Birds of the Season - September 2012

By Jon Fisher

It’s a great time of year for birders in southern California. The long period of autumn migration begins with- but is by no means limited to- early arriving shorebirds, followed by passerines and then waterfowl. Adding intrigue to the ordinary is the potential for both low end and extraordinary vagrants, and of course everything in between.

Amplifying fall migration is the fact that Los Angeles County boasts a remarkable range of habitats and in that regard is nearly equal to San Diego County. Thus it is no surprise that these two regions are in a virtual dead heat for the highest number of species recorded in a U.S. county.

The hot and humid weather that prevailed over much of the period didn’t make for the most pleasant field conditions, but this hardly translated into a shortage of good birds. While the late spring vagrant season pretty much fizzled out, but the same could not be said for fall.

Though passerine migrants were still relatively scarce in the lowlands in August, a few good birds were already turning up on the coastal slope. Though there were no super rarities in the county- as there were elsewhere in the state- good numbers of vagrants turned up in September and early October.

It’s worth noting that the period saw over twice as many vagrants found on weekdays as on weekends. Thus as the traditional 9-5 workday becomes less common, the old “weekend bias” in birding is not the phenomenon it once was.

Though there was nothing earth-shaking on the lower Los Angeles River, the usual array of common and not so common shorebirds were present. The Edwards Air Force Base’s Piute Ponds, with their great rarity producing potential, were closed to access for most of the period, though the nearby Lancaster Sewer Ponds offered something of an alternative for those seeking waterbirds in the desert.

Always early fall migrants, a Greater White-fronted Goose was found on the LA River near Atwater Village on August 31 (Julia Ray) and eight were in Playa del Rey on September 2 (Edna Alvarez).

A Wood Duck at the South Coast Botanic Garden in Rolling Hills Estates on August 5 was away from expected locales (Dinuk Magammana) and another forlorn male continued to consort with Mallards at the Sepulveda Basin. Somewhat early was a Ring-necked Duck at the Sepulveda Basin on September 15 (Jon Fisher).

There was little news from the realm of pelagic birds, with a Wilson’s Storm-Petrel southeast of San Clemente Island on October 6 being the only report of note (Paul Lehman).

With remarkable numbers of Broad-winged Hawks recorded at the great raptor funnel of the Marin County headlands this fall and also turning up elsewhere in the state in above average numbers, it shouldn’t be a surprise that there were a few records in the county. One was over Westwood on September 21 (Scott Logan), another was over the Baldwin Hills on September 23 (Kimball Garrett, Jon Dunn) and one was above Rolling Hills Estates on October 7 (Dinuk Magammana).

Southbound Swainson’s Hawks were over Claremont on August 18 (Cathy McFadden, Paul Clarke) and on September 15 (Tom Miko), a far cry from the substantial numbers that pass through in spring. What was a presumably a returning Ferruginous Hawk was back for another winter near Playa del Rey on the early date of September 18 (Dan Cooper, Dean Schaff).

Scarce and local as breeding birds in the county, a pair of Common Gallinules was confirmed as such at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh on August 21 (Moro Rogers).

Away from the lower LA River where expected in fall, a Solitary Sandpiper was at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh on September 8 (Ron Cyger). Scarce anywhere in the county, two Red Knots present along Ballona Creek from September 16-25 were of note (Barbara Johnson).

The first Semipalmated Sandpiper of the season was along the lower LA River from July 31-August 5 (Darren Dowell), with others present there on August 18 (Mark & Janet Scheel) and August 25 (John Tomlinson). Though one of the least common of our regular fall shorebirds, the mere three recorded is a surprisingly low number. At least one or two others were found at the Lancaster Sewer Ponds during the period (Kimball Garrett).

As is typical, Pectoral Sandpipers and Baird’s Sandpipers were present in small numbers along the lower LA River. The Lancaster Sewer Ponds also hosts these two species in fall and a high count of nineteen Pectorals was seen there on September 15 (Cal Yorke). Away from these areas, a Pectoral Sandpiper was at Malibu Lagoon on September 22 (Mary Deutsche, Carol Gee).

Far less common were single Stilt Sandpipers along the LA River in Long Beach from August 23-28 and again from September 4-8 (Richard Barth). Then a few weeks later, five appeared there on September 22 (Jeff Boyd). There were a few other reports- possibly involving some of the same individuals- continuing through October 1.

Gulls of interest included a Franklin’s Gull at the Lancaster Sewer Ponds on August 4 (Darren Dowell) and two Sabine’s Gulls- one at Lake Palmdale on September 12 (Cal Yorke) and a less expected coastal slope bird on the LA River in North Long Beach on September 18 (Richard Barth).

Common Terns were represented by one along the lower LA River in Long Beach from August 3-5 (Larry Allen) and a few at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro between August 30 and September 19 (Ed Griffin, Bernardo Alps). Five more were at the Ballona Creek mouth on September 18 (Dan Cooper) with one present there on September 25 (Darren Dowell). Single Black Terns along the lower LA River in Long Beach from August 3-8 (Larry Schmahl) and on September 27 (Dany Sloan) were the only ones reported on the coastal slope.

White-winged Doves, rare but regular late summer and fall visitors, were at Pt. Dume from August 22-25 (Cynthia Schotte), in San Pedro from August 22-September 5 (David Ellsworth), in Malibu on September 9 (Cal Yorke), in Montebello on September 18 (Robb Hamilton) and in Claremont on September 19 and 30 (Tom Miko). Seven Common Ground-Doves along the San Gabriel River in Cerritos on September 5 (Becky & Steve Turley) was a good count for that area, with Powder Canyon in the Puente Hills being the only other reliable location for this bird in the county.

Returning for yet another winter to the Ballona area was a Burrowing Owl first observed on September 25 (Darren Dowell).

Up to a half dozen Chimney Swifts were observed at Elysian Park and over the adjacent LA River between August 22-26 (Brad Singer, Tom Benson). By September the Chimneys had been supplanted by the much more numerous Vaux’s Swifts, again roosting in large numbers in downtown Los Angeles near Pershing Square.

Away from regular areas was an Acorn Woodpecker at Forrestal Nature Preserve in Rancho Palos Verdes on September 20 (Peggy Gussman). Another Hairy Woodpecker report came from El Dorado Park in Long Beach on September 19 (Karen Gilbert), this likely being a returning bird that spent last winter there. A White-headed Woodpecker- always a rare wanderer to the lowlands- was at Hansen Dam near Lake View Terrace on September 2 (Norm Vargas, Kimball Garrett).

Quite rare in the county was a Least Flycatcher at Sand Dune Park in Manhattan Beach on September 29 (Martin Byhower). Other good flycatcher finds included a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in the Sepulveda Basin present from at least August 24- September 9 (observer?) and an Eastern Kingbird at Hansen Dam on September 9 (Kimball Garrett). Several weeks later, a more expected Tropical Kingbird put in an appearance at Malibu Lagoon on October 3 (Kerry Ross).

An early Warbling Vireo was at the Village Green Condominiums in Los Angeles on July 29 (Don Sterba). Obviously we can begin searching for some southbound passerines quite early.

Swallows of note included a Bank Swallow on the LA River in Long Beach on August 5 (Tom Miko) and a Purple Martin at Legacy Park in Malibu on September 9 (Cal Yorke).

A dispersal of White-breasted Nuthatches- hinted at in July- was clearly evident in August and September when they were reported widely on the coastal slope; all were of the Pacific coast aculeata subspecies. Paying attention to subspecies in this case will be of interest to birders as this species may well be split.

Also unpredictable are Red-breasted Nuthatches, with the first fall reports being single birds in Altadena on September 22 (Lance Benner) and in Westchester on September 23 (Russ & Dorothy Stone). Over the next couple of weeks a handful of others were detected on the coastal slope and are likely predictive of above average numbers this winter. Also of interest was a Brown Creeper at DeForest Park in Long Beach on October 1 (David Bell).

Wandering from expected areas was a California Gnatcatcher in the east Ballona Valley on August 5 (Jon Fisher). A Ruby-crowned Kinglet near Dawson Saddle on September 2 (Cathy McFadden, Paul Clark) was either an early migrant or a bird that may have summered locally as they have bred in the San Gabriels in the past.

Very early was a Hermit Thrush at Sand Dune Park in Manhattan Beach on September 11 (Dinuk Magammana) and this bird was likely present- but not seen well enough to confirm- a few days prior to that.

September brought a variety of rare warblers which seemed to turn up on an almost daily basis. A great county bird was an Ovenbird near Lake Balboa in Encino from September 15-25 (Candace Byer). Far more expected were Northern Waterthrushes at Exposition Park in Los Angeles on September 12 (Kimball Garrett), in Big Tujunga Wash from September 19-22 (Kimball Garrett) and at Harbor Regional Park in Wilmington from September 29-30 (Steve Wolfe).

Creek Park in La Mirada produced a Black-and-White Warbler on October 3 (Jon Feenstra).

Much farther up the scale was a Prothonotary Warbler in Big Tujunga Wash from September 11-12 (Kimball Garrett).

Tennessee Warblers were in Elysian Park from September 11-12 (Kimball Garrett), in the Sepulveda Basin on September 13 (Scott Logan), in Pasadena on September 25 (Darren Dowell), at Creek Park in La Mirada on October 4 (Ryan Abe) and rounding out the half dozen reports two were at the Village Green Condominiums in Los Angeles on October 6 (Don Sterba).

At Elizabeth Lake on the north side of the San Gabriels, a Virginia’s Warbler was found on September 14 (Cal Yorke).

A Hooded Warbler in the Sepulveda Basin from August 20-September 3 long preceded the many September warbler finds (Mark Scheel).

DeForest Park in Long Beach produced an American Redstart on September 14 (David Bell) and others were found near Lake Balboa in Van Nuys on September 20 (Eleanor Osgood, Gustavo Alarcon-Nieto) and at Sand Dune Park in Manhattan Beach on September 30 (Martin Byhower).

Apparently returning for its third winter at Legg Lake in South El Monte, a Northern Parula was reported there on September 24 (Peter Sharp). Magnolia Warblers turned up at Wilderness Park in Redondo Beach (Dinuk Magammana) and at La Mirada Regional Park (Jonathan Rowley) on September 26. A Chestnut-sided Warbler was in La Mirada‘s Creek Park on October 4 (Ryan Abe).

The usual small number of fall Blackpoll Warblers were recorded at Almansor Park in Alhambra from September 14-15 (John Garrett), at El Dorado Park in Long Beach on September 19 (Karen Gilbert), at Sand Dune Park in Manhattan Beach from September 23-24 (Mark & Janet Scheel), at Oak Park Cemetery in Claremont from September 24-25 (Michael San Miguel), near the Cabrillo Marine Museum in San Pedro on October 1 (Bernardo Alps), at Creek Park in La Mirada on October 4 (Ryan Abe) and at Del Rey Lagoon in Playa del Rey on October 7 (Don Sterba).

The only Palm Warbler thus far was at Madrona Marsh in Torrance on October 7 (Tracy Drake).

Rather early in the lowlands was a Yellow-rumped Warbler at Hansen Dam on September 2 (Kimball Garrett).

Quite rare was a Canada Warbler at Exposition Park in Los Angeles on October 3 (Kimball Garrett).

Turning to emberizids, Eaton Canyon in Pasadena hosted a migrant Green-tailed Towhee on September (Judy Bass).

A remarkably odd date for a Clay-colored Sparrow was a bird at Legacy Park in Malibu on August 1 (Susan Schalbe). Another half dozen were reported on the coastal slope between September 16 and October 3, a much more expected time frame for this species. As usual, small numbers of Brewer’s Sparrows turned up on the coastal slope in September, offering a change of pace from the more plebian Chipping Sparrows.

Common as a breeder in the nearby San Gabriels, but remarkably rare as a migrant on the coastal slope was a Black-chinned Sparrow at El Dorado Park in Long Beach on September 17 (Karen Gilbert).

The Eaton Canyon Flood Basin in Pasadena produced a Vesper Sparrow on September 15 (Jon Fisher) as did Santa Fe Dam on September 19 (David Bell). Others turned up along Ballona Creek on September 20 (Martin Byhower) and at Paramount Ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains on September 23 (James Bailey).

Black-throated Sparrows, rare but regular on the coastal slope in fall, were at the Sepulveda Basin on September 9 (John Garrett, Ximena Gil), at Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale on September 19 (David Bell) and in Big Tujunga Wash from September 22-October 5 (Julia Ray).

Much more unusual was a Lark Bunting at Zuma Creek Mouth in Malibu from September 13-14 (Dan Cooper).

Fall Summer Tanagers included a bird at Sand Dune Park in Manhattan Beach on September 11 (Dinuk Magammana), two in Big Tujunga Wash on September 13 (Ron Holland)- with one present though September 28- and one at Oak Park Cemetery in Claremont on October 3 (Tom Miko).

One Rose-breasted Grosbeak was in the Sepulveda Basin from August 19-September 23 (Jon Fisher) and no doubt presented some unwitting confusion among birders until it was realized that there were in fact two individuals in the area.

Eight Indigo Buntings reported on the coastal slope between August 24 and September 22 was a decent count, but far less expected were two female Painted Buntings. Both were yard birds with one in San Pedro on August 17 (Tom Yuri) and the other in Rancho Palos Verdes from September 9-13 (Peggy Gussman).

Bobolinks were scarce this fall with the only reports being from the Eaton Canyon Flood Basin in Pasadena on September 15, at the Peck Road Water Conservation Park in Arcadia on September 22 (Jon Fisher) with a probable one at Santa Fe Dam on September 19 (David Bell).

The only unusual oriole was a nice-to-find adult male Orchard Oriole at Los Angeles National Cemetery in Westwood on September 25 (Tom Miko). On the coastal slope, single Yellow-headed Blackbirds were on the LA River in the Sepulveda Basin September 6 (Scott Logan) and on September 11 (David Bell and at Peck Pit in Arcadia on October 6 (Jon Fisher).

Wrapping things up was a Pine Siskin at a feeder in La Canada on August 15 which was early for the lowlands (Karen Johnson).

Passerine migration winds down as October comes to an end, but unusual late or lingering songbirds are always discovered well into winter. November and early December allow time to seek out good birds for local Christmas Bird Counts.

Many waterfowl are later arrivals and numbers will continue to build through late fall. This is an excellent time to check any body of water for something unusual. As we head into November, the Antelope Valley offers a number of opportunities to find all the usual specialties- including Ferruginous Hawks, Mountain Plovers and Mountain Bluebirds- and perhaps a surprise or two.

Each season draws birders to familiar “hot spots”, and indeed these locales produce many good birds. Understandably, we also enjoy birding places where we know we’ll see lots of birds. Yet there are more than a few worthwhile areas in the county that get scant attention at any time of the year or at least for a portion of the year.

How many of us bird the San Gabriel Mountains during the winter months? Or check our foothill canyons for fall migrants? How much coverage does the northwest county receive at any time? Not only are these areas capable of producing interesting birds, but birding them throughout the year increases our knowledge of bird distribution.

That being said, no matter where we go, entering our lists into eBird has become an essential part of birding for many of us. Admittedly I wasn’t the first on board, but its value soon became all too apparent. As this database continues to grow, it is creating a picture of birdlife in the county, in California and beyond was never before conceivable.

Originally published in the Western Tanager, Vol. 79 No. 2, Nov/Dec 2012