On December 15, Tejon Ranch Conservancy organized the sixth annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) on Tejon Ranch. I, along with several of my Audubon colleagues and chapter volunteers, have had the pleasure of participating in this newly established count. I have done many counts on both the East and West coasts and tend to favor the more intrepid and hard to reach counts - such as those that require a boat or some trekking. No matter the CBC, the thrill of not knowing exactly what one will find and documenting common and familiar birds as well as the odd rarity is always fun. When done a number of times, CBC’s become part of an annual ritual of camaraderie and holiday tradition. Tejon CBC continues to be one of my favorites.
Not only is the Tejon CBC new, but the Ranch has only been open to regular groups of citizen scientists since the 2008 signing of the Tejon Ranch Conservation and Land Use Agreement which Audubon had a leadership role in forging. Until now, Tejon Ranch was essentially an undiscovered piece of the birding landscape. We are still building the list of birds spend the winter across this vast 270,000 acre landscape, and that is as thrilling as finding a rarity.
Each year, our team chooses to survey the southeast sector of the CBC circle on the Antelope Valley side of the Ranch in the western corner of the Mojave Desert. The first unknown is the weather and no two years are alike. Weather on count day has ranged from driving winds and snow drifts so deep that driving becomes a challenge, to dead calm warm conditions. The desert in winter is always full of surprises. And this year was no exception. The weather cooperated - it was calm and relatively warm so we could actually hear the birds we were looking for. The storm that was predicted that day held off - dark clouds hung over the Tehachapi Mountains and made for a brilliant backdrop.
We anticipated having low numbers of birds because of the three-year drought - at first our predictions seemed accurate - despite the Prairie Falcon sighted during the first few moments of sunrise, the raptors and desert grassland birds we usually spot were few and far between.
Tejon Ranch’s desert habitats converge with the Techachapi Mountains through a series of canyons. Ahead of each canyon, Joshua trees dominate the landscape and these transition to oaks as you reach the base of the mountains. These valleys provide some of the best birding. As we explored these oak filled entrances, we were greeted with surprisingly high numbers of songbirds - White-crowned Sparrows, Lark Sparrows, Mountain Bluebirds, Western Bluebirds, and Dark-eyed Juncos flitted through the rabbit brush, willows and oaks. These are certainly not rare or unexpected birds, but given the drought, the numbers seemed surprisingly high. It also reminded me how resilient the desert can be - still producing food that birds need even in drought conditions. We were also treated to a new bird for the CBC - Lawrence's Goldfinches (or Larry's as we call them) drifting through the buckwheat, first identified by their light "tinkling sound." This nomadic species is common on Tejon Ranch in the Spring but should be off to Arizona and Mexico this time of year.
This count will be as memorable as the past counts - not for the diversity of species or the lack of some birds, but for the sky and landscape and for seeing a bird like a Larry's. It reminds me, that yes, the desert is resilient, and, thanks to the conservation partnership that created the Tejon Ranch Conservancy, Tejon will always provide winter refuge in California for birds.
(Lark Sparrow photo above by Al Schmierer, other photos by Andrea Jones)