Traversing the Carrizo Plain

Posted by ardeidae on March 04, 2006

Last weekend Carol and I joined the Los Angeles Audubon Society on a field trip to the Carrizo Plain National Monument, about 2-1/2 hours north of Los Angeles. It's a 250,000-acre diversity of habitats, an expanse of open plains with interruptions of ridges, ravines and rolling hills created by the traversing San Andreas Fault. In the mid-1800s, the grasslands of the San Joaquin Valley and other nearby valleys faced heavy conversion to agriculture, industry, and urbanization. Fortunately the Carrizo Plain area remained mostly undeveloped, and on January 17, 2001, President Clinton declared the Carrizo Plain Natural Area a national monument, helping to ensure the habitat would remain pristine. Today, the land is owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy, the US Bureau of Land Management, and the US Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Since the area is so vast, many of the birds were widely spread. Most of the birding was done by car, with our caravan stopping at a few hotspots or to observe the many raptors in the sky. Ravens were abundant and Ferruginous and Red-tailed Hawks abounded.

Le Conte's Thrasher
Le Conte's
We met on Saturday at Maricopa, the southern end of the plains, at 8am. The weather was near perfect. It was 60 degrees (F), sunny, and calm. At our meeting place, we saw a nesting Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna) about 20 feet up in a tree. Also present were Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus), and Eurasian Collared-Dove (Streptopelia decaocto). We got in our cars around 8:30 and headed out. Just north of Maricopa, on the east side of the plains, we made a stop to see if we could find the Le Conte's Thrasher (Toxostoma lecontei). We walked a hundred yards along the paths that dissected dry brush, stopping to listen and look through the scopes. After spotting Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta), Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus), Sage Thrasher (Oreoscoptes montanus), plentiful White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys), we got our Le Conte's Thrasher, then another, and another. We also got Sage Sparrow (Amphispiza belli) and a soaring Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) before we got back in our cars. What a way to start the day!

Mountain Plover
After punching through the Land of the Oil Wells, we hit the east side of the plains and worked our way into the flats. It's such a wonderful sight to see such a wide open area. The Mountain Plovers (Charadrius montanus) must have thought so too. There was a flock of more than 80 birds hanging out in the stubbly grass. After a short time, they all took off and circled our group. Clockwise, then reversing direction, swiftly flipping over all at the same time as if they were one. It's quite a neat sight. Also seen in the area were American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) and Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris).

Greater Roadrunner
As we continued on, we were also able to catch sight of Greater Roadrunner) (Geococcyx californianus), Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura), Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura), American Kestrel (Falco sparverius), and Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus).

Red-tailed Hawks
We stopped at the KCL camping area for lunch around 12:30. As we were eating, a pair of Red-tailed Hawks came soaring over one of the hills and circled a few times. Most of the time, hawks will soar with their legs tucked behind them, but this pair was displaying their mating dance. They both had their legs stretched out below them, the smaller male right flying right behind the female. Occasionally acrobatics would ensue, with the female performing a barrel roll, nearly locking talons with the male. After a couple minutes, they eventually disappeared behind the hills. A few minutes later, the male returned for a last couple looks at us before venturing off.

That afternoon, we saw more of the same birds we had seen in the morning and added some new ones: Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis), Tricolored Blackbird (Agelaius tricolor), Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), Oak Titmouse (Baeolophus inornatus), Phainopepla (Phainopepla nitens), and Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis). We wrapped up a little before sunset and headed into Buttonwillow to eat and catch some shuteye.

On Sunday, we met up around 6am. It was around 50 degrees (F) and it was just becoming light enough to see that the day was starting out slightly breezy with a light layer of clouds. An hour or so later, they would start to burn off. The sky was amazing. Mostly a deep dark blue with spatterings of a kind of medium neon blue where the light started peeking through the clouds. Something that's hard to believe unless you see it for yourself. I really need to figure out how to photograph those types of scapes and give them due justice.

Morning on the plain
Morning on
the plain
We headed out on Highway 58, stopping occasionally when something caught our attention. First to be seen were Red-tailed Hawk, Common Raven (Corvus corax), Ferruginous Hawk, Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), Merlin (Falco columbarius), and Red-winged Blackbird. Near the highway, someone had a pond at their residence, being used by a few waterfowl, probably wild.
Long-billed Curlew
The pond played host to Ross's Goose (Chen rossii), Greater White-fronted Goose (Anser albifrons), Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), and the obligatory American Coot (Fulica americana). A lone Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) wandered around on the other side of the road. As we turned onto Bitterwater Road to enter the rolling hills of the Carrizo Plain, we saw a number of Mountain Bluebird (Sialia currucoides) and Cassin's Kingbird (Tyrannus vociferans) foraging out in a field. A mile or two up the road, a good-sized flock of Long-billed Curlew (Numenius americanus) flew across the road in front of us and landed in a field.

The hills didn't produce a whole lot of birds, but we did catch sight of a Say's Phoebe (Sayornis saya) and soaring Turkey Vulture. We pulled off to the side of the road as we neared a pond about 75 yards out. There were Cinnamon Teal (Anas cyanoptera) and Mallard. A flock of Tricolored Blackbirds were off to the side feeding and playing. We paused at our last location before lunch, being able to get good looks at a Phainopepla and a Western Bluebird (Sialia mexicana). The wind was picking up and the clouds were starting to roll in.

We continued up to Highway 41/46 and stopped at the Jack Ranch Cafe near where James Dean crashed and died in 1955. Just outside the cafe is a memorial dedicated to him. We had prepared our lunch for the day, but with the weather the way it was, a hot meal sounded good. Unfortunately for us, while we were inside eating, the few that dined outside were able to see the Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) that flew over.

After lunch we headed back out, but the weather continued to get windier and cold, and our group was starting to thin out. As we hit a fork in the road, we had to make a decision on whether to continue back into the heart of the plains or to head for the highway. Although we'd had a great time, the weather was helping us to make the decision, and we headed back towards home.

The Carrizo Plain National Monument is a wonderful place for several reasons. It's only about two hours away form Los Angeles, has amazing scenery, contains diverse habitat, and plays host to a variety of birds, especially raptors. If you ever get the opportunity, it's definitely worth a vist!





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