Published Western Tanager Vol. 79 No. 4 March/April 2013

Birds of the Season - February 2013

By Jon Fisher

Looking at any map of the greater Los Angeles area or driving one of our ubiquitous freeways, the uninitiated might imagine that hopes of finding a wide variety of birds here were overly optimistic.  Concrete is pervasive, traffic noise seems omnipresent, and people are everywhere.  But birders are well aware of the many strips, patches and pockets of viable habitat ranging from the coastline to the foothills- not to mention the comparatively undeveloped swaths encompassed by the San Gabriel Mountains and deserts beyond.  Add to that the mild climate and substantial number of observers in the field and the number of species that makes us one of the “birdiest” counties in North America is no surprise.  

The period from mid-October through early February highlighted this diversity with plenty of noteworthy birds among the many more common ones.  Flycatchers and wood-warblers were both well represented.  Among the array of lower end passerine vagrants, several species- including Palm Warbler, Swamp Sparrow and White-throated Sparrow- were present in well above average numbers.  Added to that were some high end rarities and a first county record.  No birder, from the casual to the extreme, was left wanting.

The period was also characterized by the appearance in the lowlands of higher than normal numbers of irruptive species such as Brown Creepers, White and Red-breasted Nuthatches, Golden-crowned Kinglets and Pine Siskins.  While none of these irruptions were major, they were nonetheless obvious.  

After passerine migration was essentially over, new vagrants continued to turn up with regularity throughout the period and the LA County Christmas Bird Counts produced another set of good birds as usual.

Weather for the period was typical, with some chilly nights but generally mild temperatures and a number of fronts passing through the area.  Few of these fronts produced much in the way of precipitation however, leaving us once again well below normal rainfall.

Quite a rarity for the county was a Trumpeter Swan found at the Piute Ponds on Edwards AFB on January 20 (Don & Jill Davis).  Constituting only the third county record, it was accompanied by a Tundra Swan making for a nice comparison of the two species.  Both birds continued there through January 28.

Another Tundra Swan was seen flying over Lake Balboa on January 10 (Mike Stensvold).  It later settled at Hansen Dam where it was rediscovered on January 12 and seen through January 18 (David Bell).

Returning for another winter was a Eurasian Wigeon on the LA River in Glendale from October 17–February 3 (Josh Chapman), while another was.  Also recorded were hybrid American x Eurasian Wigeons at the Earvin Magic Johnson Recreation Area in Willowbrook on December 6 (David Bell) and at Hansen Dam from December 22-January 13 (Kimball Garrett).

While not a species “tick” on any bird list, a “Eurasian” Green-winged Teal at the San Gabriel spreading basins in Rio Hondo from January 1–12 was a very good county bird and well worth checking out (Norm Vargas).

Away from regular areas of occurrence were single Greater Scaups off Santa Monica State Beach on November 18 (Richard Barth) and at La Mirada Park on February 4 (Roy van de Hoek).

White-winged Scoters were off Pt. Vicente on November 11 (Mark & Janet Scheel), at Cabrillo Beach on December 8 (Kris Ohlenkamp), at Pt. Dume on December 19 (Kerry Ross) and at Quail Lake from February 2–3 (Kimball Garrett).  One or two Black Scoters were off Dockweiler State Beach in El Segundo from November 14–February 7 (Richard Barth) and one was off Will Rogers State Beach from November 26–January 29, with two birds present on the latter date (Richard Barth).

Long-tailed Ducks were off Santa Monica Beach from November 26–January 29, with a second bird there on January 14 (Richard Barth), along Ballona Creek below the Culver crossing from December 11–February 3 (Jonathan Coffin) and off Dockweiler State Beach in El Segundo from January 7–9 (Richard Barth).  Another two were found well inland at Quail Lake near Gorman from February 1–3 (David Bell).

Scarce inland was a Red-breasted Merganser in San Dimas Canyon and recorded on the Pomona CBC on December 15.

An Arctic Loon, almost certain to be accepted by the CBRC, was a new addition to the county list.  First found by the Malibu Pier on January 12, it plied the waters in that area at least through at least January 15 (Kyri Freeman).  Remarkably, another apparent Arctic Loon- possibly the same individual- was in the Ballona Creek channel on February 2 (Amanda Utzman).  Though never before recorded in the county, records exist for Orange County and Baja California—thus it was inevitable that it be recorded in the county at some point.  Obviously we should be scrutinizing each and every Pacific Loon that presents us an opportunity to do so.  As for the many thousands that migrate along the coast, we can only guess at how many might be Arctics.

Scarce but regular inland were Pacific Loons at Jackson Lake near Wrightwood from November 4–12, at Castaic Lagoon on November 3 (Joshua Chapman), at Balboa Lake on November 12 (Mark Rosenstein), at Quail Lake near Gorman from December 4–February 1 (David Bell) and in San Dimas Canyon on December 15.

Short-tailed Shearwaters, difficult to separate from Sooty and always of interest when found close to shore, were at Cabrillo Beach—oiled and subsequently captured for rehabilitation—on December 8 (Lance Benner) and off Pt. Dume on the Malibu CBC on December 16 (Kimball Garrett).

A minor flourish of Magnificent Frigatebirds along the San Diego County coast in mid-October also resulted in one spotted off Pt. Dume in Malibu on October 18 (Kerry Ross).
Quite rare for the county was a Brown Booby off Pt. Fermin from December 5–19 (John Lobel).  This species is far less commonly recorded in LA County waters than statewide records would lead one to expect.

Two American Bitterns at Harbor Park in Harbor City on December 9 (Martin Byhower) and one at the Piute Ponds on Edwards AFB on January 26 (Roger Lewis, Maureen Sullivan-Lewis) were the only ones reported.

Bald Eagles were over Baldwin Park on November 8 (Tom Miko), at Bonelli Park in San Dimas- with a maximum of three present simultaneously- between December 3 and January 26 (Rod Higbie, Tom Miko), at Morris Reservoir in San Gabriel Canyon on December 13 (Robb Hamilton) and at Quail Lake near Gorman on from January 5–21 (Daniel Tinoco).

A few Swainson’s Hawks continued to trickle through in October and early November. Very late were two at Hansen Dam from December 2–3 (Kimball Garrett), and early was one in Claremont on January 27 (Tom Miko).

Rare in the county was a “Harlan’s” Red-tailed Hawk in the Antelope Valley on January 4 and present for several weeks thereafter (Frank & Susan Gilliland).  On the coastal slope where they are scarce, a Ferruginous Hawk was in the Ballona Wetlands area from January 30–February 3 (Rick Pine).

Pale richardsoni Merlins were at Legg Lake on November 3 (Ed Stonick), at Hansen Dam from January 1–February 10 (Kimball Garrett) and at the Piute Ponds on January 26 (Adam Searcy) while at the other end of the Falco columbarius spectrum, one of the dark suckleyi subspecies was at Arcadia Park in Arcadia on November 15 (Mickey Long).

Shorebirds of interest included the usual Mountain Plovers in the east Antelope Valley, with a high count of sixty-three birds on January 26 (Susan Steele) as well as three late Pectoral Sandpipers at the Piute Ponds on November 26 (Thomas Drescher).

A Scripps’s Murrelet was out of season—typically quite scarce from October through December—off San Pedro on December 10 (David Bell).

A White-winged Dove in Rancho Palos Verdes on November 6 was the only one reported during the period (Evi Meyer).

Common Ground-Doves still persist in the county in small numbers as evidenced by one in Powder Canyon in La Habra Heights on January 23 (David Bell) and up to eleven along the LA River in Bellflower from February 2–10 (Donna Bray).

Burrowing Owls on the coastal slope were at the Rio Hondo spreading basins in Pico Rivera on December 23 (Larry Schmahl) and at Del Rey Lagoon from January 15–24 (Roy van de Hoek).  Perhaps more common than records indicate, but rarely recorded on the coastal slope, a Long-eared Owl was at the Chatsworth Nature Preserve on December 22.  Also noteworthy were two Short-eared Owls at the Ballona Wetlands from October 26–November 1 (Jonathan Coffin).

A few Lewis’s Woodpeckers were recorded, with one at Trippet Ranch in Topanga State Park on November 4 (Brittany O’Connor), three at Chumash Park in Agoura on November 5 (James Bailey), one in San Dimas from November 5–7 (Rod & Pat Higbie) and one at Temescal Canyon in Pacific Palisades from January 9–February 10 (Mark Conboy, Sarah Larocque).

Rare but occasional well away from their high elevation haunts, a Williamson’s Sapsucker was at St. Andrew’s Priory on November 10 (Lance Benner).  About eight Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and at least ten Red-naped Sapsuckers were found during the period- good counts for both species.

Low elevation White-headed Woodpeckers were at Mill Creek Station in the San Gabriel Mountains on November 1 (Robb Hamilton), at Pearblossom Park in the Antelope Valley from November 10–January 26, at Valyermo from November 10–January 26 and at St. Andrew’s Priory on January 26 (both Lance Benner).

While intergrades are fairly common, pure Northern “Yellow-shafted” Flickers are not.  Such birds were at Madrona Marsh in Torrance from October 30–January 19 (Dave Moody), at Loyola Marymount University from December 30–Febraury 2 (Russell Stone), at the South Coast Botanic Garden on January 6 (Ron Bernal), at the LA County Arboretum on January 8 (David Bell) and at the Piute Ponds on February 10 (Mark & Janet Scheel).

Flycatchers put on a pretty good show and included a late Olive-sided Flycatcher at the Huntington Gardens in San Marino on October 28 (Elaine MacPherson).

A handful of wintering Empidonax were also discovered.  A Hammond’s Flycatcher was at Bonelli Park in San Dimas from December 11–January 25 (David Bell) and Gray Flycatchers were at Bonelli from October 11–November 28 (Rod & Pat Higbie) and at Cheseboro Canyon in Agoura on December 16 (Dan Cooper).  Much less expected in winter was a Dusky Flycatcher along the Ballona Valley Riparian Corridor from December 5–January 21 (Dan Cooper).  A Pacific-slope Flycatcher was at Malibu Lake on December 16 (Cynthia Schotte) and a silent “Western” Flycatcher was at Lacy Park in San Marino on January 14 (Tom Wurster).

Several Eastern Phoebes were found, with one at Peck Road Water Conservation Park in Arcadia from November 7–12 (David Bell), another at the similarly named Peck Park in San Pedro on December 23 (Dinuk Magammana) and one at the Los Angeles Country Club making a nice addition to the LA CBC on December 30 (Kimball Garrett).

Vermilion Flycatchers were at the Earvin Magic Johnson Recreation Area (EMJRA) in Willowbrook from October 17–January 24 with possibly the same bird seen at nearby Enterprise Park on October 30 (Richard Barth), and at the Sepulveda Basin in Van Nuys from January 4–February 3 (David Bell).

Dusky-capped Flycatchers were at Veteran‘s Park in Bell Gardens from November 18 onward (Richard Barth) and at Creek Park in La Mirada as of December 13 (Jonathan Rowley), with both of these being returning wintering birds.  Only slightly less rare in winter were Ash-throated Flycatchers at Ralph Dills Park in Paramount from November 2–18—though this may have been a very late migrant, at Jim Gilliam Park in Baldwin Hills on December 25 (both Richard Barth) and in the Sepulveda Basin from January 6–February 2 (Mark & Janet Scheel).

Tropical Kingbirds were at the Ballona Wetlands on October 9 (Tracy Drake), returning for another winter to Legg Lake in South El Monte as of October 15 (Mark Scheel), at El Dorado Park in Long Beach from October 21–23 (Jesse Ellis)—with what may have been the same bird still present on December 11 (Karen Gilbert), at Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale on October 28 (Cathy McFadden, Paul Clarke), at the Las Virgenes Open Space Preserve near Woodland Hills on November 24 (Steve Zamek) and in Malibu on February 1 (Allen Chartier).

Far less expected was a Thick-billed Kingbird at El Dorado Park in Long Beach from October 19–25 (Karen Gilbert).  If one doesn’t count birds returning for successive winters, this is a very rare county bird with just seven records.

At least a half dozen late Western Kingbirds were reported between October 21 and November 12.  Later still were presumably wintering birds at Santa Fe Dam on December 15 (Mark Hunter), in San Dimas Canyon on December 15 and in the Sepulveda Basin on January 6 (Mark & Janet Scheel).  While definitely more regular than in the past—in fact twenty years ago, Westerns were unheard of in winter—care should be taken when separating any presumed Western from the expected Cassin’s.

The usual small number of Plumbeous Vireos were present on the coastal slope, while a rarer—in winter at least—Cassin’s Vireos were at the Village Green Condominiums on Los Angeles from November 28–January 16 (Don Sterba), at Hansen Dam on January 4 (John Oliver) and At Cheviot Hills Park in West Los Angeles on February 7 (Richard Barth).

An excellent find—and only the third ever recorded in the county—was a Blue-headed Vireo at Ken Malloy Harbor Regional Park in Harbor City found on January 13 and reported through January 23 (Steve Dexter).  This was very possibly the same bird present last winter but whose identity—based largely equivocal photographs—could not be substantiated.

Two Horned Larks, no longer easy to find on the coastal slope, were at Santa Fe Dam between October 19 and early November (Andrew Lee) and at least three were at Malibu Lagoon on October 27 (Dan Cooper).

Pacific Wrens were at two locations in Big Santa Anita Canyon above Arcadia, one on November 2 (Darren Dowell) and the other from November 17-December 15 (Lance Benner).

California Gnatcatchers are generally sedentary, thus birds away from expected areas are always of interest.  One was along the Rio Hondo near South El Monte on October 26 (Dan Cooper, David Bell) and another continued from the previous year near the Whittier Narrows Nature Center through December 15 (Mickey Long).

Thrushes of interest included just one Mountain Bluebird reported on the coastal slope—north of Lake Balboa in Van Nuys—from December 26–January 15 (Daniel Tinoco), a Townsend’s Solitaire above Altadena from December 15–January 27 (David Bell) and one at Veteran’s Park in Sylmar on January 26 (Kimball Garrett).  Also unusual was a rather late Swainson’s Thrush at Alondra Park in Lawndale from October 11–18 (Dinuk Magammana).  Lastly, at least seven Varied Thrushes were found between October 22 and February 3.

Another excellent find was a White Wagtail that undertook a reverse migration—heading southeast instead of southwest—and ended up at Cabrillo Beach from December 8–18 (Bernardo Alps).  This was only the third ever discovered in the county.  The two former wagtail species have of course been lumped under the single species name of White Wagtail, with this bird determined to be of the ocularis race that occurs in northeast Asia, with small numbers breeding in western Alaska.  

Up to three Chestnut-collared Longspurs—scarce even in the Antelope Valley and much less likely on the coastal slope—were at Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale from October 19–28 (Andrew Lee).

As we’re covering the time frame from late October through early February, it’s no surprise that wood-warblers were well-represented.  No fewer than nineteen species—in addition to the regular half dozen or so that are regular in winter—were recorded over the period.  

A Northern Waterthrush was at Hahamongna Watershed Park in Pasadena on October 15 (Darren Dowell, Brendan Crill) while nine Black-and-white Warblers were found during the period.

Very unusual in winter was a MacGillivray’s Warbler near Lacy Park in San Marino on December 19 (David Bell).  Another—or perhaps the same bird—was present just a few blocks from this spot during winter of 2011–2012.  Another remarkable winter find was a probable Kentucky Warbler along the Dominguez Channel in Carson on February 6 (Dinuk Magammana).
A Tennessee Warbler was at Sand Dune Park in Manhattan Beach from October 19–21 (Dinuk Magammana), a Nashville Warbler was on the Los Angeles CBC on December 30 and a Virginia’s Warbler had returned to the VA grounds in Westwood as of October 24 where it remained through the period (Dan Cooper).

An American Redstart was at Alondra Park in Lawndale on October 13 (Robert Hargraves), while Northern Parulas included one returning to Legg Lake as of October 26 (Dan Cooper, David Bell), another at Madrona Marsh in Torrance on November 16 and was seen through February (Tracy Drake) and one at the EMJRA in Willowbrook from November 21 through January (Martin Byhower).

A Magnolia Warbler was at Apollo Park in Lancaster on October 13 (Kimball Garrett) and a Blackburnian Warbler was at Harbor Park in Wilmington from October 13–16 (Darren Dowell).  Chestnut-sided Warblers were at Ed Vincent Park in Inglewood on October 23 (Richard Barth) and returning for another winter at Legg Lake in South El Monte as of November 20 (John Oliver).

A presumably continuing Blackpoll Warbler was at Creek Park in La Mirada through October 15 and at least twenty-two Palm Warblers were found between October 9 and January 29.  Pine Warblers were at Creek Park in La Mirada from October 24-26 (Jonathan Rowley), returning for a third winter to Hansen Dam in Lakeview Terrace as of October 28 (Kimball Garrett) and at the EMJRA in Willowbrook on December 9 (Tom Benson).  Another returning bird was in Palos Verdes Estates on December 23 (Jim Pike).

Rare but regular in winter were Hermit Warblers in Rolling Hills Estates on the Palos Verdes Peninsula on November 4 (Steve Wolf), at the EMJRA in Willowbrook on December 6 (David Bell) and at Dennis the Menace Park—yes that really is its name—in Downey on January 13 (Richard Barth), while a rarer Black-throated Green Warbler was in Pasadena on November 25 (John Garrett).

Vagrants of the genus Cardellina were represented by a Canada Warbler at Loyola Marymount University on October 20 (Russell Stone).

Painted Redstarts were at Alondra Park in Lawndale on October 9 (Dinuk Magammana), at Ed Vincent Park in Inglewood on October 23, with what may have been the same bird there on February 9 (Richard Barth) and at Lacy Park in San Marino from November 20–January (Darren Dowell).

Wintering Green-tailed Towhees were in Palos Verdes Estates on December 23 (Jim Pike) and at the Kenneth Hahn SRA on December 30 (Ann & Eric Brooks)

Clay-colored Sparrows were at the Eaton Canyon basin on October 17 (David Bell), at Peck Road Water Conservation Park in Arcadia on October 21–22 (Mark & Janet Scheel), continuing at Madrona Marsh in Torrance through October 27 and at Pomona Cemetery on November 14 (Mike San Miguel Jr.).

Coastal slope Vesper Sparrows included one in the Eaton Canyon Flood Basin on October 17 (David Bell), three at Cheeseboro Canyon in Agoura, one at the Chatsworth Nature Preserve on December 22 and one in the Whittier Narrows area from December 15–January 15 (Mickey Long).

On the Malibu CBC, a timely find was a Lark Bunting at Cheeseboro Canyon in Agoura on December 16 (Dan Cooper).  

Rare as a migrant was a Grasshopper Sparrow at Peck Road Water Conservation Park in Arcadia on October 21 (Jon Fisher).

A “Red” Fox Sparrow at Grassy Hollow Picnic Area in the San Gabriel Mountains on November 4 was the only one reported (Mark & Janet Scheel).

At least a dozen Swamp Sparrows were found between October 15 and January 25, almost all on the coastal slope.  Also relatively abundant were White-throated Sparrows, with a remarkable two dozen reported during the period.

Dark-eyed “Gray-headed” Juncos, rather scarce recently, were at Sand Dune Park in Manhattan Beach (Mark Conrad), at Ernest Debs Park near Highland Park on October 28 (Dan Cooper) and at Ed Vincent Park in Inglewood on February 10 (Liga Auzins).  Dark-eyed “Pink-sided” Juncos—historically very rare in the county—were at Pearblossom Park from November 10–13 (Darren Dowell), at West LA College on November 11 (Don Sterba), at Pearblossom Park in the south Antelope Valley on December 25 (Kimball Garrett), in Pasadena from at least mid-December (John Garrett), at Bonelli Park in San Dimas from January 13–January 25 (David Bell) and at St. Andrew‘s Priory near Valyermo on February 10 (Mark & Janet Scheel).

At least ten Summer Tanagers were found between October 25 and December 30, with some of these being returning wintering birds.  A nice find was a much less expected Scarlet Tanager at Harbor Park in Wilmington from October 13–14 (Darren Dowell) and another killed by a cat in South Pasadena November 24 (Adam Stanford-Moore).

Ralph Dills Park in Paramount hosted a Rose-breasted Grosbeak on October 18 (Richard Barth) and wintering Black-headed Grosbeaks were in Sierra Madre on December 19 (Mei Kwan) and in Laurel Canyon in the Hollywood Hills on January 21 (Dave Surtees)

Only three Bobolinks were found this fall, with the last one at Peck Road Water Conservation Park in Arcadia on October 21 (Jon Fisher).

Yellow-headed Blackbirds, expected in spring but rather rare on the coastal slope in fall and winter, were at Peck Park in Arcadia on October 6 (Jon Fisher), at Loyola Marymount University on October 20 (Russell Stone) and at Madrona Marsh in Torrance on December 6 (Tracy Drake).

A Hooded Oriole was in Sherman Oaks from January 14–26 (Scott Logan).  Other orioles included a Baltimore Oriole at Creek Park in La Mirada from October 8–November 13 and what was either Baltimore or a Baltimore x Bullock’s Oriole at West LA College on December 12 (Don Sterba).  A probable Baltimore Oriole was at Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena on December 16 (David Bell) and a Scott’s Oriole was at Bonelli Park in San Dimas from December 12–23 (Valerie Wheeler).

A few Red Crossbills at Pearblossom Park starting in early November (Steve & Becky Turley) had increased to over a dozen by late January.  The vocalizations of one or more were that of a Type 3 bird, heard occasionally but previously undocumented by recordings in the county (Lance Benner).  This complex species—which will ultimately be split into six or more—presents a real challenge for birders.  Structural and call differences are present, but absent recordings many are not identifiable beyond the current single species level.  Kimball Garrett points out that the current defined subspecies do not correspond to the various call types, complicating the matter further.

Other crossbills away from the higher San Gabriels included one at Valyermo on November 10 (Lance Benner), four at Apollo Park on November 15 (Jimmy McMorran), one at JPL in Pasadena on December 5 (Mary Freeman) and two in Altadena on December 23 (Luke Tiller).

There was no invasion of Evening Grosbeaks, but a couple of birds were found locally.  One was along the Angeles Forest Highway north of Aliso Canyon Road on November 1 (Robb Hamilton) and another was over Tujunga on November 25 (Kimball Garrett).

Now that a very productive fall and winter have passed with what seems remarkable speed, spring has arrived.  Well ahead of the official start of the season on March 20, deciduous trees are sprouting new growth long before most of the country has seen a glimmer of spring.  Early migrants in southern California have already been passing through for a couple of months and breeding activity is obvious for a number of resident species.  Speaking of breeding birds, eBird offers an easy way to document any such observations and users should be sure to take advantage of this feature.   

While this time of year sees many birds heading north—waterfowl, loons, raptors and hummingbirds among them—mid March sees the onset of the most appealing aspect of spring for most birders—the arrival of an array of Neotropical migrants.  There is no spectacle quite like spring songbird migration, and after their numbers have peaked in late April, May should bring the best chance for vagrants.  In spring as in fall, virtually any spot can be worth checking.

Originally published in Mar/Apr 2013 Western Tanager Vol. 79 No. 4