Ravens of Griffith Park (from Oct. 16, 2005)

Overcast and threatening rain.

Picnic area by Greek Theater. Pair of foraging ravens. One was in a dumpster making off with discarded garlic bread. The two birds then flew back to the picnic area. One remained on the tip of a dead tree while the other flew down the street. After a few minutes it returned to collect its companion. This is the second time I’ve noted one bird fly to and around a waiting companion, who joins and follows. The pair then flew up and over the hill that forms the southern boundary of the park at this point, lined with homes along its ridge.

Below Dante’s View, the ridge stretches to the south east in a long, slow descent. Vista del Valle Drive, the closed, paved road that circumscribes the park mostly mid-way between the flats and the peaks, runs below this ridge, in and out of the canyons, offering a view to the north east. I had just started walking up this side of the park, under mostly cloudy skies, when I spied three ravens sitting in the branches of a dead tree. After a moment, I realized that I was seeing two ravens and a hawk. They almost seemed to be sharing the tree peacefully, but in the usual raven way, the hawk was under watch. From time to time one raven displayed and made a rattling call. Twice, the hawk decided to trade places with one of its observers, and a little game of musical chairs ensued as the birds readjusted themselves. Finally the hawk stretched its wings and flew off down the canyon. The two ravens remained calmly behind.

At length it began to rain lightly. I continued to watch the ravens. One decided to fly to a toyon bush growing out of the side of the steep hill above me. Its companion followed. The toyon in Griffith Park are just turning red, and many are not yet ripe at all. Each picked a sprig of berries and returned to the tree, where they nibbled on them. Not a very big meal. Then one raven flew to the middle of a scarp, also above my place on the road. It landed on the steep face of disturbed earth, and proceeded to shovel a bit with its beak. Finally it began to remove some items – hard to see but they looked like large grubs or small bird eggs. It took four or five of the items in its crop and flew back to its tree. It was not so easy to see, but I think the birds shared the food. I realized it must have been a cache, and this also threw some light on the last time I had seen ravens in one of these scarps. At that time I had been able to climb up to see what had interested the bird, but had not found anything. I’d been thinking water or carrion, not cache. There may be multiple uses or attractions to these disturbed areas, but given the difficulty of ground caching in the coastal sage scrub, and the relative inaccessability of the scarp, caching may be the most frequent use.

At this point, the local woodpeckers decided that they’d had enough, and showed up making a real fuss, being much more belligerent with the ravens than the ravens had been with the hawk. First two, then at least four, with their unmistakeable woodpecker voices. The big birds tolerated this for longer than I expected, but after about ten minutes decided to move on, and so I did, too. Eventually I think they ended up on Bee Rock. Their calls carry very well in the canyons, and I would be hearing ravens for the rest of my visit to the park – but there were more birds on hand than the first and second pairs. As I walked across the east side of the park, with Dante’s View far above, I could see at least four to five more at a time sporting in the air above Mt. Hollywood, Dante’s View, and the Sky Ridge that runs north from them.

The theme for the rest of my two hours in the park seemed to be coming and going. Even though the birds can fly right over the peaks, they seem to most frequently take routes that follow the ridges (while foraging) or around the corners of the hills and through the same passes the road takes. When I reached the road’s highest point, at the pass between Mt. Bell and its neighbor, I see two ravens fly out towards the north. I think I’m finally going to see ravens cross the San Fernando Valley on their way to the San Gabriels. But after flying out over the northern slopes, with the cemetery and the Los Angeles River below, they turned back and found a hillside perch in a large pine. So I’ll still have to stake out the Valley and watch for travellers. The literature indicates that there’s a large population out in the desert beyond the San Gabriels, and there has to be a lot of travel between the Santa Monicas and the desert. For the time being, though, the number of ravens visible at once in Griffith Park has yet to exceed ten to 12, and is more usually six to eight.

So at this point I return to the “inside” of the park. Ravens happen to be coming and going through the pass as well. A small group meets and disperses. Territory stuff? After a number of visits, the impression has settled on my mind that different portions of the park belong to specific couples. At the same time, ravens may be seen, and most likely will be seen in a group, if one visits for more than two hours. I have seen them congregate around a lone raptor, in their subtle raven way – not mobbing so much as enforcing – and I’ve seen them just gather and mingle. What they are really doing of course has to be interpreted and reinterpreted as observation continues. BH would find a way to construct an experiment, but I am not feeling quite as ambitious. I see it as a good opportunity to watch more closely and develop more discipline about notes. I suspect some mingling is territory-holders dealing with encroachers. This guess is based on BH’s reports. My most frequent encounters with ravens in the Santa Monicas are with couples of birds. My biggest question remains the same: how many hold breeding territories, where are they, and how concentrated are they?

Just as I had observed one pair on the northeast side of the park, there is a pair on the southeast side. I wonder if it’s the same ones I met on one of my first visits to see ravens. At that time I began to think of them as “Marty and Elaine.” They did not like my attention and would move down the road, literally. Valle del Vista Drive was lined with pine trees – just before the Second World War would be my guess. All the ravens are very fond of the trees, and prefer them for perching. This makes them very easy to observe. So this pair would move, and I would continue to walk. After they first moved, they ceased to sing. They did not move when I approached and passed them – I didn’t see them, actually, until I turned around to doublecheck. After I began to watch them, they flew back up the road. This fascinated me at the time. They clearly had no problem with my being near – just with my watching. Or perhaps they moved for a reason unrelated to me. I did try this again a couple times that day until I had proved (to my own satisfaction) that they don’t mind people walking by but do mind them stopping to pay attention to them. People walk or run or bike frequently down that road, so that’s very typical. It is probably very atypical for anyone to pay obvious attention to them. However, on the day I’m writing about now, the two Toyon-eating ravens did not seem to mind at all my standing and observing, although I kept more distance and tried not to be so obvious.

On the southwest, inside part of the trip, there did seem to be a pair in residence – perching – along the stretch below Captain’s Roost. During the course of sitting and watching them do not much of anything (late afternoon by now) a group of four ravens flew around the bend at the altitude of the road, flying in from the south side of the park, across the canyon, northbound. They dispersed or flew on – at half a mile it gets tricky to follow them. I still had to get back to the car by the Greek Theater, so I pressed on towards the tunnel, and saw the area where the fire had burned. Not too big, but a lot of steep hillside. Should be interesting when the rains come.

Hooray for Toyon-wood

The musical number that is our unofficial city anthem would have sounded slightly different if our city founders had been sticklers for taxonomic accuracy. Hollywood was alledgedly named for the large shrubs bearing bright red berries in the winter, not really holly, but toyon. They are one of the dominant species in the Santa Monicas and other hills and mountains of the coastal sage scrub climate that prevails from Los Angeles to the great inland valleys like San Bernardino. And they are apparently good for a snack, if you’re a raven and feeling a bit peckish.

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Toyon (but in high desert, not Hollywood)

Ravens and the Hollywood Sign

Ever since I began this project, one thing has been missing: a photo of ravens cavorting around our most famous landmark (see November 4). Although I’ve got the bare minimum of equipment, my observations so far have shored up my belief that if I loiter in the right spot long enough, not only will one of the birds pass between me and the sign, it will do so at the crucially close distance required to get a usable photo. People keep telling me just “to photoshop it” but where’s the fun in that?

With the day off, it seemed like a good time to reconoitre location. I’m already satisfied that no more than four hours in Runyon on the flat but high place I call “The Table” would get me the photo, or the same time or less on the ridge that extends westward from Captain’s Roost in Griffith Park. But there is one place even closer to the sign, and that’s the Hollywood reservoir a.k.a. Lake Hollywood. In the 1920s it was one of Mulholland’s big water projects. A dam in the canyons below Mt. Cahuenga holds back untold cubic feet of water, and the lake is only visible from above. A few lucky people live on the ridges overlooking the lake and its surrounding mantle of tall pines and other trees. Part of Griffith Park is adjacent, and the bulk of GP is nearby, as is the undeveloped portion of Mt. Cahuenga, and on top of that the lake itself is fenced off against human access. So it’s almost a kind of nature preserve. It is possible sometimes to see deer on the hillsides. It looks like a paradise for a happy raven couple. Due to recent heavy rains and damage to some hillsides, the road that runs all the way around the lake has been closed (it is always closed to cars). So I won’t be able to check for nests anytime soon.

There is a fine overlook, if you can find it, not so hard once you know the area. A lot of the area around the Hollywood sign is inhabited (the sign was just an advertisement for one of Los Angeles’s innumberable real estate developments). I drove up to the end of one neighborhood, to the sliver of Griffith Park that overlooks the lake, hoping to judge how often photo ops might happen. Even before I got out of the car, I had found two ravens perched on a street light. The had a great view of the lake, and behind them rose Mt. Lee with the Hollywood sign. Of course I hadn’t brought the camera. I parked the car and walked back up to the birds. They were simply sitting quietly in the late morning sun. I took care not to stand and stare at them, and they didn’t give any indications that I was alarming to them. So we all sat for a while, until a large hawk soared into view over a nearby mansion. It wasn’t long before both birds took to the air, soaring with the hawk southwards along the lake, escorting it away with a duet of quorks. I noticed that one raven seemed to take the lead in approaching the hawk, eventually drawing very close and making pretty aggressive moves for a raven. Hawks don’t adjust their activity much for any birds, and I suppose this mainly serves to push raptors certain directions. The ravens I’d observed off the Sunset Strip seemed much more engergetic in their mobbing, with all three black birds drawing very near the hawk and keeping up the pressure. Here at the lake, it was much more low key.

Since I had the hydration backpack in the car (I keep it and bottled water there ever since Katrina) it seemed like a good time to continue to reconoitre. Had I just got lucky or is GP such a raven haven that taking the photo I want will be easy? [Two later visits indicate I had just got lucky – ravens prefer the ridges up and down Mt. Lee, but don’t appear to be frequenting the photo-op spot. I need to visit there earlier, I think).

Dumpster Diving (how Hollywood can you get?)

Hollywood may be a mythical tinseltown to most people, but in reality it’s a place where the ultra-famous live alongside the utterly destitute, with a lot of ordinary working people in between. Lots of residents live off dumpster diving, and ravens are no exception, as my marathon raven expedition on Sunday in Griffith Park was to reveal.

A small brush fire above Fern Dell detoured me to the Vermont Ave. entrance, used for the golf course and Greek Theater, whose summer season has just ended. I had hardly arrived before I spotted ravens, and followed one to a location just outside the theater. I heard raven song as I approached, which I believe was coming from the raven in the dumpster, who emerged with a nice chunk of garlic bread.

Why the singing (the mysterious, xylophone-like sounds) just then?

L’chaim to ravens everywhere

Walking through Hollywood on Yom Kippur in search of ravens can’t help but remind one of the appearances of ravens in the books of the law and the prophets as carried through history by the Jewish people. As I was walking west to La Cienaga and Holloway to see if that really is a full-time raven hang out (it is), all sorts of people were streaming into the Director’s Guild and were lined up outside the Laugh Factory, where, among many other locations, the High Holy Days would be celebrated.

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7:30 a.m.: under a bright blue morning sky on an already warm day, a raven lighted for a while on the usual billboard (see previous posts).
8:40 a.m. : raven returns. Even from 30 m. away, I could hear it making a soft, high-pitched ‘oo-‘oo vocalization like the one I’d heard before from ravens in the same location.
10:15 a.m.: after walking from LaBrea to Fairfax with the Santa Monicas to my right and vast tracts of empty sky above, I was almost to the Griddle when I spied a raven gliding south east out of the mountains. As usual with a glide, it kept to the same line without a single flap of wing until it had passed over and out of sight. I had to run around the corner to keep it in sight, but even then it disappeared in the direction of Darbyville. At the same time, however, three ravens were then visible (I was south of Fairfax, with the Director’s Guild looming just to my west), flying quickly north. I ran back to Sunset to try to catch them with the camera, but they were moving too fast and I was having trouble with manual vs. auto focus. A short while later, I could see several ravens at the peak of a hill just east of Laurel Canyon, mobbing a pair of hawks.

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11:00 a.m. LaCienega and Holloway: hawks all over Hollywood. Snapped one on the top of a pine on LaCienega. Just after it flew off, I spotted a raven flying over LaCienaga-Santa Monica Blvd. – Holloway, just as I’d hoped. As I was watching, and moving closer down the hill to the intersection, I realized the chase was on – raven vs. hawk, and then two, then three ravens escorting the hawk westwards. While ravens mob, they don’t really dive-bomb like smaller birds and crows do, but look as if they are merely seeing the slightly larger bird off. I got as many shots as I could, so this should soon be a well-illustrated post.

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Raven Holiday

Saturday – ravens galore. Visitors to Barney’s Beanery should keep their eyes open. Maybe it’s the spirit of Sal Mineo. This was one of a pair seen in both the morning and the afternoon at LaCienega and Holloway. I’d gone back to take photos of where they *had* been, and they appeared right above me while I was framing a shot. The whole day, full of ravens, is detailed below. It’s not so much that ravens are in Hollywood as it is that Hollywood is in the Santa Monica mountains.

Holloway Raven One

Holloway and Santa Monica

Holloway Raven Two

Holloway Raven One

The whole day:
Early morning under a light marine layer and cool temps:
8 am.: pair of ravens eastbound over LaBrea and Sunset
9 am.: ravens at Sweetzer and Santa Monica Blvd (noticed while I was having breakfast at Eat Well)
9:15 a.m.: pair of ravens at LaCienega and Holloway. First noticed on street light, near a utility pole full of sparrows. One raven then visited a construction site (mostly empty, being cleared for foundation, so mostly dirt) while its buddy kept watch from the Enser building (the tall white building in the background – the empty lot is adjacent to the 7-Eleven)
Holloway and Santa Monica
The lookout then left its perch and glided over the construction site, turning as it did, and its friend on the ground took off to follow, and they both flew south-east (away from the hills).
The rest of the day, the skies were sunny and clear.
10:30 a.m.: Near Mt. Topanga, two ravens flying north at 10-15 m. above ridge, following ridge trail, itself at 1800 ft. They alighted for a few moments on a telephone pole before continuing on. Sadly, we were hiking the other direction.
5 p.m.: On returning to LaCienega and Holloway, ravens caught me taking photos. Same ravens as in the morning? Who knows. Ravens were there again the following Thursday (see L’chaim to ravens)
6 p.m.: raven soarcling above LaBrea and Sunset, slowly moving towards Cahuenga Pass.