Posted by: James Wapotich | July 23, 2013

Trail Quest: The Birds of Lake Los Carneros

Part of what makes hiking fun is the chance to see wildlife. And birds, because of their diversity and numbers, can provide a lot of relatively easy opportunities to observe wildlife in a natural setting.

One of the more convenient places to go birding is Lake Los Carneros. The 140-acre open space, renamed Rancho La Patera Park by the city of Goleta, is fairly easy to get to, even by bus. And yet because of the lake, the park is a magnet for a variety of birds.

Lake Los Carneros Birding bird watching Roger Millikan Rancho La Patera Park Santa Barbara Goleta day hike trail


An excellent resource for viewing the birds at the lake is the book, The Birds of Lake Los Carneros, written by Roger Millikan and Adam Lewis. The book includes color pictures and descriptions of the 112 bird species that the two authors have observed and photographed at the lake during their ten years of hiking and birding there.

The book is organized by habitat which is also helpful for beginners, because rather than being organized by bird families and species, it’s arranged according to where you’re most likely to see a particular bird.

Many of the birds in the book can be seen elsewhere in Santa Barbara County, and so the book not only teaches about the birds in our area, but by specifically focusing on birds seen at the lake, it can make for a good starting point. And even though summertime can be the slow time of the year for birding as there a less migratory birds, that too can benefit the beginner by narrowing the field.

The book includes an aerial photo of the park with the main trails highlighted.

To get to Lake Los Carneros, from highway 101, take the Los Carneros Road exit and turn north towards the mountains. Continue on North Los Carneros Road to Santa Barbara County Fire Station number 14 and turn right. The entrance to the park is not marked; however parking is found past the fire station, near the South Coast Railroad Museum and Goleta Valley Historical Society. From the parking area one can access the informal trails around the lake, as well as visit historic Stow House.

The park is bordered by Los Carneros Road, Covington Way, La Patera Lane and Calle Real, and one can park along Covington Way or La Patera Lane and access the park from there as well.

Recently I joined Mr. Millikan on a hike around the lake. The hike is less than a mile, but does afford one the opportunity to see a fair number of birds over a short distance. There are also numerous side trails that allow one to explore the open spaces around the lake.

Starting near Stow House, one route is to hike clockwise around the lake. The trail leads past non-native cherry trees and native elderberry bushes before arriving at the footbridge across the lake.

A keen observer, Mr. Millikan shared that some of the secrets to seeing birds, particularly during the summer, is to know where they’re likely to congregate, whether it’s at fruiting trees or a particular stand of eucalyptus or pines that make for good perches. His years of birding at the lake have also shown him where some of the favorite nesting trees are, allowing him to witness the birds as they raise and care for their young.

It’s interesting, as Mr. Millikan pointed out on our hike, how birding indirectly teaches one about the ecology of a place. Regularly spending time in a particular place and following what the birds are doing can reveal the interrelatedness of the plants and animals.

“Once you become familiar with a particular species of bird, you start noticing its habits, how it flies. You have all these subtle clues that start to come together in your mind that help you recognize the bird.” Mr. Millikan told the News-Press.

Mr. Millikan’s own interest in birding started with the purchase of a digital camera. After retiring as a professor of Chemistry from UC Santa Barbara in 1992, he decided to start using the camera to take pictures of birds at the beach.

“I’d seen all these different kinds of birds but hadn’t paid attention to what they were, and I wanted to know.” Mr. Millikan shared. “This turned out to be a good decision, because shore birds are big and they’re out in the open. And with a little bit of stealth you can get fairly close to them, so you don’t have to have a great camera to get nice pictures of shore birds.”

Afterwards Mr. Millikan would view the images on his computer screen and using a guide book set about identifying the birds. After exploring the local beaches, he started going to Lake Los Carneros to expand the range of birds he could see.

In the course of learning more about birds, his hobby soon became a passion. He joined the local Audubon chapter and participated in their weekly bird walks. He also started visiting Lake Cachuma to see the different birds one can find there, which led him becoming a regular volunteer at the Neal Taylor Nature Center.

It was his involvement with the non-profit nature center at Lake Cachuma that was the inspiration for his first book, The Birds of Lake Cachuma. Mr. Millikan self-published the book through in 2009. The book includes a description and color photos of 46 bird species that are commonly seen there.

For the past six years, Mr. Millikan has also contributed photos to Karen Bridger’s weekly column, Bird Watch, which appears each Wednesday in the News-Press.

What’s particularly inspiring about Mr. Millikan’s story is that it dispels the myth that it takes a lifetime to learn about the local natural history. And while the more time one spends observing nature, the richer their knowledge becomes, the important thing is to just get out there and take it one step at a time, one bird at a time.

On his website,, Mr. Millikan has a picture of each of the more than 300 birds he’s observed in Santa Barbara County. The site is a great resource for birders, as each image includes a recording of one or more of the bird’s vocalizations, from either the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs or the Cornell Bird Songs of California.

Past the footbridge, the trail leads through a grove of eucalyptus where one can sometimes find raptors. According the Mr. Millikan there are three different hawks that one can see at the lake: red-tailed hawks, red-shoulder hawks, and Cooper’s Hawks.

As the trail rounds the lake, it arrives at the earthen dam. This is where one is likely to see the most birds, as the lake draws in shore birds from the coast, just two miles away.

The best time to see birds is in the morning before 10:00AM. “The birds have been fasting all night and they’re hungry, and so they’re out looking for food.” Mr. Millikan explained, “That means they move around, and that’s how you spot them.”

Mr. Millikan suggests bringing binoculars, at least 7 or 8 power, and a camera, for observing and recording the birds you see.

Another tool for birding is the Birds of Santa Barbara County Checklist, published by Santa Barbara Audubon Society, which lists the nearly 500 species of birds that have been observed in the county. The list includes how common or rare a bird is and during which season to help clarify what birds you’re likely to see.

The Birds of Lake Los Carneros is available at the park at Rancho La Patera Museum Store. And both the book and the checklist are available at Chaucer’s and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

This article originally appeared in section A of the July 22nd, 2013 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: