Over the past few weeks I’ve spent hours pouring over Google maps, scrutinizing every shape and shadow in the satellite imagery of my sites and imagining what they will look like when I finally visit them. But no site captured my imagination quite as unimpressively as McKittrick. Tiny town just a few blocks long. No growth since the 1900s apart from the addition of some side streets. Scrubby hills. Browns of every shade. From the air, I though the place was utterly uninteresting. And I was completely wrong. The myriad dirt roads crisscrossing the surrounding hills aren’t just backcountry trails. They’re an oil field.
The extent of oil country here caught me completely off guard. And McKittrick is far from the worst of it. In north Bakersfield is a ridge called Panorama Park, which rises dramatically over the riverbed and offers a breathtakingly wide view of the surrounding countryside. And Oildale. The oil pumps are so indescribably numerous that they literally blacken the horizon, like ants swarming upon a discarded breadcrumb.
The oil fields were a comfortable distance away from our site in Bakersfield, but in McKittrick, we were right in the middle of one.
We turned down a side road marked by a massive Chevron sign, and discovered that half our transect snaked through the hills past quivering oil pipelines, massive machines of unfathomable purpose, and so many caution signs that we’ve started seeing how many variations we can collect. Understandably, we investigated the area with more than the usual level of caution. But as we failed to discover any indication that we weren’t allowed to be there (and even had a couple official-looking trucks pass by without incident), we decided to complete the survey as planned.
In 1911, McKittrick was visited by a group of researchers including Harry S. Swarth (incidentally, 1911 was also the year oil was discovered in the area). Since then, bird life has changed dramatically. But not necessarily in the way one might expect. We failed to find a few scrub specialists that historically occupied these hills (Le Conte’s Thrasher and Phainopepla). But in contrast to Swarth’s depauperate list of 15 species (he notes explicitly that “this area is poor for birds”), we turned up a respectable 30. The usual horde of doves, blackbirds, and starlings colonized the town as it grew. But McKittrick also has trees. They are exotic trees dependent on copious irrigation, but amidst a vast countryside of saltbrush scrub they are the only trees for miles, and are thus a magnet for tanagers, orioles, warblers, flycatchers, and grosbeaks. Even the brushy hills have gained some species – meadowlarks, horned larks, and shrikes, no doubt drifters from the fringes of the agricultural land that has advanced far closer to McKittrick than it was in 1911.
On our final morning, we even found a legitimate rarity – a gorgeous male Rose-breasted Grosbeak. The species is native to the east coast and, in my opinion, one of the most gorgeous songbirds in North America. I just hope I didn’t bother Andrea with how much I was jumping up and down.
Even with this pleasantly surprising bird diversity, Mckittrick itself failed to hold much charm for Andrea and I, and our free afternoons have been spent exploring vast swatches of Kern County. A trip to the Bakersfield Visitor’s Center yielded some unexpected goodies, even if the suggested driving tour turned out to be one comically disappointing stop after another (Bakersfield’s top 10 snapshot spots include the view of Oildale from Panorama Park, as well as a shoe repair shop shaped like a giant shoe).
More rewarding was our dive over the hills to see the Carrizo Plains National Monument. The massive valley is impressively flat and dry – I think there are more tumbleweeds than living bushes. But at the center is Soda Lake, which at the moment is nothing but a vast, dry salt plain encircled by the rolling hills.
We’ll be moving on soon, and I think I’ll miss our lovely little camp here at Buena Vista Lake. Apart from the raccoon that nearly walked into my lap and our recent discovery of a sprinkler that pummeled our tent with water one night, the stay as been remarkably pleasant. Even the pests are remarkably bearable.