Watering holes are often the best place to see a variety of animals, particularly birds, which seem to linger near them. Raspberry Spring is on the backside of Pine Mountain, about a half-mile from the top. It is one of the few sources of water on the mountain, which made it seem like an ideal location to see a concentrated amount of wildlife.
Recalling the advice of accomplished birders such as Joan Easton Lentz and Roger Millikan, who shared that the best time to see birds is in the morning before 10 a.m., I made a plan to camp there the night before and get an early start.
Most birds are not very active at night, and it isn’t until the sun comes up that they start their day. In the morning, one of their first tasks is to find something to eat. It stood to reason that getting water would also be part of that routine; therefore, the spring might have a lot of activity during that same time period.
A western grey squirrel makes its way to the spring
Pine Mountain overlooks the Cuyama Valley to the north and the Sespe Valley to the south and is part of what’s known as Pine Mountain Ridge, a collection of peaks in Ventura County that are part of the Transverse Ranges.
The mountain is reached from Ojai by heading north along State Route 33 to Reyes Peak Road, which leads to the top of the mountain. The paved road leads past both Pine Mountain and Reyes Peak Campgrounds, which together offer a dozen campsites on a first come, first served basis.
There are also two trail camps near the spring, which would’ve made it convenient for me to visit the spring first thing in morning. However, because of the Level IV fire restrictions, I opted for the easy life of car camping. Level IV fire restrictions ban all campfires throughout the forest and cook stoves are only permitted in designated campgrounds such as car camping places. In other words, no cooked meals for dinner and no hot coffee in the morning at trail camps.
Rising early the next morning, I made my way over to the trailhead on the north side of the road, across from Reyes Peak Campground, and hiked down to Raspberry Spring. The half-mile trail leads through a mix of conifers, including ponderosa and sugar pines, as well as white fir.
A Steller’s Jay stations itself near the spring
On the hike in, I set off several bird alarms that preceded my arrival at the spring. Birds make a variety of calls to communicate with one another including birdsong and companion calls. An alarm call alerts nearby birds of potential predators. The call is spread through the woods as each bird in turn passes the call along, essentially telegraphing the presence of any disturbance or predator as it moves through the forest, in this case, a lone hiker still waking up.
From the trail camps, I followed the short side trail, quickly found a shaded spot overlooking the spring, and settled in. I figured that once I stopped moving and quietly waited, the birds would start to return.
When I was a kid there was an actual redwood tub at the spring that was set in the ground and came up about knee high. Water was piped from the spring and filled the tub. Growing around one side was a clump of wild raspberries. The spring has since fallen into disrepair.
Today the site has two metal pipes, one that flows into the remnants of the old tub, where there are still a few raspberry vines, and another a couple of feet away. Even with the drought, both still provide a steady drip of water, which creates puddles beneath them.
a pair of pygmy nuthatches gather at the spring
As soon as things quieted down, red-breasted and pygmy nuthatches along with mountain chickadees started to filter in. These little birds would scamper up and down the pines making a rustling sound on the bark, before then hopping furtively from branch to branch, as they inched their way closer to the spring to get a drink.
Steller’s jays, along with white-headed and acorn woodpeckers soon followed suit, each working their way down from the higher branches, and incrementally making their way to the spring to get at the water, before then retreating back up the branches.
As the birds continued their routine, several western grey squirrels started moving in. Across the spring from me were two pine trees growing close together and beyond them a couple more trees in a row. The squirrels seemed to favor two routes. They would either scamper along the hillside, like little commandos, pausing at the base of each tree before making a dash to the waterhole. Or they would make their way to the two trees nearest the spring, climb up the backside, and stealthily make their way down the front, displacing along the way whatever birds may have been in line for a drink.
White-headed woodpecker, band-tailed pigeon and acorn woodpecker crowd together at the spring
While all this was going on, I watched a band-tailed pigeon settle in several trees back from the spring. It sat there for a good while and then moved in one tree closer, and sat some more. Its advance was so slow I was beginning to wonder if pigeons even drank water. It eventually made its way down to the base of the tree nearest the spring, where it waited some more. And then when it felt satisfied that it was safe, went in for some water.
Soon more birds and squirrels began filtering in towards the spring, including two more pigeons. It was as if everyone else was saying, “Well if the pigeons are getting a drink, it must be safe.”
As the activity increased, it started to feel like quite a menagerie was building. Among the birds, there were nuthatches, chickadees, woodpeckers, Steller’s jays, and pigeons. And whereas before the different animals each took their turn, now two or three of them would go in at a time for a drink. A lone warbler joined the party, and at one point, a bold little chipmunk dashed in and got a drink.
A chipmunk pauses near the spring
By now we were up to about a half-dozen grey squirrels, including a pair that were busy making sure that there would be more grey squirrels for future generations of naturalists to appreciate.
I wasn’t sure if the animals had gotten used to me or if my presence was keeping away their predators, but there was a growing feeling of safety and good cheer at the spring. I could hear the rustling of nuthatches and chickadees on the trees on every side of me and the sounds of more birds moving in closer through the forest. As the sounds continued to build, I was even starting to feel like I might be overrun by wildlife.
Arriving late to the party, this one squirrel in particular worked its way up the two pines closest to the spring and started down the front side of the nearest pine. It took one look at me and did not like what it was seeing. How could everyone be fine with this large potential predator lurking so near the spring? And with that, it excitedly started making its alarm call – a loud, repeated chirp that reverberated through the small canyon where the spring is located. At first, the other animals just let the sound wash over them as part of the moment, but soon each in turn dispersed from the area, moving to a safe distance to assess what all the ruckus was about.
I continued my vigil for another 45 minutes feeling appropriately reprimanded, while the nuthatches and chickadees slowly returned, along with a couple of the calmer grey squirrels. However, it was clear that the party was over and with mid-morning arriving, it seemed like that was my cue to head home. Nevertheless, I left feeling inspired by the amount of wildlife I’d seen and on the hike out was busy thinking of other water holes I could visit.
This article originally appeared in Section A of the October 10th, 2016 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.
The inspiration for this article came from a desire to get to see a variety of wildlife in one location. Recalling the amount of birds I saw when I was at San Emigdio Mesa Spring, I thought I might have similar luck at Raspberry Spring given that it’s one of the few water sources near the top of the mountain.