading deeper into the wilderness. The compelling and sometimes snow-covered peak at its head was one of Switzer’s many attractions.

Jason and Owen Brown (1884). Photo: Los Angeles Public LIbrary
Jason and Owen Brown (1884). Photo: Los Angeles Public LIbrary

In the History of Pasadena Hiram A. Reid recounts the story of how the peak was named in 1886 “by some wags at Switzer’s camp” because of its resemblance to a strawberry. He goes on to describe how one of them irreverently added, “We called it Strawberry peak because there weren‘t any strawberries on it.”

While Strawberry may have been climbed previously, the establishment of Switzer’s made it possible to climb the peak recreationally. In Early Mountain Ascents in the San Gabriels (100 PEAKS Lookout, Jul-Aug 1971) John Robinson notes an 1887 ascent of Strawberry Peak by Owen and Jason Brown — sons of abolitionist John Brown. Robinson describes the “Brown Boys” as the first local “peak baggers.”

Colby Canyon and Arroyo Seco from high on Strawberry Peak.
Colby Canyon and Arroyo Seco from Strawberry Peak.

Climbing Strawberry via Colby Canyon has been a long-time favorite. Last Saturday I’d done Strawberry via Colby Canyon as part of loop — ascending the Colby Canyon Trail to Josephine Saddle, climbing over Strawberry Peak, running down to Red Box and then down the Gabrieleno Trail to Switzer’s. A 0.3 mile connection along Angeles Crest Highway completed the route.

Today I did a variation of the same loop, this time bypassing Josephine Saddle and following (more or less) the route of the old Colby Trail up the ridge at the head of Colby Canyon to Strawberry’s main west ridge.

Overview of the route of the old Colby Trail from Strawberry Peak
Overview of the route of the old Colby Trail

As shown on this USGS Tujunga topo map from 1900, a century ago the Colby Trail was much more direct. It linked Switzer’s Camp in upper Arroyo Seco to the Colby Ranch and other ranches and holdings in Big Tujunga Canyon. It was a much shorter alternative to the roundabout route that ascended to the head of Arroyo Seco (then Long Canyon), and then continued past present day Red Box to Barley Flats and down to Wickiup Canyon. More on the history of Colby Ranch and Big Tujunga Canyon can be found in the Winter 1938 edition of Trails Magazine (12.6 MB PDF).

Ridge that was the route of the old Colby Trail.
Ridge that was the route of the old Colby Trail.

A well-used game trail wanders up “Colby” ridge, but the path is far from ideal and not always distinct. Our four-legged friends don’t necessarily follow one path, especially where the route is steep and loose. Deer are well-suited to this kind of terrain, their long, skinny legs being perfect for following an overgrown path lined with thorny buck brush. In a couple of places there were short segments of trail that look like they might be remnants of the trail indicated on the 1900 topo.

Bear tracks on the west side of Strawberry Peak.
Bear tracks on the west side of Strawberry Peak.

It’s easy to understand why the old route on the ridge was abandoned; the route to Josephine Saddle is far better and MUCH faster!

These sections of the 1934 Mt. Lowe Quadrangle advance sheet and 1939 Mt. Lowe Quadrangle shows the dramatic changes in the area with the construction of Angeles Crest Highway (LRN 61) between La Canada and Colby Canyon. The 1934 sheet shows the reroute of the Colby Canyon Trail to Josephine Saddle and then contouring around Strawberry, as well as the trails along the west and east ridges of Strawberry and connecting from Lawlor Saddle to Colby Ranch. The updated 1939 sheet includes the Josephine Fire Lookout and the Josephine Fire Road.

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