Marsh Madness at Ballona

by Don Sterba

There once was a Ballona coot
That said “I just don’t give a hoot
To migrate away
And then come back some day
While wearing this stifling black suit!"

The Ballona Freshwater Marsh (BFM), close to Marina del Rey and about 4 miles from my home in Culver City, is ideally located for my low-mileage birding activities, and I’ve been traversing its paths regularly ever since its public opening in 2003. This L-shaped marsh occupies roughly 27 acres of land in the southwest corner of the Lincoln Blvd-Jefferson Blvd intersection, and a public path lies between these streets and the water (a gated interior path is off-limits). Visitors may park only along the southern side of Jefferson Blvd. In the following notes I give a chronological synopsis of a few events that have made BFM a very special eBird Hotspot for me.

Map-Ballona-Freshwater-Marsh BFM Map

Google Map of Ballona Freshwater Marsh 

Nov 28, 2002: While birding along Cabora Dr, an access road carved into the side of the Playa del Rey bluffs just west of Lincoln Blvd, I found 6 American White Pelicans patrolling a small patch of water in what would become BFM a few months later. It would be 6 more years until the next AMWP showed up here on eBird.

April 19, 2003: Jeannie Tamaki and I attended an opening-day public tour of BFM, and at the south end was an alternate plumaged Red-throated Loon – still the only one ever reported here.

Oct 4, 2003: In the distance I saw two birds on the ground in back of some sparse vegetation, and initially I thought they might be Savannah Sparrows with distinct, pale streaks on their backs, but as I approached I realized – Yikes!! - they were Red-throated Pipits. Bruce Broadbooks and Barbara Elliott, nearby residents, came over to confirm the sighting.

Nov 8, 2003: Richard Barth found an American Tree Sparrow and called me at home. I hurried (to put it mildly) over and joined Kevin Larson for a brief spotting scope view of the rarity before it disappeared. We all thought what a magical birding spot this marsh has been during its first seven months.

Aug 23, 2005: On this day I had my first views of a juvenile Least Bittern, sort of a signature bird for BFM, and LEBI now nest here annually. The public path is quite close to the water and reeds, and it’s fairly easy (but not guaranteed) in spring and early summer to hear LEBI singing their soft, delicate coo-coo-coo song that is in sharp contrast to their loud, harsh contact or alarm call.

Sep 19, 2007: “Double, double, toil and trouble…” A peculiar sight on this day was a witches’ brew of odd, haze-spewing bubbles that were rising and erupting in water near the elbow (where the marsh changes direction at the Lincoln-Jefferson Blvd intersection). Here’s my email to Dr. Edith Read, BFM preserve manager:

“The bubbles were white (or very pale gray) in color, and usually remained intact on the surface of the water for several seconds. When they burst, smoke-like fumes escaped into the air. The fumes seemed to dissipate after a few seconds and not linger in the air. After a few minutes bubble formation gradually died out, and the water was calm again.”

Fire-burn-and-cauldron-bubble-jan-9-2008 BFM Fumes

"Fire burn and cauldron bubble" Jan 9, 2008, Ballona Freshwater Marsh fumes

Edith, too, was baffled, and we both forgot about the incident until Jan 9, 2008, when I again saw similar bubbles in a slightly different location, and I had visions of a major ecological scandal that begged for some detective work. I sent Edith a photo of the presumed noxious bubbles, and the next day she reported back with an explanation. Vector Control of LA Co. was (and still does) monitoring the Ballona area for mosquitoes in connection with the West Nile virus, and since mosquitoes are attracted to concentrations of carbon dioxide in the air, traps set out for the insects were baited with dry ice (frozen CO2). After replenishing their traps with dry ice, Vector Control staff would sometimes toss any excess into the marsh to watch it bubble and “steam”. After being informed that such dumping of dry ice causes localized kill of aquatic organisms, Vector Control staff ceased that particular means of disposal and amusement.

Jan 11, 2008: For about 3 winters the extreme southern end of BFM was a reliable collection point for Wilson’s Snipe, and on this day I had my all-time high count of 71 WISN mostly within a narrow stretch of shoreline only about 100 ft long. Several months later a maintenance crew cleared some vegetation out of this area, and the local winter snipe population decreased to low single digits or none at all.

May 17, 2008: Kevin Larson called me at home about a juvenile Little Blue Heron he found at the marsh, and I rushed over to take photos. This bird stayed past mid-July when it displayed attractive mottled colors in transition to adult plumage, and this remains the only well-documented LBHE at BFM on eBird.

Little-Blue-Heron-juv-July-9-2008 LBHE 3375-adj

Little Blue Heron, juvenile, July 9, 2008

June 6, 2008: While on a monthly bird survey for Edith, I heard a loud, repetitive song coming from the north-end willows. “Sweet sweet sweet sweet” could be from an odd-sounding Wilson’s Warbler, I thought, but I kept searching for the well-hidden songster, and persistence paid off with a Prothonotary Warbler, the first live spring migrant PROW recorded in LA Co. (an earlier one was found deceased in a Lancaster backyard).

Sep 17, 2008: I often get lazy near the end of a walk, and I thought the small bird moving around in reeds about 50 yards away had to be either a Common Yellowthroat or a Marsh Wren, so why bother checking it out – but I was glad I did, as it was my only BFM Northern Waterthrush.

Sep 22, 2009: An Eastern Phoebe showed up along the Lincoln leg of BFM to become the 2nd earliest fall record in LA Co. Kimball Garrett mentioned that since the earlier bird was a sight record, mine was the earliest “strongly-documented” record because I had photos. It pays to carry a camera!

April 20, 2010: In the past, a few “Least” Bell’s Vireos were recorded passing through BFM during migration, but the persistent singer I found on this day attracted a mate, and together they fledged two young to establish the first successful BEVI breeding record in the Ballona area.

Least-Bells-Vireo-male-Apr-20-2010 BEVI 1552-adj

Least Bell's Vireo, male, Apr. 20, 2010

June 24, 2012: “John be nimble, John be quick…” My email to Edith:

“This morning at around 7 AM a group of people (men & women) with Huskie type dogs and bicycles made fairly fast "mushing" runs along the public path. They had about 4 bicycles pulled by 2 or 3 dogs each at speeds of roughly 10 to 15 mph. I was talking to another birder, John Ivanov, when he barely managed to avoid being tripped by a dog leash as the dog ran the wrong way around him, and John jumped into the air with perfect timing to avoid the leash.”

Of course this type of activity is inappropriate at an Ecological Reserve, with Killdeer sometimes nesting within a few feet of the path, but being non-confrontational by nature, especially when facing large dogs that do not know me, I let Edith determine who should deal with this group. The mushers continued their occasional early-morning runs until relevant authorities eventually caught them in the act on August 5.

If you use eBird.org to generate a list of all bird species recorded at BFM, beware of ill-documented data. Some BFM-labeled checklists I’ve scanned appear to be for other areas, such as Ballona Creek or even the beach, and not within the well-defined boundary of BFM. Also, some checklists include rarities without comments, so don’t believe everything you read.

Your best source for a reliable BFM species list is Edith Read’s compilation, a conservative list of 230+ species seen “using” the BFM area and omits pure fly-overs. Copies of her list are available in a wooden box affixed to the fence near the large BFM welcome sign just west of the Jefferson-Lincoln Blvd intersection. For a detailed avian account, historic and fairly current, of the entire Ballona Wetlands, not just BFM, go to Dan Cooper’s website cooperecological.com/BallonaBirds.htm and access his various Ballona links.

In addition to birds and bubbles, there are many other interesting things at BFM to look for such as snakes, mammals, butterflies, dragonflies etc. And one last note for anyone visiting this area, the “Fresh” in BFM refers to street runoff, so don’t drink the water!

American-Kestrel-female-June-26-2011 AMKE 4898-adj

American Kestrel, female, June 26, 2011

Annas-Hummingbird-male-Apr-27-2010 ANHU 1699-adj3

Anna's Hummingbird, male, April 27, 2010

Black-necked-Stilt-female-with-three-young-June-13-2012 BNST 7180-adj

Black-necked Stilt, female with three young, June 13, 2012

Clay-colored-Sparrow-Sep-18-2013 CCSP A1244-adj

Clay-colored Sparrow, Sep. 18, 2013

Common-Gallinule-chicks-Aug-19-2012 COGA 7604-adj

Common Gallinule chicks, Aug. 19, 2012

Killdeer-in-distraction-display-near-its-nest-June-22-2010 KILL 2526-adj

Killdeer, in distraction display near its nest, June 22, 2010

White-tailed-Kite-Oct-20-2011 WTKI 5537-adj

White-tailed Kite, juvenile, Oct. 20, 2011

Photograpy by Don Sterba

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

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