Birds of the Season – June 2013

By Jon Fisher

With a remarkably dry winter that proved to be anything but a drought for great birds behind us, numbers of spring migrants continued to increase through late April.  Even by the middle of the month, plenty of regular western songbirds were moving through.  The county also delivered a decent though not impressive selection of vagrants from April through early June.  While much is known about when and where vagrants occur, predicting with any precision what will turn up in any given year is largely guesswork.  But as with the end of any good mystery, not knowing how it will end holds our attention and interest far more effectively.

Inaccessible to most, San Clemente Island was very productive late in the migration period and demonstrated the benefits of more regular coverage.  On the deserts, the Piute Ponds offered a few good spring shorebirds and Lancaster’s Apollo Park continued to prove its worth as a birding locale by serving up a handful of interesting passerines.  In all, if it wasn’t a great spring for rare birds, it was still a satisfying one.   

Our now informal America’s Birdiest County event- held this year at the peak of spring migration from April 26 through 28- ultimately tallied 265 species and highlighted as it always does the county‘s diverse avifauna.  Though not matching our best years, this count’s results were far from poor and right on the mark compared to the average of other recent efforts. 

Waterfowl of note during the period included a Cackling Goose at Scherer Park in Long Beach on April 26 (Becky & Steve Turley) and two along Ballona Creek on May 9 (Jonathan Coffin).  Two Greater Scaup were late at the Piute Ponds on Edwards AFB on April 24 (Jim Moore) and one of an initial group of four Hooded Mergansers at Apollo Park near Lancaster was still present on June 6. 

An Arctic Loon- the county’s apparent third ever- not to mention the third this year- turned up on the lake at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas on May 31.  This cooperative bird was present through June 16 and virtually impossible to miss.  With just a dozen records for the entire state over the last two decades, three in LA County within half a year is remarkable.  Increased awareness of the potential occurrence of this species as well as its field marks are likely contributing factors, as is the proliferation of digital cameras which have helped confirm all three county records.  But given that, the birds first have to be there to be found. 

Though expected mainly as a rare summer and fall vagrant, a Brown Booby was found at San Clemente Island on April 30 (Justyn Stahl).

A possible Black Vulture- still unconfirmed in the county- was seen on the Palos Verdes Peninsula on May 17 (Bob Shanman).  Late and very late Ferruginous Hawks were at Quail Lake on April 28 (Jonathan Bent) and in the west Antelope Valley on May 18 (Frank & Susan Gilliland, Mickey & Janet Long). 

Of interest at Apollo Park near Lancaster was a Common Gallinule on June 1 (Irwin Woldman).  With virtually no suitable habitat here, it’s likely this late migrant would have found almost any body of water in the dry Mojave acceptable, at least temporarily.

Shorebirds included a Lesser Yellowlegs on the lower LA River in Long Beach on June 10 (Richard Barth) and Solitary Sandpipers at the Rio Hondo spreading basins in Pico Rivera on April 27 (Larry Schmahl) and on the LA River in Long Beach on April 28 (Jon Fisher).

Always scarce as migrants, two Red Knots were near the Ballona Creek mouth and present between May 19-22 (Louis Tucker, Irwin Woldman, Barbara Johnson).  Another was at the Piute Ponds on June 1 (Irwin Woldman).  Quite rare in spring was a Semipalmated Sandpiper at the Piute Ponds on April 21 (Mark & Janet Scheel), while only slightly less rare were Baird’s Sandpipers at the Lancaster Sewer Ponds on May 4 (Mark Scheel) and May 12 (Jim Moore). 

Two Dunlin were on the lower LA River in Long Beach from April 27-28 (Karen Gilbert) and a rare spring Stilt Sandpiper was at the Piute Ponds on May 8 (Dan Maxwell).  Last was a Short-billed Dowitcher along the LA River in Vernon from June 7-16 (Richard Barth).

A Sabine’s Gull, rare away from offshore waters, was at the Lancaster Sewer Ponds on May 6 (David Bell).  Franklin’s Gulls were moving through the deserts in small numbers as expected, but away from there, two were at the Ballona Wetlands on May 8 (Jonathan Coffin).   

After an absence of over seventy years, Least Terns appeared at the enclosure on Surfrider Beach adjacent to Malibu Lagoon this year, with breeding confirmed in early June when the presence of young was detected (Tom Ryan).  Ultimately these birds were not successful in fledging any young, with predation being the apparent cause of the failure.  In addition to that risk, any species nesting in this habitat is in a tenuous position in southern California where beach going is popular with millions of humans.  Signage, fencing and continued public education may eventually allow for successful fledging of young here.

Also passing through the deserts were Black Terns, with the only report away from there being one at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas on May 8 (Rod Higbie).

White-winged Doves, more typical in late summer and fall, included one just inside the western edge of county along Kanan Road on May 11 (Dan Cooper) and another over the Sepulveda Basin in Van Nuys on May 10 (Mike Stensvold).

Rarely easy to find away from breeding areas, a migrant Common Poorwill turned up at Alondra Park in Lawndale on April 21 (Dinuk Magammana).

One to several Black Swifts were observed over Claremont Wilderness Park in Claremont, which has been a regular foraging site for the past few years, between May 10 and June 9 (Tom Miko).

Many years see few if any records of migrant Calliope Hummingbirds, but this spring they were detected in above average numbers.  Three were above Henninger Flat on April 27 and one was near Barley Flats on April 29 (Jon Feenstra).  Away from the San Gabriels, Calliopes were in the Santa Monica Mountains on April 18 (Kris Ohlenkamp), in Monrovia on April 23 (Ellen Zunino), at Sand Dune Park in Manhattan Beach on April 26 (Tom Miko), near the Ballona Freshwater Marsh on April 28 (Don Sterba) and at the Rio Hondo spreading basins in Pico Rivera on May 5 (Jon Fisher).  Late for the locality was a Calliope near the Chilao Visitor’s Center on June 1 (Bas van Schooten).  

A Prairie Falcon, rare away from the deserts, was at Brackett Field in La Verne on April 23 (Richard Fisher) and a very late Merlin was in the San Gabriel Mountains southeast of Acton on May 16 (Kris Ohlenkamp).

Willow Flycatchers started passing through the county earlier than usual, with several reported in early May; this species is not expected before the middle of the month.  Other Empidonax included Gray Flycatchers at Santa Fe Dam on April 27 (Darren Dowell, Ron Cyger), at Henninger Flat in the San Gabriels on April 28 (David Bell) and along the San Gabriel River in El Monte on May 11 (Jim Pike) and a late Hammond’s Flycatcher at Apollo Park near Lancaster on May 31 (David Bell).

A nice spring find was a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher at Madrona Marsh in Torrance on May 30 (John Small).  As is often the case with spring vagrants, this was a one day bird.

Plumbeous Vireos, scarce as spring migrants, were at the Village Green Condominiums in Los Angeles on April 20 (Don Sterba) and at Banning Park in Wilmington on April 27 (Tracy Drake).

The only Bank Swallow reported away from the deserts was at Hansen Dam on April 26 (David Bell).

A California Gnatcatcher at Placerita Canyon on April 27 was well away from any expected areas (Bhashar Krishnamachari, Alex Coffey).  Noteworthy but not too surprising was the confirmation of breeding in early May in the population recently discovered at the El Segundo Dunes. 

In a year when few were detected in the county, a late Varied Thrush was near Lake Malibu on May 21 (Katy Delaney).

Apollo Park near Lancaster produced an Ovenbird present from May 30-31 (John Birsner).  Northern Waterthrushes were at Sand Dune Park in Manhattan Beach on April 28 (Brian Biefelt) and at Apollo Park near Lancaster on May 8 (Diane Rose, Kris Ohlenkamp).  The only Black-and-white Warbler reported was also at Apollo Park near Lancaster on June 11 (Wayne Martin).

Tennessee Warblers were on San Clemente Island on May 2 (Kerry Ross), at the Village Green Condominiums in Los Angeles from May 4-7 (Don Sterba), at DeForest Park in Long Beach on May 9 (David Bell) and at La Mirada’s Creek Park on May 12 (Jonathan & Libby Rowley).

Typically a rare but regular spring migrant, just one Northern Parula was recorded, that bird being at Sand Dune Park in Manhattan Beach on May 5 (Mark Rubke).  Far less expected was a Grace’s Warbler at Apollo Park in Lancaster on April 24 (Jon Feenstra, Dan Maxwell), the first lowland spring migrant ever found in California.

Continuing Palm Warblers were at the Village Green Condos on April 20 (Don Sterba), at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh through May 4 and at Peck Road Water Conservation Park through April 20.  New birds were found at the Earvin Magic Johnson Recreation Area in Willowbrook on April 21 (Martin Byhower), at St. Andrew’s Priory on the north slope of the San Gabriels on April 22 (Dick Norton) and at Apollo Park from May 10-11 (Susan Gilliland, David Bell).

Summer Tanagers- both possibly continuing birds- were at Banning Park in Wilmington on April 27 (Tracy Drake) and at Ed Vincent Park in Inglewood on May 13 (Richard Barth).

Migrant Green-tailed Towhees recorded away from the higher mountains were at Veteran’s Park in Bell Gardens on April 21 (Richard Barth) and in Rancho Palos Verdes from May 6-10 (Jim Aichele). 

Scarce on the coastal slope in spring was a Brewer’s Sparrow at Santa Fe Dam on April 27 (Darren Dowell, Ron Cyger).  Clay-colored Sparrows were at Harbor Regional Park in Harbor City from May 4-5 (Ed Griffin), at DeForest Park in Long Beach on May 12 (Dan Maxwell), at Pt. Vicente on May 20 (Matthew Delgado) and at Apollo Park on May 31 (David Bell).

Following a winter where they occurred in well above average numbers, a Swamp Sparrow turned up at the Piute Ponds on April 27 (Kimball Garrett).

After a banner winter for this species in the county, still more White-throated Sparrows turned up.  New birds were found Eaton Canyon on April 21 (Jonathan Bent) and at Placerita Canyon on April 22 (William Cullen).

A Rose-breasted Grosbeak was in Manhattan Beach on May 12 (Patricia Ware) and a few Indigo Buntings were found with birds at Apollo Park near Lancaster on May 4 (Mark Scheel, Kevin Gin), in the San Gabriels at Shortcut Saddle from May 8-June 15 (Dan Maxwell) at DeForest Park on May 12 (David Bell) and at the Village Green Condos on June 5 (Don Sterba).

A Baltimore Oriole continued at the LA Arboretum in Arcadia through April 26.

Red Crossbills away from the San Gabriels were a continuing story, with up to a dozen including juveniles at Apollo Park near Lancaster through June 4 and four, including two hatch year birds in Altadena on June 3 (Lance Benner).  Local breeding, which occurs occasionally in the lowlands, seems likely.  How many others might breed in the lowlands- though probably not annually- and simply go unnoticed?

As mentioned previously, San Clemente Island was quite good for vagrants late in the migration period.  Though not a part of the usual circuit for LA County birders, it deserves special mention.  Between May 31 and June 13, birds found there included four American Redstarts, Northern Parula, Bay-breasted Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Summer Tanager, four Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, three Indigo Buntings, a Bobolink and a Baltimore Oriole (Justyn Stahl).  This doesn’t even include a number of species common on the mainland but rare on the island.  The concentrating effects of desert oases, certain coastal localities and islands are well known and sometimes are stunningly demonstrated.  The fact that almost all of these birds were found at a single locale on the island- Wilson Cove- gives some idea of what else may be out there but never seen.

With spring migration over, June could be described as the slowest month for birders, yet the San Gabriel Mountains beckon as they offer a number of resident and summering species that can’t readily be found elsewhere.  They also offer the potential for finding such rarities as Mexican Whip-poor-will, and in light of the recent discovery of a Red-faced Warbler in the San Bernardino Mountains, perhaps another stray from Mexico or southeast Arizona. 

By July and continuing through the fall, migrating shorebirds will be concentrating along the lower LA River, at coastal spots such as the newly restored Malibu Lagoon, in the Ballona area and elsewhere suitable habitat exists.  On the desert, the Piute Ponds and Lancaster Sewer Ponds should also host some good fall birds among the regulars. 

In August, passerine migrants will be heading south through the mountains, preceded by Selasphorus hummingbirds taking advantage of food resources at these higher elevations.  Though a lot of effort is concentrated on the coastal slope and deserts in August and September, birding the mountains for fall migrants at this time can be productive and rewarding.  

Published Western Tanager Vol. 79 No. 6 July/August 2013