Hiking and Birding the Santa Monica Mountains

“Be careful,” BJ said quietly, yet with a sense of urgency. He pointed to the ground at the point where the trail headed from the parking lot into the chaparral. A long snake was slithering out of the shrubs along the trail. Our eyes quickly scanned its head and tail. The head was not diamond-shaped and it didn’t have rattles. It was probably a Gopher Snake. While we were relieved as it did an about-face and headed back into the undergrowth, we made a mental note to keep our eyes out for the Southern Pacific Rattlesnake that inhabits these hills.

My son, BJ joined me for a morning of hiking and bird watching in the Santa Monica Mountains adjacent to the Getty Villa where he works. The mountains, which are more like hills compared with the mountains that rise behind my home in Albuquerque, NM, nonetheless have a rugged quality about them.

As we rounded the first turn in the trail, an elderly woman carrying hand-weights walked briskly toward us. “Getting your exercise?” I inquired as a friendly gesture.

“I walk here Monday, Wednesday and Fridays,” she replied. ”On Thursdays and Saturdays I walk in Pacific Palisades. Join me sometime,” she continued without missing a step.

A few more steps and we saw movement in the bushes on the nearby hillside. Two juvenile Spotted Towhees jumped from branch to branch. “See how they flap their wings,” I pointed out to BJ. “They are trying to get the attention of a parent to feed them.”

We followed along a dry creek bed for awhile with large live oaks and sycamores, as well as an understory of scrub oak. All of a sudden a wren popped into view. “A Wrentit,” I exclaimed. While they can be elusive, I have been fairly lucky in spotting them in Southern California. There also were House Wren parents busily taking food back to their chicks. A flock of Bushtits buzzed around in one of the shrubs.

As we headed up away from the stream, the hillsides were covered with low-growing Manzanita, and we watched House Finches and Mourning Doves. I stopped to admire the shiny mahogany-colored branches of the Manzanita and recalled making crafts from its hard wood at Brownie day camp which I had attended nearby. The plaintiff cry of Lesser Goldfinches resounded from the bushes. Coastal Whiptail and Fence Lizards scurried across the trail or could be seen sunning themselves on the rocks.

“Look at the pods on that vine,” I gestured. The pod was oval-shaped, resembling a small oriole nest. Some had broken open, exposing a large spiky seed pod.

Near the top of the trail we could look out over the valley below, with a view of the ocean.

View from Topanga State Park

View from Topanga State Park

Scrub Jays chattered and called between the chaparral. Ravens floated on the thermals.

When we reached the stream-bed vegetation again, a Bewick’s Wren buzzed in the undergrowth. A Downey Woodpecker flew in and started mining the bark of a sycamore for insects and a Black-headed Grosbeak made an appearance.

What a delightful morning revisiting the mountains of my youth with my son.


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