On Saturday my friend Paula and I went to a nice little area called Placerita Canyon. It is about 30 miles from my home in Culver City, which still makes it accessible without spending half a day driving to find a fairly quiet natural setting. We packed some food for a light lunch, brought layers of outer garments in anticipation of possible temperature fluctuations and the canyon setting, a Sibley’s Field Guide to Birds (a new acquisition—and one of the best & easiest guides I’ve ever used), binoculars, and digital cameras. I had planned to take my film camera, but haven’t used in so many years that I didn’t want to tale the time to re-learn all its functions prior to the trip. As we will see later, it proved yet again to be a big mistake to leave it behind.
We arrived at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center at about 9:30 AM. It was a gorgeous day: the sky a clear deep blue, the air clean, fresh; and scented with sage and sycamore. There is nothing on earth like the pungent, heady smell of the California hills when the warmth of the sun releases its perfumes. There were only a few cars; all belonging to volunteers who were beginning a project to build cement benches at various scenic spots along the trail.
It didn’t take us long to get out of the car and get moving, as we’d both been anticipating this trip all week. We headed up the Walker Canyon trail, spotting American Goldfinches and Acorn Woodpeckers right away. I also noted that since the last time I was hear about 10 years ago, a fire had burned through here in 2004; many of the oaks and sycamores had scorched, black trunks. But I also noted with amazement how Nature had triumphed, because there was new green growth sprouting from almost all of these fire-ravaged trees!
We went about ¼ up, only to find the way in shadows and the air very chilly, so we decided to turn round and fine a sunnier and warmer trail. We did see some California Towhees scratching in the duff along the base of the hill, but it appeared that the birds also found the deep shadows of the canyon too cool for comfort, as we did not hear or spot many here. There was another trail that split off from the Walker Trail that went up a hill and looked like there were more sunny spots, so we took it with pleasure.
Along this route there were many oaks with fire-blackened trunks, their dark skeletal arms reaching into the blue sky. I was further amazed to see that even these trees showed signs of renewal; there were areas on the trunks and branches that were cracking and falling off, like humans that had a bad sunburn shedding skin. We saw no birds here either, but continued up the trail.
At the summit we were treated to stunning views and a pair of hawks circling over the opposite hill. There was a nice rock outcrop a little ways down the path and it looked like a perfect spot to use as our aerie. Once there, we scrambled over the boulders and unencumbered ourselves of packs and jackets, as the air was quite warm here. To the right we could gaze up-canyon, ablaze here and there with golden leaves of sycamores; to the left was the encroaching Santa Clarita suburbs pouring over the foothills—an incongruous and sobering sight. After watching circling hawks and Acorn Woodpeckers flitting from treetop to treetop in the oak and sycamore canopy below, we continued down the trail and came out again at the trailhead.
From here we proceeded to “The Oak of the Golden Dream.” On the way we passed the restored cabin that once was the residence that Frank Walker built for his family in 1920, the namesake of Walker Ranch Trail. It looks like a cozy little roost, and back when it was inhabited the area was no doubt filled with more species of birds than are found now. After a brief visit to the oak, we decided to have a bite to eat.
On the way to the car we saw some people pointing and looking up into a nearby tree and one of them said, “It’s a Red-shouldered Hawk—No! Look! There are TWO of them!” Paula and I stopped immediately and glassed them (bird-speak for looking at them through binoculars) and sure enough, a pair of Red-shoulders. A woman who was part of the nearby group turned out to be one of the docents and she told us the Red-shouldered Hawks breed in the area. I had never seen any perching before, though I had seen many circling in the sky (several times this past year over UCLA). It was quite a thrill to get a really good look at these beautiful and magnificent birds of prey. [for your own close look, follow this link to the Cornell Ornithology website: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/BirdGuide/Red-shouldered_Hawk_dtl.html] The first photo shown on this page is exactly what they looked like.
We ate our lunch in a little garden area with hummingbird feeder and small pond under a big spreading oak tree. We watched the hawks off and on, who were periodically taking off from their perches and circling. A few Anna’s hummingbirds used the feeder, while a couple of good-sized Scrub Jays foraged in a nearby tree and on the ground. Behind us in a little gully were a pair of Spotted Towhees and some Golden-crowned Sparrows (which I’d never seen before).
The docent had told us that there was going to be wildlife presentation in the amphitheatre under some big oak trees near the trailhead, so we decided to stick around. And I’m glad we did, because we were treated to up-close and personal looks at an American Kestrel (aka Sparrow Hawk) and a Great-horned Owl! What a treat! The Kestrel had been rescued ten years before by a family whose cat had attached it and mangled its wing. A vet was unable to mend it properly, so the poor thing was condemned to spending the remainder of its life grounded. The owl was raised from an abandoned hatchling and had been raised by humans and ‘imprinted’—which means it could no longer be returned to the wild because owls need to spend two years with the mother to learn all their owl survival tactics. These two birds, though denied the freedom to spread their wings in the wind, nonetheless serve a valuable purpose in educating young people (and adults) at the center. It is still a sad, sad thing to see a bird that can no longer fly.
We left the park around 2:30 PM and the shadows were already deepening in the canyon. One of the docents said that they have gatherings around a campfire in the evenings (when it’s not windy) and people are welcome to take a night hike on the trail. Those that did, he said, might be treated to owls hooting from the trees. I for one plan to go back and try that out!
The Placerita Canyon Nature Center is located off the 14 Freeway. There website gives more details about directions and a calendar of activities:
Our list of sightings for the day included:
- Acorn Woodpecker
- American Goldfinch
- Dark-eyed Junco
- California Towhee
- Spotted Towhee
- Anna’s Hummingbird
- Scrub Jay
- Nuttall’s Woodpecker
- Wilson’s Warbler (female only)
- Red-tailed Hawk
- Red-Shouldered Hawk
- Golden-crowned Sparrow
Not bad for a day of birding!
This will most likely be the last post for a while, since I leave this coming Thursday on my trip to Seattle for the holidays. Here’s wishing you and yours Happy Holidays and a peaceful New Year!
I Wish You Good Birding,
[Blog Sountrack: Dave Mason “World in Changes” “Sad and Deep as You” “Look at Me, Look at You”; Delerium “Gateway”; Emerson Lake and Palmer “Lucky Man” “From the Beginning” “Still You Turn Me On”; Hans Zimmer – soundtrack “The Last Samurai”; Jan Michel Jarre "Equinox"; Jeff Buckley "Mojo Pin" "Grace" "Hallelujah"]