RAPTORS IN BLUE BOXES on the way to Avatar’s Point at Meher Mount. Volunteers and staff from the Ojai Raptor Center (ORC) arrived at Meher Mount on August 15, 2019, to return a newly rehabilitated American Kestrel and a Red-Tailed Hawk to the wild. Pictured (left to right): Two Raptor Center volunteers, one carrying a blue box with a raptor inside; Manager/Caretaker Ellen Kwiatkoskwi; Kristina Somma (white hat); Jackln DeSantis (ORC) carrying another raptor; Meher Mount board member Robert Turnage; and board member Jim Whitson. (Photo: Cassandra Bramucci)
When representatives from the Ojai Raptor Center (ORC) arrived at Meher Mount on August 15, 2019, to release a Kestrel and Red-Tailed Hawk, Jaclyn DeSantis, wildlife rehabilitator and ORC supervisor, warned all of us to have our cameras ready.
“…so don’t anybody blink.”
Her 11 years of experience in doing bird releases taught her that these gorgeous creatures take their chance at freedom very seriously. “This will be over in ten seconds once I open the box,” she said, “so don’t anybody blink.”
Anyone who has ever seen a nature program showing a bird release — or the release of any wild animal for that matter — knows that events unfold quickly. There is no looking back on the part of the captive birds. As soon as they are released, every instinct propels them to get away from their captors and shake off the memory of cages and carriers by immersing themselves in the wildness they were born into.
At Meher Mount though, things tend to unfold in unusual ways.
JACLYN DESANTIS from the Ojai Raptor Center (ORC) releases a Red-Tailed Hawk at Avatar’s Point at Meher Mount. The raptor is being returned to the wild after its rescue and rehabilitation. Meher Mount board members James Whitson and Robert Turnage reached out to the ORC to suggest that Meher Mount would be a suitable location for raptor releases. (Photo: Cassandra Bramucci, August 15, 2019)
For the raptor release, the small group headed out to Avatar’s Point to test a raptor release atop Sulphur Mountain Road in the Upper Ojai.
Once everyone gathered at Avatar’s Point, cameras quickly focused on the blue cardboard carrier holding the American Kestrel, first up for release. Carefully, gently, and speaking in a calming voice, Jaclyn lifted out the nervous male, pointed him toward the vast expanse clearly visible on this remarkably mild day August day, and set him free.
“Odd that he is not flying away…”
He immediately flew up to the lowest branch on the nearest pine tree and looked around at his audience. “He’s just getting his bearings,” Jaclyn assured us. Indeed he was making the head-bobbing motion birds use to measure distance.
But he was mainly looking back over his shoulder toward Baba’s Tee. “Odd that he is not flying away, I’m not going to lie,” she said.
THE NEWLY RELEASED American Kestrel perches on the branch of a pine tree at Avatar’s Point next to Baba’s Tree at Meher Mount. “Odd that he is not flying away,” said Jaclyn DeSantis from the Ojai Raptor Center. (Photo: Cassandra Bramucci, August 15, 2019)
Two minutes went by, then five, then 10 minutes. The arms of those holding cameras began to tire and tremble. Finally, the Kestrel appeared to take off, only to land once again on a higher branch of the same tree.
It was time to turn to the Red-Tailed Hawk. Perhaps his release would spur the Kestrel to take a chance.
“Usually they just want to get as far away from us as possible.”
The group shifted over to the left about 30 feet, and once again, cameras were raised with anticipation. The group was not disappointed. This gallant raptor took off in a graceful, wide arc to the gasps of onlookers.
THE NEWLY RELEASED Red-Tailed Hawk is flying in a circle past Baba’s Tree at Meher Mount. (Photo: Cassandra Bramucci, August 15, 2019)
He flew right toward the tree where the Kestrel still perched, then continued his flight in a wide arc past Baba’s tree and came full circle to land on the lowest branch of the another pine tree directly behind Baba’s tree, just to the left of where his audience stood.
And there he perched. And continued to perch. “I’ve never seen this happen, especially to land this close to us!” Jaclyn remarked with clear astonishment in her voice. “Usually they just want to get as far away from us as possible.”
“I’ve never seen this happen…”
As we waited, speculating whether the birds were just happy taking in Meher Mount and Baba’s Tree, the hesitant Kestrel found his courage and took off, circling around the field below the point and finally landing out of sight.
At about the same time, the Red-Tailed Hawk took full flight, soared out over the valley, and down the hill to the left of Baba’s Tree.
We all put down our cameras, contented that we had been given such a beautiful gift. The sight of freed birds choosing to linger with us until our own hearts soared with awe and gratitude.
Hopefully, there will be more raptor releases at Meher Mount. These releases tend to occur as soon as the birds show they are ready to go, and Meher Mount and the Ojai Raptor Center will stay in contact.
In the meantime, there are two beautiful young raptors in the skies above Meher Mount that may just decide to take up residence here – perhaps even in the raptor boxes awaiting new tenants.
IN FLIGHT after its release at Avatar’s Point, the American Kestrel soars about the valley below. The Ojai Raptor Center selected this spot at Meher Mount to release the two newly rehabilitated raptors — a Red-Tailed Hawk and an American Kestrel. (Photo: Cassandra Bramucci, August 15, 2019)
“You’d be surprised at what doesn’t bother these birds.”
In the early 2000s when Ray Johnston and Elizabeth Arnold were caretakers, the Ojai Raptor Center had released raptors at Meher Mount, but there had not been any similar activity since then.
Then in response to the 2017 Thomas Fire, Meher Mount renewed its relationship with the Ojai Raptor Center. Board members James Whitson and Robert Turnage responded to a Raptor Center announcement recommending that landowners consider installing perches and boxes to support the local raptor population and simultaneously help reduce the rodent population which was proliferating after the fire.
Due to their efforts, two boxes (one designed for owls and the other for kestrels) were installed at Meher Mount on July 27, 2018. (See related story blog “Let’s Hope the Birds Move in Soon!”)
Since then, volunteers, visitors, and various caretakers have kept watch in the hopes those boxes would attract some raptor residents. So far nothing. It may take several years, or it may be that the boxes will need to be relocated further from the Visitor Center.
When asked if that might be necessary, DeSantis said, “You would be surprised what doesn’t bother these birds. I’ve seen them take up residence inside noisy factories!” She still felt it was too early to worry about it, though hopes were high that the new releases would decide to take up residence.
Baba’s Tree continues to grow healthy new branches — aided by the winter rains, the extra measures of care given over the past 18 months, and the love and prayers from around the world.
Consulting with ISA® Certified Arborist Michael Inaba, Meher Mount put in place a care plan starting in early 2018 for Baba’s Tree recovery and regeneration. One of the steps in the plan is sheltering the limbs with a fabric to help protect them from sunburn and pests while new growth creates a protective canopy. More than a year later, it was time for a new ‘sadra’ for Baba’s Tree.
A sadra (also sadhra) refers to a thin muslin shirt traditionally worn by Zoroastrians. Avatar Meher Baba adapted the sadra into an ankle-length garment which He regularly wore. Meher Baba said, “You have no idea what just one scrap of My sadra will mean to the world in the future.”
Caretakers of a beloved oak tree in Upper Ojai say they're cautiously optimistic the tree will survive.
Baba's Tree, on the property of the Meher Mount retreat, at 9902 Sulphur Mountain Road, was shattered by the Thomas Fire, which consumed the main trunk of the tree and destroyed 90 percent of its canopy.
But now the iconic tree is coming back to life. "It's looking good, so far," said Meher Mount President Sam Ervin.
The giant coast live oak, named for Indian spiritual master Avatar Meher Baba, overlooks the Pacific Ocean from the brow of the mountain, 1,200 feet above the Ojai Valley. Meher Baba sat under the tree and sanctified the property during his only visit in August 1956.
The following is from the Ventura County Star published on February 11, 2019, about the recovery of Baba’s Tree from the 2017 Thomas Fire. See the full article, “Baba’s Tree springs back to life after being nearly destroyed by Thomas Fire.”
The forecast was for rain. Still, the volunteers came. It was the day of The Great Dhuni Stick Harvest. Saturday, January 12, 2019, turned out to be a glorious day with a very special dhuni at Meher Mount.
The rain stopped, and the sun came out around 10:30 a.m. The cloud-filled skies were deep blue, and the views were picture-perfect. It was time to harvest dhuni-sized sticks from the fallen branches of Baba’s Tree.
It was only fitting that after the dhuni sticks were harvested, there should be a dhuni at Meher Mount.
On December 4, 2017, the Thomas Fire hit Meher Mount. Within a few days, the damage assessment began. At first, it seemed straightforward: Document the damage. Make a list for insurance. Begin to repair the damage.
There was some thought that in 90 days the fire recovery "to do list" would be complete, pending insurance reimbursement. As fire recovery progressed, the to do list never seemed to get shorter. In fact, each newly completed or half-completed task seemed to generate several more related tasks. The to do list was never ending.
Then it dawned on us – draw a line through the task list. When all the recovery projects before that line were completed, declare victory.
Now, seven months - 207 days to be exact - after the Thomas Fire, Meher Mount is declaring victory. The task list is still long, but every operational aspect related to fire damage has been fixed.
Break out the champagne, it’s a celebration.
After the Thomas Fire fire struck Meher Mount on December 4, 2017, help in the form of time, energy and money, began trickling in and then streaming in.
It was inspiring for all who were on the ground, day-to-day, to feel the love and caring from around the world. The support made recovery and regeneration practically and energetically possible for Meher Mount.
It was suggested by Cassandra Bramucci that Meher Mount find a way to thank all the donors and volunteers. She thought sending a keepsake with the ashes from Baba’s Tree would be appropriate.
The following is a reprint of an article from the Ventura County Star published on April 30, 2018, about Baba's Tree, the 2017 Thomas Fire, and re-purposing the wood from the tree.
The following is a reprint of an article about the making of three benches from the fallen wood of Baba's Tree. It is from the Ojai Valley News published April 27, 2018.
When the December 2017 Thomas Fire struck Meher Mount, it set in motion a regeneration and renewal process that is more than just fire recovery. On the surface, the fire damage seemed to be modest. Below the surface, the fire stirred a new creative energy that is moving in all directions.
Only Baba's Tree suffered major, irrevocable change. Winds and fire shattered the tree's crown and burned most of the trunk. Major limbs broke off and toppled to the ground.
But, the creative energy and the energy of Baba's Tree persists. The wood from Baba's Tree has been salvaged, milled and stored for future use.
For immediate use, Meher Mount worked with artisan Harold Greene to create three outdoor benches from Baba's Tree to be placed near Baba’s Fireplace – the only remaining man-made artifact from Avatar Meher Baba’s 1956 visit to Meher Mount. All other buildings, memorabilia, and machinery were destroyed the 1985 New Life Fire.
After the initial shock of Baba’s Tree being struck by fire for a second time – the first time in 1985 and now again in 2017 – the community expressed its desire – through social media, email and personal contact – to save the wood from Baba’s Tree. The board of directors agreed.
Within two months after the December 4, 2017, Thomas Fire, a team of professionals and volunteers was at Meher Mount for three and one-half days harvesting and salvaging the burned and fallen wood from Baba’s Tree. The immediate goal was to mill, prepare and store the wood before the winter rains.
On December 4, 2017, the Thomas Fire – the largest wildfire in California’s history – burned Baba’s Tree leaving large deposits of ash from the tree.
Ten days later, Cassandra Bramucci emailed, “I'm feeling a sense of urgency to preserve the ashes from the tree as soon as possible - I sense rain will be coming soon.”
The forecast was for rain. But with some luck and planning, it was hoped the group could work around the rain. Despite the weather forecast, Meher Mount went ahead with Restoration Weekend – March 10 & 11, 2018.
It was a good decision. A number of tasks were completed as part of the ongoing recovery from the December 4, 2018 Thomas Fire. And as usual, a few more tasks were added to the "to do" list as a result.
The news coverage started with Perry Van Houten, who had written an earlier article “Ojai’s Trees” for the Winter 2014 edition of The Ojai Valley Visitors Guide, which included Baba’s Tree as one of six trees featured. He approached Meher Mount for a story for a story about Baba's Tree after the Thomas Fire. His article, “Group mounting significant effort to try to save Baba’s Tree,” was published on February 2, 2018, in the Ojai Valley News.
Later, Claudia Boyd-Barrett, an Ojai resident and journalist who had visited Meher Mount before, contacted Meher Mount to set up an interview. She talked with Board President Sam Ervin, Manager/Caretaker Buzz Glasky, arborist Michael Inaba, and Interim Caretaker Cassandra Bramucci. Her story for the Ventura County Star, “Baba's Tree, burned in Thomas Fire, fights for survival in Ojai,” was published on February 18, 2018.
Recovery from the December 2017 Thomas Fire is a step-by-step process. Each completed task seems to generate several new task offspring. The restoration continues.
On February 15, 2018, just as Buzz and Ginger Glasky finished their four-and-a-half years as Manager/Caretakers, former Caretaker Ray Johnston (2002-2005, 2006-2010) arrived for a week to help with the recovery.
The following is a reprint of an article about Baba's Tree and the 2017 Thomas Fire from the Ventura County Star published on February 18, 2018.
The following is a reprint of an article about Baba's Tree and the 2017 Thomas Fire from the Ojai Valley News published on February 2, 2018.
When setting up the first meeting with ISA® Certified Arborist Michael Inaba to make a preliminary assessment of a "special large oak" at Meher Mount, he asked, “Does that special tree have a name?” Margaret Magnus smiled to herself and said, “Yes, Baba’s Tree.” Then she asked why he had asked.
Inaba said he had had dinner soon after the fire with some people who live on Sulphur Mountain. They were recounting the fire damage in the area and mentioned the tree. He later referred to Baba’s Tree as a landmark tree.
On January 5, 2018, Meher Mount met with Inaba to evaluate Baba's Tree and to start drawing up a survival and regeneration plan.
During His Advent, Meher Baba very often would go into a self-imposed, confined seclusion for extended periods of time to do His inner work.
Meher Baba disclosed that he did His “Universal Work” at these times — work not for His own sake as He, suffering for all as God in human form, had nothing to gain — but for the spiritual advancement of all of creation.
Now, the Coast Live Oak at Meher Mount that Meher Baba sat under alone in 1956 and known as Baba’s Tree is in seclusion.
A sign of life for Baba’s Tree is foliage – both old and new. For those limbs connected to Baba’s Tree trunk and root system, there are still green leaves, even a month-and-a-half after the fire.