No Expectations

By Chuck Graham   |   January 16, 2020

It was nearly dark on the Carrizo Plain National Monument. I pulled up in my truck on a plateau of dry, crunchy grass overlooking the Temblor Range on the Elkhorn Plain in the southeast corner of the monument, coyotes yelping in unison in some nameless canyon.

I was tired from five full days of guiding kayak trips on the Channel Islands National Park and the bouncy boat ride in. To finally, gratefully slow to a crawl next to a dilapidated ranch and soak in that chorus of communal coyotes, it wasn’t long before I was fast asleep in the back of my truck.

I usually try to have a mental list of photos I want when heading to a location, especially one so full of life on the Carrizo Plain, the last of California’s historic grasslands. Sometimes though, it’s better not to have any expectations at all and just see what unfolds before me. I’m pretty confidant if I take my time something will materialize.

The Elkhorn Plain is the last, best place to see endangered blunt-nose leopard lizards, but they are such a challenge to find. I typically drive slow hoping to not miss anything, but those blunt-nose leopard lizards lie in wait just like their African counterparts and are difficult to spot on the vast plain. I looked hard but didn’t locate a single one. I’ve looked hard twice in the past and have had success, once a male and a female in breeding plumage. This time though, I came up empty.

However, it’s also difficult to not come away with some sort of interaction among wildlife on the Carrizo Plain, so I was hoping to locate the endangered San Joaquin antelope ground squirrel. There wasn’t a lot of rain during the winter of 2018 and grasses overall were short, thus making it easier to spot animals like this endangered ground squirrel species.

Still creeping along on Elkhorn Road at the base of the Temblors, I came across an old, but still operating cattle trough in the arid landscape. One of the deals between California Fish and Wildlife and the Bureau of Land Management is to keep many of the old cattle troughs operating following the ranching era on the Carrizo Plain. This one was right next to the road and there were three San Joaquin antelope ground squirrels sunning themselves at the entrance of their den next to the trough. When I slowly pulled up they scurried off into their maze of tunnels and mounds.

I turned off the engine and simply sat less than 20 feet away from their den. It wasn’t long before the three siblings began poking their heads out of their den to see if the coast was clear. There was one that was more precocious than the other two. It came out a separate tunnel close to where I was patiently waiting. It had no problem performing some yoga poses, cleaning and feeding itself all within eight feet of me.

Finally the other two antelope ground squirrels ventured beyond the den, taking turns to scurry far and wide for grasses and insects, all the while with their stiff, white tails madly twitching. I stayed shooting photos for 90 minutes before reluctantly driving off to Soda Lake and the west side of the Carrizo Plain.

Once I finished rolling along Simmler Road and connecting with Soda Lake Road, the Carrizo Plain takes on a new light. It’s not nearly as arid as the Elkhorn Plain region. Immediately I saw a lone pronghorn antelope buck foraging in tall grasses toward the base of the Caliente Mountains. Then there were lots of old wooden posts that make for convenient perches for a throng of various raptors. There were plenty of prairie falcons, American kestrels, ferruginous hawks and red-tailed hawks all looking for their next meal. Lots of food items out there for them to choose from including those adorable San Joaquin antelope ground squirrels.

I never like leaving the Carrizo Plain, also known as California’s Serengeti, as there are more endangered species found there than anywhere else in the Golden State, and yet located only a couple mountain ranges away east of the Los Padres National Forest and the Coast Ranges that hover above home in Carpinteria.


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