Birds of the Season - August 2013

By Jon Fisher

Los Angeles County is smaller reflection of Southern California as a whole, with many varied habitats and complex seasonal movements involving hundreds of species of birds.  This variety is enough to hold the interest of even the most experienced birder and presents many others with the challenge of learning the details of status and distribution. 

What is well known to veterans and quickly learned by new birders is that learning status and distribution if often a valuable aid in identification.  Fall migration offers a great opportunity to learn these patterns.

The mild weather we experienced for much of the period was welcome and unexpected.  What was expected was June bringing us the first fall shorebirds; this even before summer officially begins.  July and August saw the numbers build dramatically and quickly. 

In the mix of the many regular shorebirds were two remarkable rarities and a handful of lesser ones.  As they are one of the most migratory families of birds, their propensity for vagrancy is no surprise.

While it’s a gross understatement to say that shorebird habitat in the county has shrunk dramatically as the human population has grown, this at least has had one positive effect for birders; it concentrates the birds.  Nowhere is this more obvious than along the lower Los Angeles River.  Even though its course was transformed into a concrete channel over a half century ago, it remains a large wetland habitat.  As it does each year, the river hosted many thousands of birds that lingered or stopped briefly on their way south.   

Also loaded with potential and shorebird attracting properties, as well as being another man created habitat, the Piute Ponds on Edwards Air Force Base again proved their ability to produce vagrant shorebirds as well as common ones.

Not far behind shorebirds were southbound passerines, with a number of birds on the move in July.  By early August the number and variety had increased noticeably.  Willow Flycatchers were evident , warblers were on the move and Lazuli Buntings congregated in weedy river channels and flood basins.

June and July also offer the opportunity to confirm breeding for both scarce and common birds.  This adds yet another dimension to birding during a relatively slow period, and one which- especially when the data is entered in eBird- provides useful and easily accessible information.

While anything but quiet, the mountains produced little that wasn’t expected at this time of year.  No Mexican Whip-poor-will was found at its previous location and no vagrant warblers were detected there.

Waterfowl during the period included a Ross’s Goose at the L.A. County Arboretum in Arcadia on July 5 (Kathy Degner), with a few others continuing in the San Gabriel and San Fernando Valleys.  An “Aleutian” Cackling Goose was at Harbor Park in Harbor City from June 22-July 29 (Ed Griffin) and almost certainly summering, and a Cackling Goose was at the Sepulveda Basin in Van Nuys from July 23-31 (Kate Rogowski).  A few Brant lingered into August at Malibu Lagoon.

Out of season were two Ring-necked Ducks at the Lancaster Sewer Ponds on August 10 (John Garrett, Darren Dowell) and a Bufflehead along the lower LA River in Vernon from June 16 to at least July 2 (Richard Barth).

Suspected as breeders, Common Mergansers were finally confirmed as such on the San Gabriel River near the junction of the east and west forks on July 11 (Benjamin Smith).  This marked the first ever confirmed record for the county.  Breeding is to be watched for on other larger lakes and reservoirs.  Elsewhere a lone Hooded Merganser, rare in summer, lingered at Apollo Park near Lancaster through August 10.

The Arctic Loon, a third county record, continued to be easy to view at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas through August 10.  Given the fact that was in the process of molting its flight feathers, it had little choice but to stay put. 

At least two pairs of Clark’s Grebes were discovered breeding at the gravel pits off the 605 Freeway in Arcadia on July 13 (Ed Stonick).

Regular in Orange County just a few miles to the south of us but quite rare for L.A. County, a Reddish Egret was observed briefly on the LA River in Vernon on July 23 (Richard Barth).

Least Bitterns were more prevalent than usual with one at Legg Lake- where breeding is at least somewhat regular- on July 13 (Ed Stonick).  Three more were along the nearby San Gabriel River on August 4 (Jon Fisher), a sign of probable breeding there, while four- likely a pair and two juveniles- were at the Sepulveda Basin wildlife lake between July 20-31 (Ron Cyger, Mark Scheel, Steve Powell).  They are probably more common than records indicate, but even when present they can be difficult to detect.

Fall Solitary Sandpipers were at the Piute Ponds on July 9 (Jon Feenstra), on the San Gabriel River in South El Monte on July 19 (Luke Tiller), along the LA River in Cudahy on July 21 (Richard Barth), in Long Beach on August 3 (Mary Freeman) and at the Piute Ponds on August 10 (John Garrett, Darren Dowell). 

The Piute Ponds also hosted an early Lesser Yellowlegs on June 18 (Irwin Woldman).

The fall’s first Semipalmated Sandpiper was at the Piute Ponds on August 10 (John Garrett, Darren Dowell).

A remarkable find was a Red-necked Stint along the lower LA River in Long Beach that was present from July 16-22 (Richard Barth).  This was the fifteenth state record but only the second for the county, with the first being at the Piute Ponds in 1983.  Though this highly migratory species breeds in northwest Alaska, only a very few migrate down our west coast.  This bird was one of four found along there this fall.

Slightly more common in California but equally rare in the county was a spring migrant White-rumped Sandpiper at the Piute Ponds from June 17-18 (Jon Feenstra, Dan Maxwell).  With over two dozen records for the state, again this was just the second for the county.  The only previous record was a fall bird at the Piute Ponds thirty-three years ago. 

The first Baird’s Sandpiper of the fall was at the Piute Ponds on August 10 (John Garrett, Darren Dowell) and other shorebirds of interest included two Stilt Sandpipers at the Piute Ponds from July 23-24 (Jon Feenstra) and a Ruff in Cudahy along the LA River on July 18 (Richard Barth).  Early were both a Least Sandpiper in Long Beach on June 17 and a Short-billed Dowitcher in Vernon on June 16 (Richard Barth).

Four Least Terns at Peck Road Water Conservation Park in Arcadia on July 5 were a surprise well away from the coast (John Garrett, Darren Dowell), while a single Black Tern at the Piute Ponds on July 21 was more expected (Nick & Mary Freeman).

The only alcids reported from shore were a Pigeon Guillemot and a Scripp’s Murrelet seen off Pt. Dume on July 14 (Kimball Garrett).

A Lesser Nighthawk at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh on July 18 was well away from regular breeding and foraging areas (Jonathan Coffin).

Black Swifts, scarce and local breeders in the county, included a bird over Eaton Canyon in Pasadena on June 23 (Mark Hunter) and a few continuing in the early evenings- and presumably breeding not far away- along Cobal Canyon Road above Claremont through July 13 (Tom Miko, et al).  A Chimney Swift, the expected summer Chaetura, was along the San Gabriel River in South El Monte on August 9 (John Garrett, Darren Dowell).

A Willow Flycatcher in suitable breeding habitat along the LA River in the Sepulveda Basin on July 28 (Jon Fisher) was interesting but probably an early migrant as it was soon followed by others elsewhere in the county. 

Rarely detected away from breeding areas, a Bell’s Vireo was at the Village Green Condominiums in Los Angeles on July 25 (Don Sterba).  Though singing persistently, a Red-eyed Vireo in Claremont from July 6-8 had slim odds of finding a mate (Tom Miko).

Miscellaneous passerines of interest included a Purple Martin along the Angeles Crest Highway at mile 44 on June 17 (John Luther) that offered some hope that this species might re-colonize this area at some point, and a Sage Thrasher at the Piute Ponds on July 21 (Wayne Martin).

Warblers of note included a Lucy’s Warbler at Sand Dune Park in Manhattan Beach on August 4 (Lori & Mark Conrad) and an American Redstart along lower Big Tujunga Creek on June 22 (Kimball Garrett).

Extremely rare in the county was a Pyrrhuloxia found in Rolling Hills Estates on June 30.  The only other county record was from the Antelope Valley in May of 1983.  Both occurrences fit the Pyrrhuloxia’s pattern of westward dispersal in spring and summer.

In addition to a continuing bird at Shortcut Saddle in the San Gabriels, a small number of Indigo Buntings turned up.  One was at Hahamongna Watershed Park in Pasadena from July 3-27 (Darren Dowell) and others were at Hansen Dam on July 20 (Kimball Garrett) with what was perhaps the same bird there on July 28 (Brad Rumble), along the San Gabriel River in South El Monte on July 21 (Luke Tiller) and July 28 (David Bell, Catherine Hamilton) and near Lake Balboa on July 22 (Lynda Elkin).

As fall migration for passerines gets into full swing, September and October will almost certainly offer up some good vagrants among plenty of regular migrants.  While one doesn’t want to fall into the trap of ignoring all but rare birds, some stunning records have turned up at this time of year.  Typically Asian passerines and “reverse” migrants heading northwest from Mexico are possible.  Past records include Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher (the last one back in 1991), Arctic Warbler, Eastern Yellow Wagtail and Northern Wheatear (all relatively recent). 

Both Bluethroat and Red-flanked Bluetail have been recorded on San Clemente Island in recent years.  These birds missed the abrupt eastward dogleg of the southern California coast and found themselves over open water, eventually ending up on San Clemente.  When they might turn up on the mainland is anyone’s guess, but it would seem inevitable.

For all its faults, all created by overpopulation, Los Angeles County offers excellent opportunities throughout the year for birders of any level of skill and interest.  But there’s no time better to take advantage of this than during autumn migration.

Originally published Western Tanager Vol. 80 No. 1 Sept/Oct 2013