Birds of the Season – March 2012

By Jon Fisher

Originally Published in the Western Tanager, Vol. 78 No 5 May/June 2012.

As every season demonstrates, birds are predictable… and unpredictable. There are certain locales and habitats that are nearly infallibly reliable for specific species. First of spring migrants stay remarkably true to established first arrival dates. On the other hand, the movements of migratory birds often appear capricious.

Anyone following the postings on LA County birds is well aware that the winter of 2011-2012 produced many good “off course” birds and most of them stayed around. On the coastal slope, a number of parks large and small demonstrated their ability to attract and hold rarities, while coastal locations such as Malibu Lagoon and the Ballona Creek mouth also proved worthy of attention.

But as those wintering rarities continued and some new ones were found, spring migration was underway. Turkey Vultures, Sage Thrashers, waterfowl and others start to move early and were already in passage in January and February.

Most passerines, with the obvious exception of swallows, arrive later out of necessity. Survivable weather and sufficient food supplies must be in place- or at least very likely- before they can risk migration. By the middle of March such conditions exist and a few songbirds such as Western Kingbirds, Warbling Vireos and Bullock’s and Hooded Orioles were arriving right on schedule.   In addition, a few early spring vagrants added a little excitement.

Twenty-three Greater White-fronted Geese in Pico Rivera on January 27 & 28 were certainly migrants already on the move (Larry Schmahl). A wintering Brant or two persisted around the Ballona Creek mouth through March 18 and Snow Geese were represented by one continuing at Malibu Lagoon through February 25 and two at the Woodley Lakes Golf Course in Van Nuys from February 26-March 4 (Kris Sullivan). A Ross’s Goose continued near Marina del Rey through February 4 and what may have been the same bird was nearby on Ballona Creek on February 16. 

The only dabbling duck of note was a Eurasian Wigeon that continued along Ballona Creek in Culver City and Playa del Rey through March 18. 

Diving ducks of interest included a Greater Scaup at Kenneth Hahn Park on February 18 (Ann Brooks) and Long-tailed Ducks continuing at the Ballona Creek mouth and off Santa Monica Beach through most of March. A few White-winged Scoters and Black Scoters were present off Dockweiler State Beach in El Segundo through most of the period and another Black Scoter was off Santa Monica Beach from February 17-March 20 (Richard Barth). 

Four Red-breasted Mergansers in Culver City on January 28 were slightly away from their expected coastal areas of occurrence (Vic Warren, Laurel Scott). 

At Castaic Lagoon, a Pacific Loon remained through March 5 and a Red-throated Loon was still present on March 16. Single Red-necked Grebes continued off Pt. Dume through February 12 and at Castaic Lagoon through March 20, with possibly two individuals present there: a highly unusual record if confirmed.

A rare Brown Booby was spotted near Terminal Island on February 9 (Jay Holcomb) but was never seen again, though admittedly it was in a problematic location so far as access for birders was concerned. Another one was off Pt. Dume- a much easier location to get to- on March 23 (Jon Fisher), but this bird was present only for a few minutes.

Raptors included several Bald Eagles seen on and off at Bonelli Park in San Dimas and a Rough-legged Hawk continuing at Quail Lake through February 20. The first Swainson’s Hawk report was of one on March 8 at Bonelli Park (Martha Estus). A number of other reports quickly followed, but several groups totaling approximately 120 birds- a very good count for a single record- were over Eaton Canyon in Pasadena on March 13 (Catherine Hamilton).

Mountain Plovers were wintering as usual in the Antelope Valley with up to 112 birds reported east of the 14 Freeway near Avenue I and J on January 27 (John Lobel, Scott Logan, Jocelyn McFaul).

Lesser Yellowlegs, unusual in winter, were along Ballona Creek near the 405 Freeway on February 23 (Walter Lamb) and in the west Antelope Valley on March 10 (Cal Yorke). Other shorebirds of interest were a Red Knot and two Dunlins- both surprisingly scarce in the county- along Ballona Creek near Playa del Rey on March 18 (Mark & Janet Scheel, Nick & Mary Freeman).

Quite rare was a Lesser Black-backed Gull at Malibu Lagoon on February 19 (Todd McGrath). Unfortunately, as happens all too frequently when vagrants appear at this locale, it was a one day bird.

Coincident with similar events elsewhere off the California coast, substantial Alcid movements took place during the period, with very good numbers of Rhinoceros Auklets and Common Murres present along the coast and offshore for most of the period. Cassin’s Auklets were also reported in above average numbers.

In Pico Rivera, a Burrowing Owl was present from January 30-February 4 and reportedly present for some time before that (Norm Vargas). Others continued at Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale through February 14 and near the Long Beach Airport through February 15.

A Common Poorwill remained active at Kenneth Hahn Park through the period and a over a dozen were encountered in the foothills above JPL in Pasadena on March 15 (Lance Benner) with several more heard in Calabasas on March 8 (Todd McGrath). Warmer winter periods readily instigate activity in this species which is unique in spending cooler periods in a state of extended torpor.

A good lesson that even common birds should be given more than a cursory examination was an apparent Anna’s x Allen’s Hummingbird hybrid by Orcas Park near Lakeview Terrace on February 20 (Kimball Garrett). Hummingbirds tend to hybridize frequently in comparison to other bird families, but even so such birds are not often encountered.

Lewis’s Woodpeckers, scarce this winter, were at Rose Hills in Whittier on February 13 (Jerry Ambrose) and along the Angeles Crest Highway on March 19 (Ron Cyger).

A Red-naped Sapsucker was at Rose Hills in Whittier on January 29 (Larry Schmahl) and two more we in Altadena on January 27 (Kathy Moyd). Another was found at Hermon Park in Highland Park on February 15 (Richard Barth). The reliable Yellow-bellied Sapsucker persisted at Ed Vincent Park in Inglewood through March 8 and all four species of sapsucker continued to be reported sporadically at Veteran’s Park in Sylmar through the winter, including two juvenile Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers (Doug Martin). A late find was a Yellow-bellied at Exposition Park in Los Angeles on March 21(Kimball Garrett).

Wintering Gray Flycatchers continued at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City and at the Veteran’s Administration grounds in West Los Angeles. More unusual were Hammond’s Flycatchers continuing at the Sepulveda Basin through March 11 and newly discovered at Lower Arroyo Park in Pasadena on February 24 (David Bell).

A female Vermilion Flycatcher was at the Earvin Magic Johnson Recreation Area in Willowbrook from February 12-16 (Martin Byhower, David Ellsworth, Jose Sandoval)

Dusky-capped Flycatchers continued at Veteran’s Park in Bell Gardens through March 22 and at Creek Park in La Mirada through February 24, while an Ash-throated Flycatcher at the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Reserve in Van Nuys was present though February 28. Also continuing was the Tropical Kingbird at Legg Lake in South El Monte through March 18.

A rare wintering Bell’s Vireo continued at Cudahy Park in Cudahy through January 27 (Richard Barth). Cassin’s Vireos were at the Village Green Condominiums in Los Angeles from February 18-March 10 (Don Sterba), in Elysian Park on February 22 (Steve Ritt), at the Bette Davis Picnic Area in Glendale on March 11 (Terri Chapman) and a possible Cassin’s was briefly seen at Ed Vincent Park in Inglewood on March 8 (Richard Barth).

Several Mountain Bluebirds, always noteworthy on the coastal slope, were reported from Rose Hills in Whittier on February 13 (Jerry Ambrose). A Varied Thrush at Sand Dune Park in Manhattan Beach continued through February 26 and one was found at Temescal Gateway Park in Pacific Palisades on March 6 (Richard Barth).

On the coastal side of the mountains where they are always scarce, a Sage Thrasher was at Orcas Park in Lakeview Terrace on January 28 (Brad Rumble), another was in Pico Rivera on February 4 (Layton Pace) and one was at O’Melveny Park on March 18 (Kimball Garrett). The bulk of them however were moving through the Antelope Valley with nearly two dozen found in the west valley on March 8 (Jean Brandt, Phil Sayre).

The Brown Thrasher wintering at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont was reported through March 9.

Black-and-white Warblers continued in El Segundo through March 9 and in South El Monte through February 4, while new birds were discovered at Oak Grove Park in Pasadena from February 6-10 (Hugh Bowles, Mark Hunter), at Pt. Dume on February 22 (Steve Ritt), in Los Angeles near Brentwood on February 25 (Margery Zweizig) and along the LA River in Glendale/Atwater Village on March 4 (David Robinson).

A number of continuing warblers included a Lucy’s Warbler in Bell Gardens through February 23, a Hooded Warbler in Claremont through February 26, an American Redstart at the Sepulveda Basin through March 3, a Northern Parula and a Chestnut-sided Warbler at Legg Lake in South El Monte through March 20 and a Pine Warbler at Hansen Dam through March 16.

Hermit Warblers were found in Echo Park on January 29 (Sue Horton) and at Oak Grove Park in Pasadena on February 10 (Darren Dowell?).

A new discovery- and the fourth in the county this last fall and winter- was a Black-throated Green Warbler in the Sepulveda Basin from March 3-11 (Mark & Janet Scheel). Another one lingered along the San Gabriel River in Pico Rivera through February 19 as did a Painted Redstart in Elysian Park through March 21.

A continuing Vesper Sparrow along the LA River in Van Nuys through February 24 was the only one reported from the coastal slope.

The influx of birders into an area following the discovery of one vagrant regularly turns up additional good birds. Castaic Lagoon was a case in point in March and one such find there was a Lark Bunting on March 20 (Johnny Bovee).

White-throated Sparrows continued at Sand Dune Park in Manhattan Beach through January 27, at Kenneth Hahn Park through March 15, at Augustus Hawkins Park in south central Los Angeles through February 24 and at Madrona Marsh through March 9. New birds were at Placerita Canyon on January 29 (Daniel Tinoco), at Descanso Gardens in La Canada on February 27 (Terri Chapman) and at Castaic Lagoon from March 10-16 (Darren Dowell).

Summer Tanagers included continuing birds at West LA College, the Bette Davis Picnic Area in Glendale and at South Gate Park in South Gate. New birds were at Gonzales Park in Compton through January February 29 (Richard Barth), in Palos Verdes on February 4 (John Small), at Elysian Park on February 22 (Steve Ritt), at Ed Vincent Park in Inglewood on March 8 (Richard Barth) and at Sycamore Canyon Park in Diamond Bar from March 14-21 (David Moskovitz).

Far less expected was a Hepatic Tanager at Gonzales Park in Compton from February 18-March 20 (Darren Dowell, Richard Barth).

A Rose-breasted Grosbeak was in Tarzana on February 8 (John Lobel, Scott Logan), while Black-headed Grosbeaks at Descanso Gardens in La Canada on February 3 (Will & Lois Fulmer) and at Kenneth Hahn Park on February 18 (Ann Brooks) certainly wintered locally. Another good bird from productive Castaic Lagoon was a male Indigo Bunting present from March 5-10 (Jim Hardesty).

An Orchard Oriole remained through March 22 in Paramount and a Hooded Oriole was also there at least through February 26. Another Hooded in Sherman Oaks from February 23-March 4 (Scott Logan) was likely an early migrant. New was a Baltimore Oriole at the San Fernando Mission in San Fernando from March 14-15 (Becky & Steve Turley), while a Scott’s Oriole at Valyermo on March 18 was either an early migrant or one that had wintered locally (Lance Benner, Kathi Ellsworth).

Lawrence’s Goldfinches were fairly widely reported and present in above average numbers. Availability of resources causes the distribution and abundance of this opportunistic species to vary markedly from year to year.

And so it was a very good winter for birders in the county, but in no time it seems we’re in the thick of spring migration… always impressive spectacle. Experiencing it as a whole or simply witnessing a good wave of birds is rewarding, but comprehending the aggregate numbers that are passing through is difficult. Though it obviously varies by species and location, observers see only a tiny fraction of the migrants that occur.

As numbers peak in late April there will be slow days and good days, but virtually any location away from the higher San Gabriels has the potential to be loaded with migrants. Parks, ranches and windbreaks on the desert can be very productive. The lower south facing slopes and foothill canyons of the San Gabriels can also be quite good.

In spite of a couple of wet late season storms, drier than normal conditions this spring may concentrate migrants in prime spots that offer better resources for refueling. This may bode well for the latter half of May- at least for birders, if not for birds- when the chance for eastern vagrants increases.

While watching any bird is worthwhile and enjoyable for most birders, it’s the very rare ones that make news and that we’d all love to find.   Given the new addition of the recently split Winter Wren the county list now stands at an impressive 506 species, but there will always be room for additions. What the next new county bird will be, or when it will be recorded, is anyone’s guess. It’s a bit like the lottery… there are a lot of birders out there looking for that needle in the haystack that is LA County, and inevitably someone’s going to find it.

Published Western Tanager Vol. 78 No. 5 May/Jun 2012