Nine Animals I’ve Seen in the Wild in 2020

A pair of coyotes at Griffith Park

With so much fun stuff shut down in Los Angeles this year, thanks to the pandemic, my wife and I have been trying to make the most of what's available. That means hiking – lots of it – two or three times a week. We're quite fortunate to have so many trails at our disposal: some popular, some hidden, each with its own sights and character. I'm also amazed at the abundance of wildlife to be found in such a large, crowded city. There's a lot more here than just squirrels, seagulls, and ants. Here are some of the animals I've encountered this year.

  1. Rattlesnakes. I've lived in California nearly all my life, yet before 2020 I never saw a rattlesnake in the wild. Now I have seen three. The first, pre-lockdown, was in Griffith Park, near the Observatory. I literally saved a distracted stranger from stepping on it. A couple of months later, during lockdown, my wife returned the favor when I almost stepped on one. (It was gigantic!) The third rattler we saw was safely off the trail in Fryman Canyon.
  2. Bats. The last time I saw a bat in California, it was in the Bay Area and I was four years old. (I found a dead one at a family party and proudly gave it to my mother, who then put it in a baby food jar.) I didn't know we had them in LA. But you'll find different sorts of animals when you hike at twilight. These bats were near the spot where I almost stepped on a rattlesnake: by Griffith Park's Bronson Caves, which, fittingly, served as the location for the Batcave on the old Batman TV show.
  3. Coyotes. Now, I have seen coyotes in LA before. But always just one at a time. On Halloween – in the same spot as those bats and that big rattler – we came across a pair of them, with one emitting a shrill, repetitive yelp that sounded like a dog in pain. A passerby explained that the two coyotes were trying to lure hikers' little doggies to their jaws by pretending to be wounded. I'm not so sure about that, but it was quite a sight (and sound).
  4. Owls. I don't think I've seen an owl in the wild anywhere before this year. But on a twilight hike in Franklin Canyon, we heard the delightful hoot of an owl silhouetted against the darkening sky. Because it was silhouetted, I couldn't tell what breed it was. To make up for it, a few months later we saw a big fat Great Horned Owl... perched on our next-door neighbor's roof! I hooted at it and it swiveled its head right at me.
  5. Quail. I'd encountered lots of California quail – our state bird – on hikes up in the Bay Area, but it wasn't until 2019 when I had my first sighting here in LA (again in Fryman Canyon). These skittish cutie-pies remain elusive, but I've seen my share of them this year, often at Will Rogers State Park.
  6. A tortoise. If you see turtles in urban California, they've usually been "planted" by humans in park ponds. This year, however, I saw a tortoise in the wild. This was back in my old San Jose stomping grounds (we braved the pandemic to visit my mother in July). This noble reptile was sunning itself in a trailside creek. There were also fish in that creek – big ones – and they count as wildlife too.
  7. Chipmunks. I honestly didn't even know California had chipmunks – in all my years, I'd never spotted one in the wild here – until my wife and I took a little getaway to Big Bear Lake, some two hours east of LA., and on a hike we saw Chaparral Chipmunks galore.
  8. Woodpeckers. Another bird you don't associate with urban Los Angeles, yet I've seen several on hikes this year. Some pecking, some not. Admittedly, they're fairly common in the hills around town, as are rabbits (I saw so many this year!), deer (I saw a few), and little lizards (I saw bazillions). However, I haven't sighted a single raccoon, skunk, or possum in 2020, though I have before.
  9. Whales. No, this wasn't in California. This was in Maui. Because my wife and I went there in early February, when no one thought Covid-19 would ever be an American problem. I find it bittersweet to look back on how absolutely normal the first two months of 2020 were. None of us had the slightest idea what was in store. At any rate, those whales – the first I'd ever glimpsed in my life – were far away, as was the shark that I saw on that same trip. However, while on a group kayaking excursion, I heard a whale singing below my oars. I wasn't aware that you could hear whale song without an underwater microphone. Everyone – kayakers, boaters, paddle boarders, guides – stopped what they were doing for several minutes and simply listened. It was a breathtaking moment of wonder and connection. Some awful things happened to me this year; some good things too. But this was a genuine "highlight of my life", and regardless of the ennui, frustration, and misery that 2020 has produced, I will always have that memory.