In January of this year, HMANA continued its guided raptor field trips by exploring the Antelope Valley of southern California. Home to Edwards Air Force Base, north of Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Mountains, exotic airplanes are not the only birds that call this desert area home.
Trip leaders and HMANA board members Luke Tiller and Tom Reed were able to put the group of 10 participants on 20 different wintering raptor species over our five-day journey. Despite the challenges of some stormy weather Luke, a resident birder, and guide, also got us on another 150 or so California species which proved to be a real treat for the crew of primarily Eastern and mid-Western birders.
Up close and personal, California Condor was the major highlight of the trip, which also included several Golden Eagle and Bald Eagles, a White-tailed Kite zipping around Lake Elizabeth, Ferruginous Hawks in the valley, a couple of different morphs Rough-legs, several other morphs Red Tails, and some close-up Red Shoulder Hawks.
We started the trip with a visit to the Ballona Creek jetty in Marina Del Rey, which provided us our first raptor, with good views of a Peregrine Falcon actively stirring up the smaller birds along the nearby beach. Easterners were also treated to an excellent array of Western diversity, including Wandering Tattlers, Black Oystercatchers, Black Turnstones, Brandt’s Cormorant, Eared and Western Grebes Heermann’s, Glaucous-wing, Western and California Gulls and Royal and Caspian Terns, to name a few.
Day one concluded with the spectacle of the parrot roosts in Pasadena, where we were treated to the sounds and sights of hundreds of loud Red-crowned, Yellow-headed, and a few Lilac-crowned parrots coming to roost. What a show!
Day two upped our raptor viewing with a beautifully perched Prairie Falcon in the valley, excellent views of a rufous-morph Red Tail, and several wonderful close fly-bys of a dark morph Ferruginous Hawk. At the same time, we watched a Great Horned Owl watching us from a nearby grove of trees. Later in the valley, we also found a few elusive Mountain Plover.
Day three provided us the highlight of the trip when we visited the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge. Bitter Creek is the keystone of the historical condor range and is now one of the primary condor release sights. Closed to the public, HMANA was fortunate to gain access to the 14,000-acre site and was to be provided a day of viewing from their private condor platform in hopes of spotting some distant soaring birds. However, as we drove through the hillside and before we got close to the platform, we had a small flock of eight California Condor begin to rise from the valley right in front of our group. This dramatic yet friendly group of magnificent birds circled low and slow at eye level and low over our heads for over an hour, providing for some awe-inspiring and jaw-dropping encounters. Most of the time, they were too close for photographs, so it was best just to put down the camera and watch in awe and feel them checking us out as intently as we were looking at them.
It was explained that this is an unusual sighting but not unexpected as three condors had just been released to the wild in this area. Being social creatures, they were joined by other condors to help them adjust to their newfound freedom. There was now no need to visit the viewing platform as we could not have scripted a more remarkable or memorable encounter.
The day continued with excellent sightings of two different morph wintering Rough-leg Hawks, some Harriers, another encounter with a pair of Condors identified as breeding pair black-70 and white-80, and a Golden Eagle that flew right in front of our cars. A few minutes later, we watched a territorial dive-bomb or two between this Golden Eagle and the condors.
On day five, the rain parted just long enough for us to enjoy a wonderful trip to the Tejon Ranch, the largest private ranch in California featuring a whopping 270,000 acres. Much of this ranch is undeveloped and in conservation which provides excellent habitat for many birds and mammals, including the densest population of Golden Eagles in North America. Because of the rain and snow at the higher elevations, our tour was confined to the lower levels, so we could only find 5 Golden Eagles, only five, inferior. We also had Bald Eagles, Merlin, Kestrels, Harriers, Coopers Ferruginous and Red Tail Hawks, woodpeckers galore, an unusual Redhead duck, and beautiful views of Mountain Bluebirds in the bright afternoon sun.
We finished our trip back on the coast with trips to Bolsa Chica and several other birdy locations.
On these spots, we were able to get close views of a Reddish Egret, Long-billed Curlew, Red Knots, and a Mew Gull. Luke also found a shy Barn Owl hiding in a palm tree in Frank G. Bonelli Regional Park, where he also put us on the threatened California Gnatcatcher. Some Burrowing Owls were found in the fields around Chino College.
In conclusion, a good time was had by all. Thanks to Luke and Tom, we all had some memorable encounters that will stay with us for life and added some great birds to our life lists.
— By Tour Participant Stephen Bennett