Birds of the Season- December 2013

By Jon Fisher


When the Los Angeles County lines were drawn, it was simply by chance that its boundaries covered such a variety of habitats.  Despite being far outmatched in size by San Bernardino County to the east, LA County’s bird list of 513 species easily tops that of its much larger neighbor and of all other California counties save San Diego.

Unfortunately, as the population has exploded, the vast majority of the wetlands, riparian and coastal sage scrub once found in the LA basin and environs have vanished.  But pockets of these habitats remain and new more or less artificial habitats have been created.  Together with miles of coastline, offshore waters and islands these diverse features make for a very bird rich area.

In addition to geography and habitat, it takes all four seasons to record that many birds and autumn is one of the best of them.  Between mid October and mid December as passerine migration slowly wound down, vagrant songbirds continued to keep things lively.  Wintering water birds- ducks, loons and grebes- began appearing in greater numbers and also included some good rarities.   

As winter approaches, there’s been little evidence of any irruptive species and it’s now getting late for any such movements to occur.  The lone exception was Lewis’s Woodpeckers, which appeared in fair numbers, mainly in and around the San Gabriel foothills.  While not overwhelming, above average numbers of Golden-crowned Kinglets were also detected in the lowlands. 

Climate and weather often influence bird populations and movements, and the effects of an extremely dry 2012-2013 rainy season have been amply evident in the impact on habitat.  We’re definitely dry.  The few fronts that passed through thus far this fall gave some hope for a wetter winter… but time will tell. 

Among the small number of now resident Ross’s Geese, a new bird turned up at the LA County Arboretum in Arcadia from November 17-22 (Terri Chapman).  Cackling Geese were along Ballona Creek on October 14 (Moro Rogers), at Alondra Park in Lawndale from October 9-17 (Roy van de Hoek), Woodley Golf Course in Van Nuys on October 24 (Irwin Woldman), at Peck Road Water Conservation Park in Arcadia on October 20 (Jon Fisher).

The only Eurasian Wigeon reported thus far was one back for another winter on the LA River in Glendale as of November 3 (Julia Ray).

Diving ducks included two Greater Scaup off Dockweiler State Beach in El Segundo on December 5 where they are somewhat regular in winter (Richard Barth).  Also off Dockweiler was a female Black Scoter from November 7-25, followed by a male from November 22- (Richard Barth).  Not far from there, a Long-tailed Duck was along Ballona Creek near Playa del Rey on November 30 (Jonathan Coffin).

Though there have been two recent records of single Barrow’s Goldneyes at Quail Lake near Gorman, these are still very rare birds in the county.  They are becoming slightly less so however after our third and fourth- a male and female- were discovered at Quail Lake on November 25 (Jan Wilson).  The female remained in the area through December 8, but the male has not yet been seen again, but either or both could show up again.

Red-breasted Mergansers, typically scarce away from the immediate coast, were surprisingly numerous at Quail Lake near Gorman with a maximum of fifteen there on November 30.  In a reverse pattern, a Common Merganser- the far more common of the two inland- was along the coast in the Ballona Creek channel on December 7 (Mike Stensvold).

Also at productive Quail Lake was a Pacific Loon present from November 10-30 (Kimball Garrett) and a Red-necked Grebe from November 16-22 (Mike Huang).

An apparent Yellow-billed Loon was just offshore near Playa del Rey on November 1 (Bernardo Alps).  This would be only the fourth ever recorded in the county, but the third in the last four years.

Pelagics included a Red-billed Tropicbird well offshore at Thirty Mile Bank on October 13 (Ray Duffy) and two Masked Boobies that continued off Long Beach Harbor through October 29, with at least one present through November 3.  The big September invasion of Blue-footed Boobies receded somewhat, but up to six continued at Playa del Rey through end of November, with at least two remaining into December.

A lack of coastal salt marshes handicaps LA County as far as the occurrence of Reddish Egrets is concerned.  In spite of that, one was present at the Los Cerritos wetlands in the extreme southern part of the region from November 4-5 (Bill Weber).  More regular were single Cattle Egrets at Alamitos Park on November 1 (Jeanette Repp) and along Ballona Creek on November 25 (John Oliver).

Bald Eagles have become fairly regular in winter at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas and at least one bird was present there from December 3-8 (Rod Higbie).

Late Swainson’s Hawks were recorded at Veteran’s Park in Sylmar on November 16 (Bruce Mast) and over Pasadena on November 26 (Luke Tiller).  Returning for another winter in the west Antelope Valley was a “Harlan’s” Red-tailed Hawk first seen on October 22 (Luke Tiller, Catherine Hamilton, David Bell, Jon Feenstra).

Ferruginous Hawks on the coastal slope included two rare dark morph birds, one at Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area from November 13-24 (Lynn Bossone), and the other over Ballona Creek on November 17 (Jon Fisher).  More regular- but still scarce on the coastal slope- was a light morph bird at La Mirada’s Creek Park on November 25 (Jonathan Rowley).

Mountain Plovers were in the Antelope Valley as usual, with a flock of thirty reported in the east valley on November 16 (Mark & Janet Scheel).

Ideal habitat created by the shrinking Lake Machado caused a late Pectoral Sandpiper to linger at Harbor Regional Park in Harbor City from November 2-28 (Manuel Duran).  Also of interest here was a concentration of Wilson’s Snipes numbering at least four dozen.

A short-lived inland invasion of Heermann’s Gulls included five birds at Lake Balboa on October 28 (Daniel Tinoco), two at Lake Calabasas on October 28 (Scott Logan) and two more at Quail Lake- an even less likely location- on November 10 (Kimball Garrett).  None of these birds lingered however and no others were subsequently found away from the coast.

A White-winged Dove at Loyola Marymount University on October 26 was the only one reported (Russ Stone).

Burrowing Owl sightings on the coastal slope included returning wintering birds at the Ballona Wetlands back as of October 29 (Bob Pann) and at Dockweiler State Beach in El Segundo from November 15 (Moro Rogers).  A few Short-eared Owls were detected, with one well offshore at Thirty Mile Bank on October 15 (David Bell), one in Turnbull Canyon near Whittier on October 27 (Larry Schmahl) and another in the west Antelope Valley from November 1-2 (Jon Feenstra, David Bell).

This fall produced decent numbers of Lewis’s Woodpeckers, with the first being one at Chilao Flat in the San Gabriels on October 13 (Hill Penfold).  Following that two were in Cheeseboro Canyon as of October 30 (Bonnie Clarfield-Bylin), one was flying over Vina Vieja Park in Pasadena on November 1 (Luke Tiller) and four were near Barley Flats in the San Gabriels from November 12-17 (Jon Feenstra).  Still later, one was in San Dimas Canyon on November 27 (Martha Estus) and at least five were at Wilson Canyon in Sylmar on December 5-6 (Doug Martin).

Williamson’s Sapsuckers away from their usual higher elevation haunts included birds at Veteran’s Park in Sylmar from November 7-27 (John Oliver) and at St. Andrew‘s Abbey near Valyermo from November 16-30 (Mark & Janet Scheel).  Also of note were six Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and at least eight Red-naped Sapsuckers found in the county during the period.

Northern “Yellow-shafted” Flickers were at the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Area in Van Nuys on October 23 (Georgia Doyle, Linda Elkin), continuing at Wheeler Park in Claremont through November 28 (Tom Miko), at the Village Green Condominiums in Los Angeles from November 6-16 (Don Sterba, Lynn Bossone), at Lacy Park in San Marino on November 9 (Matthew Grube).

A dark suckleyi Merlin, rarest of the three subspecies in southern California, was at Hansen Dam on November 16 (Kimball Garrett).

Empidonax included a Least Flycatcher seen briefly at Roosevelt Cemetery in Gardena on October 14 (Richard Barth) and several late Hammond’s Flycatchers between mid October and early November.  Even later were Hammond’s at Creek Park in La Mirada from November 25- December 6 (Jonathan Rowley) and at El Dorado Park in Long Beach on November 30 (Andrew Lee).

Gray Flycatchers, scarce but regular in fall and winter, were at Malibu Lagoon on October 29 (Dan Cooper) and at Vina Vieja Park in Pasadena from November 23-December 11 (Luke Tiller).  Normally gone by mid October- and scarce on the coastal slope at best- was a Dusky Flycatcher was at Hansen Dam in Lakeview Terrace on October 23 (Kimball Garrett).

Usually absent after September, a Willow Flycatcher was at Peck Road WCP in Arcadia from October 14-17 (John Fitch, Bob Schallman).  A silent “Western” Flycatcher was at El Dorado Park in Long Beach on November 30 (Andrew Lee) and a Pacific-slope Flycatcher was at the El Dorado Park Nature Center area on December 8 (Keith Quinlivan).  Cordilleran and Pacific-slope Flycatchers are essentially indistinguishable when not vocalizing, though we presume most if not all birds in the county are Pacific-slopes.

New was an Eastern Phoebe was at Legacy Park in Malibu from December 11-12 (Joyce Waterman) while previously discovered Vermilion Flycatchers continued at Harbor Park in Harbor City through October 26 and at the Earvin Magic Johnson Recreation Area in Willowbrook into December.

Returning for its sixth winter were a Dusky-capped Flycatcher at Creek Park in La Mirada first detected on December 1 (Jonathan Rowley) and a returning Ash-throated Flycatcher was at Sepulveda Basin through October 25.

Tropical Kingbirds included one continuing through the period at Legg Lake in South El Monte, another at El Dorado Park in Long Beach from October 19-November 30 (Richard Barth, Jim Moore) and one at Harbor Regional Park in Harbor City from November 11-December 8 (orig. obs?).

Noteworthy was a Bell’s Vireo along the lower LA River in Long Beach on December 5 (Brian Daniels).  There are only a very few late fall and winter records of this species in the county and they are rarely observed even in migration.  Late Warbling Vireos were at the Bette Davis Picnic Area in Glendale on October 31 (Kris Ohlenkamp) and at Madrona Marsh in Torrance on November 3 (Tracy Drake).

Among the usual small number of Plumbeous Vireos, scarcer Cassin’s Vireos were at the Bette Davis Picnic Area in Glendale on October 31 (Tom Wurster), at Ed Vincent Park in Inglewood on November 18 (Don Sterba) and at the Dominguez Seminary in Rancho Dominguez on December 5 (Richard Barth).  In the much rarer category, a Philadelphia Vireo at Legg Lake in South El Monte from October 26-31 was a nice find (Larry Schmahl).

Brown Creepers away from expected areas were at Legg Lake starting on October 27 (Jon Feenstra) and at Harbor Regional Park in Harbor City on November 28.

Pacific Wrens were found in Big Santa Anita Canyon on November 23 (Lance Benner) and at Wilderness Park in Downey on December 2 (Tom Miko).

An interesting location for a Mountain Bluebird was at Shortcut Saddle in the San Gabriel Mountains on November 12 (Jon Feenstra).  Despite its common name, this is not a species expected in the chaparral covered mid elevation slopes of the San Gabriels, though open patches anywhere may attract migrants.  Away from the Antelope Valley where expected, one to two were at Lake Balboa in Van Nuys from November 10 (Daniel Tinoco), six were at Vina Vieja Park in Pasadena on November 29 (Luke Tiller) and two were near Santa Fe Dam on December 3 (Jon Feenstra). 

A Varied Thrush at Switzer’s Camp in the San Gabriels on October 18 (Tom Stephenson, Scott Whittle) was the only one reported thus far.

A rare Red-throated Pipit- the second in the county this fall- was at the Sepulveda Basin from October 24-November 3 (David Bell). 

Always rare, a Lapland Longspur was in the west Antelope Valley from November 1-3 (Jon Feenstra, David Bell) and two in the east valley on November 19 (Dan Maxwell).

At least nine Black-and-white Warblers were present in the county during the period.

Tennessee Warblers were at Madrona Marsh in Torrance on October 22 (Tracy Drake), at Legg Lake in South El Monte from October 26-27 (Larry Schmahl), in Avalon on Catalina Island on October 27 (David Bell) and at the Sepulveda Basin in Van Nuys on November 29 (Jim Royer).

Lucy’s Warblers were at Creek Park in La Mirada on October 17 (Jonathan Rowley), at Malibu Lagoon on October 26 (Jon Fisher) and at Madrona Marsh in Torrance from November 23-29 (Tracy Drake), and a late Nashville Warbler was at Murphy Ranch Park on November 24 (Jonathan Rowley).

American Redstarts were at Harbor Regional Park in Harbor City from November 10-26 (Martin Byhower) and at the Sepulveda Basin in Van Nuys from November 29-December 12 (Jim Royer).  A cooperative Blackburnian Warbler was at Peck Road WCP in Arcadia from November 2-3 (Darren Dowell) and Chestnut-sided Warblers were at the Village Green Condominiums in Los Angeles on October 23 (Don Sterba) and at West Creek Community Park in Valencia from October 26-29 (Judy Matsuoka).

The lone report of a Blackpoll Warbler was one at Legg Lake in South El Monte from October 22-25 (Dan Maxwell).  Palm Warblers were less numerous than last fall, with eight recorded over the period. 

Returning for its fourth winter at Hansen Dam in Lakeview Terrace was a Pine Warbler first observed on November 4 (Kimball Garrett) and a Black-throated Green Warbler was at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh from November 22-December 8 (Don Sterba).

A Green-tailed Towhee at Madrona Marsh in Torrance on November 3 was the only one recorded in the lowlands this fall (Tony Strangarity).

Away from any expected areas were two Rufous-crowned Sparrows in the LA River channel in Long Beach on November 21 (Brian Daniels);  quite an unusual record for such a sedentary species.

Vesper Sparrows on the coastal slope included one at Legacy Park in Malibu on October 22 (Dan Cooper), one at Hansen Dam from November 10-12 (obs?).

Extremely rare in the county was an American Tree Sparrow found at Quail Lake on December 8 (Mark & Janet Scheel).  This was the first record of this hardy northern sparrow in the county since 2003.

Far more regular were Clay-colored Sparrows at Avalon on Santa Catalina Island on October 27 (David Bell) and at El Dorado Park in Long Beach on November 30 (Andrew Lee).

With Sage Sparrow having been recently split into Bell’s Sparrow and Sagebrush Sparrow- the former being the default one of the two in the county- it was only a matter of time before our “first” Sagebrush Sparrow was recorded.  That bird was one observed and photographed in the west Antelope Valley on November 1 (Jon Feenstra, David Bell).  At least until the status of Sagebrush Sparrow in the county is better understood, any suspected individual should be photographed if possible. 

Swamp Sparrows were at Hansen Dam in Lakeview Terrace from November 2-9 (Kimball Garrett) and in Culver City from November 19-December 8 (Don Sterba).

At least nine White-throated Sparrows were found over the period, far fewer than last year’s unusually high number.

Rare Dark-eyed Juncos included a “Gray-headed” Junco near Mt. Wilson on November 6 (Norm Vargas) and a “Pink-sided” Junco at Veteran’s Park in Sylmar on November 29 (John Garrett).

A Hepatic Tanager had returned to Gonzales Park in Compton for a second winter as of October 17 (Richard Barth).  Summer Tanagers included one returning to the Bette Davis Picnic Area in Glendale as of October 30 (Richard Barth), a male and female at West LA College on November 10 (Don Sterba), one at Creek Park in La Mirada on November 21 (Jonathan Rowley) and one at the Dominguez Seminary in the Rancho Dominguez area on December 5.

Late Black-headed Grosbeaks were at Gwinn Park in Pasadena on November 26 (Luke Tiller) and in Beverly Hills on November 29 (Scott Logan).

Rusty Blackbirds included a male at Harbor Regional Park in Harbor City that lingered for a few days following its discovery on November 10 (Ed Griffin) and a female there from November 11-December 6.  As if two weren’t enough for a species so rare in the county, a third was at the California Country Club in La Puente from November 19-22 (Robb Hamilton).

Sunnyglen Park in Los Angeles hosted a Baltimore Oriole on October 18 (Sam Jojola) and another continued at Creek Park in La Mirada through October 24.  Rare in winter was a Scott’s Oriole at St. Andrew’s Abbey near Valyermo present from November 16-30 (Mark & Janet Scheel).

Away from the higher San Gabriels where they are expected, three Red Crossbills of the expected “Type 2” were at Veteran’s Park in Sylmar on November 29 (John Garrett).

Officially part of LA County, but inaccessible to all but a few researchers, San Clemente Island also produced many good birds over the period.  Observers Justin Stahl, Nicole DesNoyers and Ben Sandstrom recorded the following:  a Blackpoll Warbler on October and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak on October 16, a Prairie Warbler on October 18, a Palm Warbler on October 20, a Black-throated Blue Warbler from October 22-24, a Red-eyed Vireo, Virginia’s Warbler, Clay-colored Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow and Yellow-breasted Chat on October 24, a Scarlet Tanager on October 30, a Green-tailed Towhee on November 26, another Palm Warbler on November 30 and three Lapland Longspurs on December 2.

In spite of very limited coverage, Santa Catalina Island also showed its potential and the value of greater coverage there.  Though access for much of the island is problematic, any coverage in fall would likely prove to be productive. 

By the time it ended, this autumn offered more than enough great birds to satisfy just about anyone.  But of course now we’re changing seasons and winter continues to offer fine birding opportunities in the county.  Typically chilly mornings give way to pleasantly cool days, ideal for extended birding excursions.  Christmas Bird Counts will begin in mid December and these invariably result in the discovery of new rare birds.

The coastal slope can offer nearly as diverse a selection of Neotropic migrants as it does in April or September, though species are represented by far fewer individuals.

Areas along the coast have a lot of potential, yet just a few “hotspots” are covered regularly.  Harbors and marinas get scant coverage.  While not the easiest areas to access for birding, they can be worthwhile.  In addition, seawatching from any coastal vantage point could turn up something of interest.

Winter is the time to study our regular gulls and search for rare ones.  To date no Slaty-backed Gull has been found in the county, though there is an old record for Ventura.  Ivory Gull has been recorded once in Orange County and though this is an extreme vagrant to California, it‘s clearly a possible one.   

Though migration per se may have ended, birds are never truly static.  Many will stay put for the season, perhaps not moving more than a hundred yards, but many others will not.  That fact will continue to keep the next couple of months interesting.

Published Western Tanager Vol. 80 No. 3 Jan/Feb 2014