Birds of the Season- October 2013

By Jon Fisher

Without migration birding would be a relatively dull pursuit with few surprises.  Fortunately most birds have evolved to take advantage of their ability to fly- exploiting the seasons by avoiding extreme conditions and going where resources are most abundant.  Even better is that some move great distances to do so, occasionally causing them to end up far from where they ought to be.  Autumn highlights these avian journeys and is an excellent time for birders in southern California.


As usual, most rare birds were found on the heavily urbanized coastal slope because of greater coverage, the concentrative effects of the coastline and simply more available habitat.  Though it’s naturally tempting to go where vagrants are most likely to be found- or where they have already been found- good birds can turn up almost anywhere and simple coverage is often the key.   

The lower LA River- a part time garbage dump abused and misused by many entities- continued to be excellent for shorebirds.  Though there were no spectacular vagrants found here after July’s Red-necked Stint, a great many birds continued to use this area to feed and rest.  As usual, the more pristine and more remote Piute Ponds were also good for shorebirds.

In contrast to last fall, there was little detectable movement of montane species into the lowlands.  Red-breasted Nuthatches and Mountain Chickadees- both widespread on the coastal slope last fall- were largely absent. 

Sparrows and other seedeaters were abundant where suitable habitat existed.  It’s remarkable what a good patch of weeds and grass can produce.  To affirm this, one need look no further than Arcadia’s Peck Road Water Conservation Park where decreasing water levels produced ideal conditions for such birds.   

Waterfowl of interest included a summering Redhead on the LA River in Long Beach from July through at least August 21 (Jeff Boyd).  Very unusual was a summering Hooded Merganser at Apollo Park near Lancaster through September 23 (John Birsner).  Also at Apollo Park was an early Common Merganser present from August 23 through most of September (Lynda Elkin). 

Anyone who wanted to see the Arctic Loon at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas was afforded plenty of time to do so.  It continued through September 28, making for a four month overlay. 

Very rare was a Hawaiian Petrel observed in LA County waters- albeit about 100 miles south of Long Beach- on September 5 (Jon Feenstra).  This was only the fourth county record of “Dark-rumped” Petrel, which includes the difficult to separate Hawaiian and Galapagos Petrels.  Increasingly recorded in the waters off northern California, Hawaiian Petrels remain very rare in LA County waters.  To date no Galapagos Petrel has been confirmed in California, though a few birds have not been resolved to species.

Other seabirds of note were a Flesh-footed Shearwater and a Red-billed Tropicbird over the San Clemente Basin on October 5 (Ken Walsh).  Though it would seem counterintuitive, this location due west of Baja California is within LA County waters, as the nearest point of land is San Clemente Island.

A whale-watching trip on September 2 turned up the county’s ninth Masked Booby (Darren Dowell) and a Brown Booby (John Garrett) a few miles south of Long Beach.  On October 6, two Masked Boobies- one possibly the same bird seen a month earlier- were near the Long Beach Harbor entrance (Kurt Radamaker).  Both continued through October 13.

As nice as those birds were, the big story centered around Blue-footed Boobies.  The first report- a sight record of a bird over the 210 Freeway in Pasadena on September 11 (Janet Scheel)- might understandably have been viewed with some degree of skepticism were it not for the records that were soon to follow.  In fact, the next three birds were found the following day- single birds were off Santa Monica Beach (Dan Cooper), at Legg Lake in South El Monte (Kevin & Ryan Long) and over the LA River in Long Beach (Karen Gilbert, Jeff Boyd).  Another- likely one of the birds seen earlier in the area- was at Peck Water Conservation Park in Arcadia from September 16-23 (David Bell).

On September 14, seven Blue-footed Boobies were present at the Ballona Creek mouth (Darren Dowell, Frank & Susan Gilliland).  At least five continued through October 11 with a high count of eleven birds.  Elsewhere in the state, well over one hundred were at the Salton Sea, and others- mostly sightings of one to two birds- were from as far north as Bodega Bay. 

There were also a handful of inland records away from the Salton Sea, all of these from Los Angeles County south.  While one can only guess the total number of birds that were present in the state, this was the most significant flight year on record and the most notable since 1972 when fewer than fifty individuals were recorded.

Unusual more than a short distance from the immediate coast was a Brown Pelican at Lake Balboa on August 24 (Mike Stensvold).  This sighting coincided with reports of several others well inland in southern California, but away from the Salton Sea where they are common.

Rare in the county was a probable immature Little Blue Heron along lower Ballona Creek from September 15-23 (John Oliver)and a Reddish Egret at Ballona Lagoon in Marina del Rey from September 22-24 (Mark & Janet Scheel, Frank & Susan Gilliland).  Scarce but far less rare, a Cattle Egret was along lower Ballona Creek on September 27 (Becky & Steve Turley).

Raptors included a tagged Bald Eagle seen over Culver City on September 21 (Kevin Lapp), a Broad-winged Hawk over Claremont on September 29 (Tom Miko) and an early- and possibly returning- Ferruginous Hawk in Playa del Rey on September 22 (Mark & Janet Scheel).

While Solitary Sandpipers and Pectoral Sandpipers were moving through in about average numbers in August and September, Baird’s Sandpipers were unusually scarce on the coastal slope with just a few reported there. 

Extremely rare for us- and for only the fourth county record- was a Hudsonian Godwit at the Piute Ponds from September 16-18 (Jon Feenstra).

Red Knots were more common than usual, with four at the Lancaster Sewer Ponds on August 13 (Irwin Woldman, Judy Mastuoka), two on the LA River in Long Beach on August 15 (Mickey & Kevin Long), one at Del Rey Lagoon in Playa del Rey from August 24-26 (Christopher Taylor) and two more in the Ballona area on September 2 (Jonathan Coffin).

A Ruff on the LA River in Long Beach from September 7-9 (Bob Schallman, Julie Abraham) was the only one reported, likewise a lone Stilt Sandpiper at the Piute Ponds on September 3 (Kumaran Arul).

Dunlins are generally quite scarce as transients, but above average numbers were passing through from late September through mid October, most of these along the lower LA River.

Surprisingly, a Semipalmated Sandpiper on the LA River in Long Beach on September 7 was the only one reported during the period (Steve Sosensky).

While relatively common on the deserts in spring, a Franklin’s Gull at the Piute Ponds from September 16-18 (Jon Feenstra) was the only fall bird recorded.

Black Terns were moving through the deserts with up to twenty at the Piute Ponds on August 15 (Jim Moore).  On the coastal slope where they are unusual, one was at Harbor Park in Harbor City on September 22 (Martin Byhower).

Rather scarce as fall transients were three Common Terns at the Piute Ponds on September 3 (Kumaran Arul).  Another was there on September 17 (David Bell) and one was at the Ballona Creek mouth on September 27 (Barbara Johnson, Irwin Woldman).  Very rare away from offshore waters was an Arctic Tern at the Piute Ponds on September 7 (Mark & Janet Scheel). 

White-winged Doves were at Point Dume in Malibu on September 4 (Cynthia Schotte), along the lower LA River in Long Beach on September 29 (Jon Fisher), at Cal State Dominguez Hills on October 1 (John Thomlinson) and over Long Beach on October 2 (David Bell).

A Burrowing Owl was on the jetty at the Ballona Creek mouth from October 10-11 (Bob Pann).

Rare but fairly regular in summer, a Chimney Swift was over the LA River near Elysian Park on October 15 (John Garrett) and up to three birds continued there through September 8.  An unusual record for both the time and location was a one in the west Antelope Valley on October 2 (John Sterling).  A significant push of the closely related and far more common Vaux’s Swifts took place in the first half of October with small to medium-sized flocks being widely reported.

Portending a possible irruption this fall and winter, Lewis’s Woodpeckers were at Mt. Wilson on October 5 (Luke Tiller, Catherine Hamilton), over Hahamongna Watershed Park in Pasadena on October 5 (Darren Dowell) and at Cheviot Hills Park in Los Angeles on October 11 (Jesse Ellis)

Rare on the coastal slope was a Prairie Falcon that overflew the Sepulveda Basin in Van Nuys on September 26 (Mike Stensvold).

A few Western Kingbirds, Western Wood-Pewees and Olive-sided, Ash-throated and Willow Flycatchers- species typically absent after September- were still passing through in the first half of October.  In addition to these, a rare Least Flycatcher was at Hahamongna Watershed Park in Pasadena on October 3 (David Bell) and more expected Gray Flycatchers were at Hansen Dam on 6 October (Kimball Garrett) and Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale on October 11 (Mickey Long).

Vermilion Flycatchers included a returning wintering bird at the Earvin Magic Johnson Recreation Area in Willowbrook on September 29 (Richard Barth), one at Legacy Park in Malibu from October 5-7 (Nick & Mary Freeman) and one at Harbor Park in Harbor City on October 12 (Darren Dowell).

The Tropical Kingbird that spent the past three winters at Legg Lake in South El Monte was back as of September 29 (Mickey & Jan Long) and another was at Banning Park in Wilmington on October 2 (David Bell).

A Yellow-green Vireo on the Palos Verdes Peninsula on September 24 (Jim Aichele) was only the seventh county record.  This species shares with Tropical Kingbird the habit of occasionally wandering northward from Mexico in the post-breeding season and was one of several found coastally in September in coastal southern California counties.

The only fall Purple Martin reported was at the Piute Ponds on September 17 (David Bell).

Of interest was a Steller’s Jay at Whittier Narrows on October 4 (Mickey Long) and two others in Turnbull Canyon near Whittier on September 30 (Larry Schmahl).  While regular in fall and winter at or near the base of the San Gabriels, this year they should be watched for away from those areas.

Quite rare in the county was a Red-throated Pipit at Legacy Park in Malibu on October 3 (Dan Cooper).  A few others subsequently turned up in Ventura County where more attractive habitat exists.  One wonders what a couple of sod fields near the coast in LA County might produce.   

Early were single Cedar Waxwings at Peck Water Conservation Park in Arcadia on August 15 and in Pasadena on August 29 (John Garrett).

“Eastern” warblers were present in fair numbers and variety with eleven species recorded in addition to the regular western types.  Northern Waterthrushes were at Apollo park near Lancaster on August 20 (John Birsner), along the LA River in Glendale on September 15 (Kimball Garrett) and at DeForest Park in Long Beach on September 17 (Jeff Boyd).

Eight Black-and-white Warblers were found between September 8 and October 10 and seven Tennessee Warblers were found between August 21 and October 1.

Rare but regular fall and winter visitors along the coastal slope, a Lucy’s Warbler was at DeForest Park in Long Beach from September 10-October 4 (Jon Feenstra).  Displaying a similar pattern of occurrence, but appearing in greater numbers than usual this fall, were Virginia’s Warblers, with about ten detected between September 12 and October 11.

American Redstarts were at DeForest Park in Long Beach on September 12 (Jeff Boyd) and at Hahamongna Watershed Park in Pasadena from September 26-30 (David Bell).

Blackburnian Warblers were at Exposition Park in Los Angeles from September 17-20 (Kimball Garrett) and at Creek Park in La Mirada from October 4-6 (Jonathan Rowley), while more expected Chestnut-sided Warblers were at Madrona Marsh in Torrance on September 3 (David Moody) and at Malibu Creek State Park on September 27 (John Mueller).

Only two Blackpoll Warblers were reported, with birds at Del Rey Lagoon in Playa del Rey from September 15-16 (Bill Figueroa) and at Cal State Dominguez Hills on October 1 (John Thomlinson).

In a reverse of last year’s literal invasion of Palm Warblers, one at Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale on October 10 was the only report thus far (Amy Williamson, Mei Kwan).

Early for the lowlands was a Yellow-rumped Warbler in La Canada on August 28 (Nick & Mary Freeman) and a few others subsequently appeared earlier than usual in the lowlands.

Rounding out the warblers was a very rare Canada Warbler at Peck Road Water Conservation Park in Arcadia from October 5-6 (Brian Daniels).

Fall migrant Green-tailed Towhees were at Ralph Dills Park in Paramount on September 9 (Richard Barth), at Peck Water Conservation Park in Arcadia from September 16-23 (Luke Tiller) and at Madrona Marsh in Torrance on September 21 (Tracy Drake).

At least ten Clay-colored Sparrows- all but one on the coastal slope- were found between September 13 and October 6, and an equal number of Vesper Sparrows were present on the coastal slope between September 13 and October 12.

Legacy Park in Malibu hosted a Black-throated Sparrow on August 29 (Dan Cooper) and another was at Lake Balboa in Van Nuys from October 6-13 (David Bell).

Lark Buntings included one at Lake Balboa in Van Nuys from October 5-8 (Daniel Tinoco), a probable at Malibu Lagoon on October 5 (Nick & Mary Freeman) and another at Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale on October 10 (Jon Feenstra).

Scarce and local in the county was a “Large-billed” Savannah Sparrow on the jetty at the Ballona Creek mouth on September 1 (Jon Fisher).

An early White-throated Sparrow was at Rose Hills in Whittier on October 2 (Robb Hamilton).  As it was with Palm Warblers, this species was present is well above average numbers last winter.

Over a half dozen Indigo Buntings were found on the coastal slope between August 15 and October 7.

Quite rare as fall transients, Dickcissels were at Peck Water Conservation Park in Arcadia from September 14-20 (John Garrett) and in Pico Rivera from September 22-23 (Larry Schmahl)

The excellent habitat at Peck also held three Bobolinks on September 15 (John Garrett).  A high count of nine were there on September 22 and at least a few continued through October 5.  Elsewhere, two were along the San Gabriel River in El Monte on September 17 (Jon Feenstra), one was along the San Gabriel River in Pico Rivera on October 12 (Jon Fisher), and one was at Hansen Dam 6-13 October (Kimball Garrett).

Expected transients on the coastal slope in spring, but far less so in fall, a handful of Yellow-headed Blackbirds were observed as they passed through in September and October.

The fall’s only Orchard Oriole thus far was in Big Tujunga Wash near Sunland on September 24 (Kimball Garrett).  Baltimore Orioles were in Pasadena on August 29 (John Garrett), at Sand Dune Park in Manhattan Beach on September 15 (Dinuk Magammana), at Creek Park in La Mirada from September 26-28 (Jonathan Rowley) and at El Segundo Recreational Park on September 30 (Richard Barth). 

Given all these records- how many vagrants did we not see?  No doubt we missed a lot of them.  While comparatively few Blue-footed Boobies are likely to escape detection, many less conspicuous species pass through unseen.  Even if we are in the right place at the right time, they can still be easy to miss.

As fall migration slowly winds down, this hardly means that birds stop moving.  Along the coast especially, birds easily come and go. Though much of the habitat there is monotypic sandy beach, most of the Los Angeles County coastline receives little if any coverage.  But even barren sandy beaches can attract good birds- recall the Wilson’s Plover found last March at Dockweiler State Beach.  A variety of gulls and pelagics might be seen anywhere on or from shore.

Before we know it, Christmas Bird Counts will be upon us.  If you don’t already participate in any of these, it’s a very worthwhile endeavor.  As much as our individual eBird records generate useful data, many CBCs have been run for decades and each year they provide a relatively complete snapshot of early winter birdlife in their respective circles.

In the meantime there will be plenty to do.  It wouldn’t feel like winter without checking Quail Lake for scoters and possible Barrow’s Goldeneyes, or searching various fields and poles in the Antelope Valley for Ferruginous Hawks, Mountain Plovers, Mountain Bluebirds, and perhaps a longspur.


Though on the chilly side, the San Gabriel Mountains- especially the north slope- can be interesting to bird in late fall and winter as higher elevation birds often move down slope.

As always, the mild climate of near coastal areas will offer much of interest.  The changes in birdlife there over the decades have been profound in some ways.  Parrots and parakeets of a number of species and other exotics have become established to one degree or another.  Non-native plantings have assisted the significant spread of Allen’s Hummingbirds and also allowed a number of orioles, tanagers, warblers and others to winter or at least linger later into the year.  

A hallmark of California is the variety it offers, and that is reflected not only in its people, climate, habitats and scenery, but in the birding opportunities available at any season.  We’re also fortunate that birding can be done in relative comfort virtually 365 days a year.  It’s an ideal place to live if you’re a birder.

Originally published in Western Tanager Vol. 80 No. 2 Nov/Dec 2013