After a brief farewell party at work (beers and cupcakes) I jumped in my car and headed south to meet up with my old friend Ben who works as an environmental scientist at Tejon Ranch. As I got on the highway heading first east, and then south on the 5, there was definitely a tinge if sadness at leaving a job I’d really enjoyed, but it was overshadowed by a surging feeling of enthusiasm and anticipation for the adventures that I would have in front of me.
Tejon Ranch is the largest private land preserve in California and is about an hour north of LA, just off I-5. Normally it’s next to impossible to get on the ranch without being a member of an expensive hunt club, but I was helping my friend do some work so he was able to get me a permit.
The first night there we went out and soaked up all that the fine town of Frazier Park has to offer (a dive bar with some salty locals), and then the next morning we set out in the truck to begin exploring the 270,000 acres that make up Tejon.
We started by driving in on the desert side of the ranch, which because of it’s close proximity to LA and it’s resemblance to Africa and Australia, has been used to film a lot of movies and TV commercials (especially for pickup trucks). As soon as we got on to the property and I got a good look at the expansive desert, with mountains in the backdrop, I felt like we’d been transported back to a pre-historic California.
Part of my Ben’s job is to set up motion sensor cameras around the ranch and to record wildlife data. We checked several of these cameras and got some amazing footage of a mama bear with her cubs, wild pigs, Rocky Mountain Elk, and mountain lions. This made got me even more excited at our prospects of seeing wildlife in person.
Next we met up with one of Ben’s former colleagues who he used to work with on California Condor Preservation Program. A dead cow had been seen on another part of the ranch, so we headed there with her to see if we could spot some condors near by. We were extremely lucky and spotted 5 California Condors hanging out in the trees near the cow (there are only about 70 California Condors alive in the wild). These birds are the largest land birds in North America and pretty much look like teradycles. They’re wings are so huge that when they try to land on a branch they knock off branches and look extremely clumsy. It was really amazing to see these birds and the biologist who we were with recorded all their tag numbers (all condors in the wild are tagged) to be added to the data set.
After we were done snapping photos (photo cred to Ben), we went to help Ben’s former colleague find a tracking device that appeared to have fallen from one the condors. Part of the condor conservation program involves trapping the birds and attaching a tracking device to them. The tracking device is small radio transmitter that is actually woven in to one of their giant feathers. Occasionally these feathers fall out, and because the devices are expensive people working with the conservancy do their best to track them down. So we set out scaling down a forested mountain side with two antennas that beep faster as we get closer to the transmitter. After about 20 minutes I felt pretty certain we weren’t going to find it, but right then we walked right over a giant feather with a radio transmitter attached.
Creep Old Cabin
Next we drove deeper in to the mountains of the ranch and hiked up a river bed to check out a creepy old cabin. Apparently someone had built this cabin around a hundred years ago and had squatted on the ranch for years without anyone knowing. Eventually they found him and kicked him out, but the house is still there and is really cool. The wood logs were all hand milled and the cobble stone fireplace is still in pretty good shape.
Camping with Lions
Next we headed in to the deepest mountain valley on the ranch, where we would camp for the night. We went on a hike just before sunset up the valley to see if we could spot any wildlife, but all we saw was a couple of striped skunks. We did scale up the mountain side and get a pretty awesome view though.
We set up camp at dusk, and then went for a night hike to try again to spot some wildlife. After hiking for about half a mile we heard some rustling from what sounded like a large animal maybe 100-200 feet away, so we stopped walking to listen. What he heard next was a bird-like whistling. I didn’t think it was much but get got very alert and told me that he’s pretty sure it was a mountain lion whistle. I didn’t know this, but apparently mountains lions whistle as a form of communication, and Ben had heard it before. We shined our lights in the direction of the noise, but the lights were weak and couldn’t see much. We heard the whistling a couple more times, and then some rustling and another fainter whistle. The lion had moved away from us, but it was definitely aware we were there and was taking a look.
Later that night, while we were eating dinner, a came to within about 50 feet of our camp site to check us out followed shortly after by another spotted skunk. This area does not get much human traffic and the animals were curious to check us out. After dinner, while we were enjoying some whiskey around the campfire, we heard very guterral, human-sounding howling. I had no idea what it was, but it was loud and coming from fairly close to where we were camping. Ben, the local wildlife expert, said that that too was mountain lions, and that it was a noise they make during the mating season. He’d never heard it before and was really excited, so I got out my phone and was able to capture some of the audio (you may need to turn up your volume).
The next day I helped Ben out with moving some around some pens that he was using for research he was doing on pigs, and then we went and checked out some really cool archealogical sites. Tejon Ranch was home to various Native American tribes for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. These tribes subsisted mostly off acorns, and the mortar holes that they used to grind the acorns are still visible in parts of the ranch.
Tejon is definitely once of the coolest places I’ve every been, mostly because of how untouched it is without being at all remote (it’s just an hour north of LA). The landscape is beautiful, extremely diverse, and the wildlife is abundant. Thanks for showing me around Ben!