Welcome to my private birding aerie in semi-rural SoCal

A California Scrub-Jay fills its crop with Blue Elderberries in March. This bird’s cheerful, lilting screech call always lifted my spirits.

Semi-rural, private and quiet … in Los Angeles? That may sound incongruous, but it exists.

In the far northwest corner of the sprawling San Fernando Valley, in an area bounded by the Santa Susana Mountains to the north and the 1,325-acre Chatsworth Nature Preserve to the south, I found my personal nature refuge, around my mother’s house. It faced abundant trees and had access to a trail along the edge of the preserve, and both were my daily salvation from March through July while I cleared out the house. 

SantaSusanaMountains.jpegThe Santa Susana Mountains, seen from the trail. You may recognize these boulders from the old Hollywood Westerns, many of which were filmed just a few miles away. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA Turkey Vulture soars above trees just beyond my mother’s house.

This place is alive with birds. I saw or heard 79 species in those five months, a number close to the total at our garden during the 33 years we’ve lived in our house in Seattle. Mammals large and small are at home here too. Coyotes yipped near the house most nights. Desert Cottontail Rabbits ran like, well, rabbits — even when I was a hundred feet away. I saw a buck Mule Deer, twice. But the biggest thrill came on my second day there, as I watched a Bobcat stalk prey just beyond the house’s fence.

Chatsworth Nature Preserve, Santa Susana MountainsChatsworth Nature Preserve is the brown shape, lower center, flanked by suburbia. The north side, where I was, is more open, thanks to the mountains. The red dot is the gated entrance to the preserve.

The nearby preserve is mostly open space, but it contains oak woodlands, savanna, riparian areas, grassland, a vernal pool and an Ecology Pond. More than 200 bird species have been seen there, as well as numerous mammals, amphibians and reptiles.  (Background information appears at the end of this diary.) Except for some scientific study, the preserve is open to the public only once a year, on Earth Day. (And yes, we’re going inside!)

Although what’s inside is off-limits, it’s abundant outside as well. During breakfast on the balcony most mornings, I observed an average of 15 bird species. Afterward, I hiked the trail through the oak woodland and up a chaparral-studded hill bordering the preserve. At the top, I was rewarded with views of the mountains and preserve (and once, a Roadrunner; I don’t know who was more startled). With that foundation, I could face my0 hard work. And by the end of each day, I had the bonus of having logged 25 or even 30 species. 

Chatsworth Nature Preserve, upper rightOn the trail. The preserve is at the upper right. Look at it: It’s not much, mostly open space punctuated by native oak trees. It’s what’s not here that makes a huge difference for wildlife — buildings, tarmac.

Nothing takes me into the now like seeing a bird, and nothing fills me with peace like birdsong. My senses take over, my mind’s only job is to identify what I hear and see, and joy washes over me. Now, I invite you to share the delights of this aerie with me. On to the birds! 

MARCH, the most bounteous month: 56 species. The list: House Finch, Turkey Vulture, Cassin’s Kingbird, Mourning Doves (every day and everywhere), Bushtits, Acorn Woodpecker, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Allen’s Hummingbird, Anna’s Hummingbird, Nuttall’s Woodpecker (LIFER), White-crowned Sparrow (scores singing in the yard after roosting in a bush), Northern Mockingbird (singing days and sometimes nights), Common Raven (I heard their juveniles later), Wrentit, Lesser Goldfinch, Canada Goose, California Scrub-Jay, California Thrasher (sweet singer, master imitator and disappearance magician), Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Bewick’s Wren, Cooper’s Hawk, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Red-tailed Hawk (the preserve is their domain), American Crow (only seldom, as the Ravens took umbrage at their presence), California Towhee, Dark-eyed Junco, White-breasted Nuthatch, Red-shouldered Hawk, Northern Flicker, European Starling, Phainopepla, Western Meadowlark, American Robin, Great-horned Owl (one dive-bombed me just before dusk in the summer of 2021), Western Tanager, Prairie Falcon (LIFER), Rufous Hummingbird, Hermit Thrush, Western Kingbird, Barn Swallow, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Lawrence’s Goldfinch, Fox Sparrow, California Quail (seeing them in a covey did my heart much good), Brown-headed Cowbird, Oak Titmouse, Western Wood-Pewee, Hutton’s Vireo, Lark Sparrow, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Cedar Waxwing (flocks), Rufous-crowned Sparrow (the most marvelous song!), Bullock’s Oriole (a striking bird), Common Yellowthroat and Eurasian Collared Dove (boo, hiss).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAcorn Woodpecker, March 20, on power line above the yard.
Their goony calls made my mornings.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACassin’s Kingbird and insect reward, March 21, on preserve fence.

Another reason this area is so rich with birds and other wildlife is that many of the plants are natives. Blue Elder (Sambucus cerulea) was abundant on the trail. The oak woodland was primarily Valley Oaks (Quercus lobata) and Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia), and I saw Chilicothe (Marah macrocarpa) there. In the chaparral habitat, most plants were natives, and many were blooming: Black Sage (Salvia mellifera, which was abundant and whose leaves were fragrant), Chaparral Bush Mallow (Malacothamnus fasciculatus), California Buckwheat (Erigonum fasciculatum), California Sagebrush (Artemesia californica), Wishbone Bush (Mirabilis laevis), Blue Dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum), California Brittlebrush (Encilia californica), Common Fiddleneck (Amsinckia menziesii), Deerweed (Acmispon glaber), Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), Laurel Sumac (Malosma laurina), Mountain Pink Currant (Ribes nevadense), Small Wirelettuce, (Stephanomeria exigua), Coast Morning Glory (Calystegia macrostegia, a native despite being a Morning Glory) and Yucca (Hesperoyucca whipplei). Shortpod Mustard (introduced) was unfortunately abundant along the open parts of the trail, and I saw one tumbleweed. (IDs were primarily made through photos sent through Seek.) 

Bobcat ready to pounce on preyBobcat just beyond the house’s fence. I wrote a Bucket about “Bob,” whom I saw on March 2nd, as well as a wildlife bridge over the 101 Freeway in Agoura, which was dedicated in April: www.dailykos.com/…

Birds-----Chaparral Bush Mallow, a cheery plant on the trail, April 7th. 

Other creatures I saw: Side-splotched Lizard; tadpoles near the preserve pond; and several butterflies, including Monarchs, Painted Ladies, Buckeye, Cabbage Butterflies, plus a few sulphurs, whites and azures that moved too quickly for me to identify.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMonarch Butterfly, March 17. I saw one, sometimes two, several times after that. The two were definitely not friendly! I reported them all. 

Lark SparrowLark Sparrow on preserve fence, March 21. What a beauty! There was at least one family, later. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACalifornia Towhee in woodland, March 22. A pair nested in the yard. 

Lesser Goldfinch maleLesser Goldfinch male, March 31. They were everywhere. 

APRIL BIRDS, 19 species: Spotted Towhee, Hooded Oriole, Common Poorwill (calling, Merlin confirmed; LIFER, and a thrill in the pure quiet of dark night), Ash-throated Flycatcher, Black-headed Grosbeak, Wilson’s Warbler, House Sparrow, Tree Swallows, Black Phoebe, Greater Roadrunner, Say’s Phoebe, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Yellow Warbler, Warbling Vireo. In the preserve I saw: Lewis’s Woodpecker, Red-winged Blackbird, Cliff Swallows, and in the preserve Ecology Pond, Snowy Egrets and Great Egrets. 

Northern Rough-winged Swallow on power lineThis Northern Rough-winged Swallow took a break on the power line above the yard, a favorite perch for many species, on April 3rd.

Western Kingbird taking offWestern Kingbird taking off on April 7th in a blurry hurry. I like the spirit that shines through in this photo. Let’s call it arty!

Northern Mockingbird balancing in windNorthern Mockingbird balancing in the wind on the house’s fence, April 12. These birds imitated California Scrub-Jays so well they fooled Merlin — and me, until I was on to their game. The Cooper’s Hawks were a terror to them, but one faced a Cooper’s on the power line, blasting its churrr alarm the entire time. I was most impressed with its bravery as it defended its nest in a nearby tree. 

Northern Mockingbird singingNorthern Mockingbird singing, its preferred occupation, atop an oak. 

NuttallIt’s not easy to make out, but a Nuttall’s Woodpecker is deep in an orange tree in the yard, pecking on its fruit, April 12. This was a lifer for me, and solved a puzzle. For weeks I’d heard a call that sounded like a police whistle, but Merlin never registered it, no matter how loud. When I saw the bird making the call, I reported Merlin’s deafness to Cornell. Suddenly it ID’d the Nuttall’s every time. Coincidence?

Blue-gray GnatcatcherBlue-gray Gnatcatcher perched in Chaparral Bush Mallow, April 19th. They were furtive, so I was happy to get this shot.

Birds-----Crime scene? Interspecies mating? Painted Lady appears to be on top of a California Buckeye, April 21st.

LewisAt last, it’s Earth Day, and we’re inside the preserve. And the first bird is a lovely surprise: a Lewis’s Woodpecker. It was a California first for me, and a close view at that. Soon I saw three.

Birds-----As an Audubon guide led our group along a circular trail inside the preserve, he pointed out this nest in an oak, occupied by a Red-tailed Hawk. That explained why I’d seen only one Red-tail most days; it must have been the male catching prey for his mate and, later, for their eyasses. This nest was deep in the preserve, away from my daily view, and distant from their usual nesting tree. 

Birds-----Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets are among birds drawn to the preserve’s Ecology Pond. It’s a rare water source in dry Los Angeles. 

SayIt’s April 26, and we’re back outside the preserve. But this Say’s Phoebe, which is perched on its fence, can go in whenever it likes.

Phainopepla taking offMy favorite arty shot, of one of my favorite birds, Phainopepla. Although they kept their distance, their whistle was a lovely soundtrack most mornings. This one was taking off from its favorite tree, a couple hundred yards from my perch at the house, May 1st.

MAY, three new species: Great-blue Heron (flyover), Swainson’s Thrush (on the trail, and I could scarcely believe it. Later, one sang in the yard.) Blue Grosbeak on the hill (at a great distance, but a LIFER). Some of the birds I saw in May: 

White-breasted Nuthatch imitating a penguinWhite-breasted Nuthatch imitating a penguin on the power line above the yard, May 11.

AllenThis male Allen’s Hummingbird flashes his gorget, which matches my mother’s roses, on May 23rd. 

Western Kingbird in oakWestern Kingbird in oak, May 24. I saw at least one family of them along the trail. At the end of summer, they migrate south.

Warbling Vireo with insectWarbling Vireo in Valley Oak with carry-out breakfast, May 9th.

Western Tanager in oakWestern Tanager, also on May 9th, seen from the house in a different Valley Oak. 

Male House Finch feeding chickHouse Finch dad feeding his chick on the rooftop antenna, May 9.

JUNE, just one new bird: Violet-green Swallow. But lots of photos of others. Weather turned hot! 

Pacific-slope Flycatcher femalePacific-slope Flycatcher on drainpipe, June 1. She was about eight feet from me, and had visited even closer during a a couple of days. I learned why when wind blew nesting materials from behind this pipe. I replaced them, but they blew down again the next day. She cried out when she saw the mess, and gave up. I heard PSFLs often from trees in the yard, so I hope she was successful. 

California Quail on Blue ElderCock California Quail, one of my favorite birds, feeding on Blue Elder, June 1st, on the trail. On several outings, I saw a covey. They startled easily, so I stood still and absorbed the pleasure of their presence. 

CooperCooper’s Hawks juveniles, recently fledged, June 29th. Note the dying tree. Damage from drought became more obvious as the days grew hotter and moisture from winter rains was depleted.

Red-tailed HawksThe pair of Red-tailed Hawks on June 30th, back in their favorite tree, next to the one where they’d nested for years. They made a handsome couple and did the important work of keeping the burgeoning population of California Ground Squirrels from exploding. 

Ash-throated FlycatcherAsh-throated Flycatcher on snag, July 20th. 

PeacockPeacocks are exotic and keep harems. They cry all night. 

Here’s a bit of history of the preserve. The site was originally home to the Chumash people, who considered it a sacred place and lived there for a thousand years. At an Earth Day open house at the preserve in 2018, I heard a Chumash elder tell her people’s origin story in the Channel Islands, as well as how they left when the Earth Mother, Hutash, created a high rainbow bridge to the mainland. Hutash said it would take them all day, and that they should look ahead to where they were going. The people gathered their things and began walking across the rainbow. Those who looked toward the mainland made it, but some grew afraid, and looked down, and lost their balance and fell into the water. Those Hutash turned into dolphins so they wouldn’t drown. 

Eventually Los Angeles grew, and it needed water, which was diverted from the Owens River Valley via an aqueduct to a series of 19 reservoirs. Chatsworth Lake became the last of these, in 1920. It was two earthen dams built on an alluvial plain, and primarily served ranches and orange groves. When housing tracts encroached, they required higher water quality, and in 1969, the reservoir was drained for repairs to upgrade it. But after the devastating Sylmar earthquake struck in 1971, the dams were deemed unreliable, and the reservoir was taken out of service. In 1994, the site, still owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, was designated as a nature preserve, and became one of the city’s major areas preserved as open space (Source: Wikipedia).


627AMmoondrought.jpegTrail at 6:27 a.m., full moon rising, July 14th.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA Bushtit forages on the hillside, July 10th. I didn’t see these industrious crews often, but when I did, they reminded me of home. 


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJuvenile Anna’s Hummingbird, preening and showing that elastic neck and long backscratcher. July 3rd.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJuvenile Black Phoebe, July 11th. Look at that red gape. I love this bird!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJuvenile California Scrub-Jay perches in an Oleander in the yard, July 14th. I was delighted to see it, as the Cooper’s Hawks had been hunting relentlessly. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABlack-headed Grosbeak in Pepper Tree, which is kind of a weed in Southern California. July 19th. 

LastwalkJuly28.jpegOverlooking the preserve from the hill on my last walk, the morning of July 28th. I left that afternoon.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these walks through my Heart Place. 

Now it’s your turn.  What’s up in your birdy world this fall? I won’t be up at 6 a.m., but I’ll join you shortly. 

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