Paul Edelman, a biologist for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, was admiring the fortitude of a cactus that had survived the recent freezes in Caballero Canyon, near the southern tip of Reseda Boulevard.
Suddenly there was a rustle and a sharp thumping noise in the nearby brush. " That's a deer," he whispered, and he turned quickly to look up a canyon hillside.
Sure enough, a large deer was quietly disappearing into the thick brush near the top of the hill. "He's a big one," Edelman said with a smile. "He'll move away as quietly as possible so that we don't see where he is going."
Edelman stayed still and listened, but after a bit more rustling the only sound that could be heard was the constant grinding from giant earthmovers about 1,000 yards away, digging out an extension of Reseda Boulevard. Then came a helicopter flying low overhead.
"It's ironic that we have that," Edelman said, pointing toward where the deer was seen, "practically right next to that and that," he continued, pointing toward the man-made noises. "And it's all right in the middle of a gigantic city.
"It could only happen in Los Angeles."
When you are stuck in traffic on the Ventura Freeway, it does not seem possible that human beings, let alone wild animals, could survive in such a harsh urban landscape. Yet, there are pockets of wilderness strewn throughout the residential sprawl of the San Fernando Valley that are home to deer, bobcats, coyotes, raccoons, skunks and even mountain lions.
"Even though you are in the middle of an urban area, there are places here where you could swear you were miles from other people," said Suzanne Goode, a resource ecologist for the Santa Monica Mountains district of the California Department of Parks and Recreation.
Traces of this wildlife can be seen by any casual hiker roaming around undeveloped areas in the San Fernando, Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys. And with a bit of luck, the larger animals can be spotted and even photographed.
Because most of the major mammals found in local wilderness areas are nocturnal, the best time to see them is at dawn or near dusk, according to Lynn Barkley, a mammologist at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. "It's best to catch them either when they are just coming out for the night or when they are heading back to their homes in the mornings," she said.
Barkley also suggested looking near water sources, especially during this time of drought when animals are likely to congregate near streams, ponds and lakes. "Staying on the trail is OK because a lot of the mammals love the trails," she said. "It gives them easy passageways through the woods."
"You should try and go alone if you want to see wild animals," said Sabrina Keen, a wildlife biologist for the Tujunga Ranger District of the Angeles National Forest. "Most people don't understand how far the sounds that humans make carry. Even if they laugh just once when they are walking, it's enough to spook animals for a great distance."
"We don't walk with nature very well," added Valerie Vartarian, ranger supervisor at the Placerita Canyon State Park in the Santa Clarita area. "Animals can tell when we are in the area and they steer clear. The best thing to do is to find a spot, sit down and be quiet and try and be a part of nature. Then you have a chance of the animals coming out."
Vartarian oversees a nature center in Placerita park that is home for animals that are found injured in the wild and brought in to be nursed back to health. A junior ranger volunteer, Ian Swift, 12, went into a closet-sized cage and brought out a great horned owl named O.J. "O.J. fell out of his nest and we took care of him, but he was here so long that he became imprinted with a different kind of life than he would live in the wilderness," Vartarian said. "He would not be able to survive out there anymore."
One of the most enchanting animals found in and near Los Angeles is the Mule Deer, common to most wilderness parks and reserves, except for those in desert regions. A full-grown deer is about 3 feet high at the shoulder and can weigh up to 200 pounds. They are usually yellow-brown or blue-gray in color and have black-tipped tails, giving them the nickname "black tail" deer. They can sometimes be found near streams or ponds and like to feed in oak woodlands.
Also fairly common are coyotes. Although in the movies they are usually depicted as barking or giving long, mournful howls, in real life they are more likely to be seen quietly sitting on a hillside or in a field, surveying an area. When they move, they move --up to 35 miles per hour.
On his walk up Caballero Canyon, Edelman saw lots of evidence that several coyotes had been there in the area, probably just the night before.