Shangri-La

Shangri-La

An hour from the smog and concrete of Los Angeles, a quarter-million-acre oasis, bursting with rare and unusual species, is waiting to be discovered.

By Jane Braxton Little
Published: March-April 2010

We trudge up a slope toward a nest 50 feet off the ground in a huge valley oak. Bloom's assistant uses climbing ropes to reach the aerie, a five-foot-diameter bed of small boughs, twigs, and needles built in the crotch of a six-inch-diameter limb. He speaks softly to the two chicks, then lowers them in a duffel bag, one at a time.

Bloom hands a bird to Chisholm, who is part of a citizen science team conducting bird surveys here. The half-grown hatchling is a bundle of soft white down, its talons harmless on rubbery feet. It blinks. Chisholm smiles dreamily and returns it to Bloom, who clips a tiny metal band around one leg. Next time he encounters this eagle, Bloom will know where and when it was hatched. After information on both chicks is logged into a database, we make our way down the slope, pausing for Bloom to pull a spiky plant seed out of the mouth of a southern Pacific rattlesnake. "Don't try this at home," he says, holding the snake behind the jaw with practiced skill. Left alone, the seed could have worked its way into the snake and killed it.

Our focus on birds shifts from raptors to migrants as we move from the wooded canyons of Tejon's interior to its arid eastern flank. Here yucca trees edge out of the Mojave Desert into the shadow of gray pines. Chisholm and six others are canvassing Sacatara Canyon to establish a baseline of local species. Birds are everywhere. In the first five minutes we see five different warbler species. Three birds on Audubon's Tejon at-risk list show up: an olive-sided flycatcher, an oak titmouse, and a Lawrence's goldfinch.

The birds are coming off the desert, moving into the cover of trees and shrubs to feed and rest while they gradually work their way north through the canyon. As the birders follow them, their conversation is reduced to code words like "ash-throated" and "MacGillivray's." When they tally their total at 65 different species, Chisholm pronounces the four-hour bird blitz "a kickass day of birding. We're finally getting to see just what treasures this property holds."

Like herpetologists, entomologists, and other researchers, ornithologists have conducted few surveys on the ranch. Now, for the first time in its history, they can explore Tejon's diversity firsthand. In addition to the scientists invited to conduct research, hikers will have access along a 37-mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,650-mile scenic trek that runs from Mexico to Canada. Upon its completion, the new section of trail will travel through Joshua trees and sagebrush into Big Sycamore Canyon, then climb through gray pines and white firs to the Tehachapi crest. There hikers will enjoy magnificent views of both the Mojave Desert and the San Joaquin Valley. The Tejon Ranch Conservancy is also offering a series of hikes and educational outings, which are free and open to the public. (To find out how to join one, go to tejonconservancy.org.)

For Chisholm, protecting Tejon Ranch for scientific studies and public enjoyment is the culmination of a lifetime of conservation work. "This is one big complicated place," he says. "Managing it may dispel some of the myths conservationists have long held. Having responsibility for this piece of land--it's humbling."

As darkness moves into the valleys, we head to a cedar canyon where Chisholm barks the raspy call of a California spotted owl into the shadows. Silence. White tries again for a sooty grouse with his recorded guttural grunts. Nothing. Then a deep, resonant growl freezes us in place: barely audible, insistent, hair-raising. Another low rumble. It's unmistakable, says Bloom. Somewhere nearby in the night a mountain lion is calling to her cub.

How many lions are out there, I wonder. How many grouse? And how many species scientists have yet to discover? What is most precious about Tejon Ranch may not be what we know we are protecting but what we have yet to discover.

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