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JAUNTS: in and around Ventura County

Winter Wanderings

Cool, shorter days are a good time to hike and observe seasonal migrations.


It's 4:30 p.m. and darkness settles over our homes and offices confirming the presence of the winter season. 'Tis the time of year to settle in, get cozy and drink hot cider by fireplace.

But this is also the time of year to hike in forests made green from winter rains, inhale the fragrance of pine, and observe the seasonal migrations of whales, birds and butterflies.

Although seasonal transitions in this part of the country are subtle, in winter we share one dramatic change with the entire northern hemisphere: shorter days and colder nights. But even with less daylight there are plenty of things to do.

Pam Gallo, park operations supervisor for Ventura County, recommends starting each new year by "reaching inside yourself for an ultimate experience and a great personal tradition." Gallo does this by climbing Boney Mountain, the highest peak overlooking the Conejo Grade in Rancho Sierra Vista.

Nestled below Boney Mountain in the canyons above Malibu, hiking trails abound within the secluded mountain retreat of Circle X Ranch. This former Boy Scout camp has picnic tables and grates for charcoal fires if you're planning to have lunch before or after your hike.

The trails at Circle X provide a way to observe coastal ecosystems. Watch for stands of red shank chaparral, with its reddish-brown shredded bark, as well as abundant coastal sage scrub. Now that the streams are flowing and waterfalls splash to life, the riparian communities at Split Rock on the Mishe Mokwa Trail and near Happy Hollow Campground are places to see sycamores, live oaks and ferns.

This area offers easy-paced short strolls or all-day vigorous explorations, including the climb to Sandstone Peak, which at 3,111 feet is the highest point in the Santa Monica Mountains. Winter offers the kind of clear days where a hike up Sandstone will reward you with magnificent views of the Channel Islands as well as the Conejo and San Fernando valleys.

The mild climate conditions are also what attract migratory birds to Southern California. Now the migratory birds are stopping to rest en route to their warmer winter habitats in South America. Other birds that arrived in late December will stay for the whole winter.

In fact, one reason the National Audubon Society holds its annual bird count near Christmas is because this is when the most species can be observed. The other reason is that during these shortest days of the year, virtually no migratory movement occurs. In coming months, days will lengthen and some of the winter birds here now will indeed fly farther south as cooler temperatures set in.

Jack Burden of the Conejo Valley Audubon Society figures that since June, nearly 100 species have migrated to Ventura County and are still here mingling with the 75 species that reside locally year-round.

Burden suggests seeking out the bald eagle, now in its winter home here through mid-March. Although this huge bird of prey is rarely seen in Ventura County, an almost sure way to see it and other beautiful migrants is to take the boat cruise on Lake Cachuma near Santa Barbara where eagles are sighted almost daily.

Cachuma has year-round breeding resident bald eagles, but the winter season brings itinerant eagles and other such showy visitors as osprey, Canada geese, wood ducks, grebes and white pelicans with their 9-foot wingspans.

Liz Mason, assistant naturalist at Cachuma Lake Recreation Area, reported that recently her boss burst into the office after the morning's boat excursion and proclaimed: "An adult pair of bald eagles, four immature bald eagles and two golden eagles!"

Mason relishes the drama of watching the eagles soar and perform acrobatics in the air while osprey and red-tailed hawks boldly and foolishly dive-bomb them, great blue herons scatter from the trees and coots huddle in defensive clusters on the water.

Just as human "snowbirds" from colder states travel to the coastal regions of Florida and Southern California to winter, beach migratory birds, such as peregrine falcons, are now visiting county shores.

Wandering tattlers, recognized by their dark gray color, pale green legs and long probing bills, can be seen around rock jetties. They have traveled here from their nests in the Yukon and Alaska. The California gull is a bird of a different feather when it comes to winter migration. It migrates westward from nests in Mono Lake and Great South Lake to the coast.

Ventura's Department of Community Services Recreation Program will offer a lagoon bird walk Jan. 10. The staff also leads the monarch butterfly walks to view another traditional seasonal visitor as they cluster in groups of thousands.

Every year at this time the magnificent Pacific gray whales, some of the largest mammals to ever live on Earth, migrate 6,000 to 10,000 miles to the secluded Mexican lagoons where they breed. From mid-February through early April, they guide their newborns back north to their feeding grounds in the Bering Sea, between Alaska and Russia. (See Jaunts column, Page 7.)

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