By Jon Fisher


Winter is the time of year when the word “continuing” applies to most of our rare birds, many of which have been present for weeks if not months.  But there are always exceptions and discoveries of new birds kept things interesting.

The vagaries of vagrants are such that new ones can be found throughout the winter in little-birded parks and elsewhere. Undoubtedly many are never discovered in the unbirded tracts of suburbia, many of which offer an appealing environment for wintering neotropic migrants.

Christmas Bird Counts as expected added a handful of good birds to the season’s list.  Even though most CBCs lack truly sufficient coverage, the relatively intense saturation of their respective circles by birders on count day indicates much potential.

Lewis’s Woodpeckers continued to be the only species showing any real evidence of irruptive behavior as small numbers kept turning up here and there on the coastal slope.

January saw the earliest of northbound migrants on the move, including Greater White-fronted Geese, Turkey Vultures and Allen‘s Hummingbirds.  Spring movements are nearly as protracted as are those of autumn, and birds will be still be passing through in early June.  At this latitude, migration in its entirety takes place almost without pause.

It’s hardly news that we’re in the middle of a drought.  As if two dry winters weren’t enough, the 2013-2014 “rainy” season saw December and then January pass by with relentlessly mild temperatures coupled with a near total absence of precipitation.  The last three seasons have in aggregate left us over two feet of rainfall below normal.  February began with only marginal improvement.  Even so, deciduous trees began leafing out and the landscape turned at least somewhat green.

While sprinklers and irrigation keep many patches of habitat in good shape, natural areas are simply extremely dry.  Nevertheless, dismal at it appears, plants and animals in southern California are adapted to periodic drought.  A single wet season can affect dramatic change, though at best that will have to wait another year.

Here’s a look at birds of note in the county from mid December to mid February.

Ross’s Geese were at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City on December 13 (Bruce Starrett), at Almansor Park in Alhambra from December 14-January 1 (Ed Stonick), at in Long Beach at Colorado Lagoon on December 22 (Robb Hamilton) and at El Dorado Park from December 22-25 (John Willis).

A half dozen Greater White-fronted Geese were at Harbor Park in Harbor City on January 1 along with five Cackling Geese (Ed Griffin), while two more of the latter were at Malibu Lagoon on the Malibu CBC on January 15 (Dick Norton).

Quite rare in the county was a one day Tundra Swan at Harbor Regional Park in Harbor City on December 13 (Dan Maxwell, Matt Brady).

The lone Eurasian Wigeon reported was a continuing male along the LA River in Glendale through February 8.  What is presumably the same bird has returned to winter here since 2008.

Returning for a second winter was a “Eurasian” Green-winged Teal in Pico Rivera from December 29-January 4 (Norm Vargas).  Unfortunately the spreading basins where the bird was found quickly dried up and its whereabouts thereafter remain a mystery. 

Sea ducks included three Black Scoters and a Long-tailed Duck off Will Rogers State Beach in Santa Monica on December 30 (Richard Barth).  Another Long-tailed Duck was at the Ballona Creek mouth on January 1 (Alex Coffey) and what was probably the same bird was found upstream on February 9 (Martin Myers).

On the coastal slope where they are generally scarce, small numbers of Common Goldeneyes turned up in January.  One was at Santa Fe Dam from January 14-22 (Mickey Long), another was at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh and then along Ballona Creek from January 20-February 2 (Kevin Lapp), and eight were on the LA River in Long Beach in Paramount on January 22 (Richard Barth), with two remaining through February 2.

At least one Barrow’s Goldeneye was seen occasionally at Quail Lake, with reports on December 28 and January 19.  It seems that at least three separate birds were present there this winter, though none was particularly easy to refind.

Scarce coastally were four Common Mergansers at Malibu Lagoon on December 17 (Mickey Long, Elaine MacPherson) and one at the Ballona Creek mouth on January 10 (Dany Sloan).  Inland Red-breasted Mergansers were at Descanso Gardens in La Canada on December 22 (Will & Lois Fulmer), at Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale on January 15 (Mei Kwan) and at Bonelli Regional Park on February 3 (Ira Blitz).  A few others continued at Quail Lake near Gorman, though numbers there had diminished compared to earlier in the season.

Increasing off the California coast but still quite rare in Los Angeles County waters was a Manx Shearwater over the Palos Verdes Escarpment on December 22 (Kimball Garrett, Jess Morton).

Rare but regular inland was a Pacific Loon at Castaic Lagoon from January 1-23 (Mark & Janet Scheel).  Two Red-necked Grebes were off Pt. Dume on December 15, with at least one remaining through December 31 (Kimball Garrett).  Others were near the Ballona Creek mouth from December 16-23 (Bob Pann) and at Castaic Lagoon from December 22-February 1 (Kimball Garrett).

Following a spate of sulid records in the latter part of 2013, the lone report after mid December was a Brown Booby off Redondo Beach on December 28 (Bernardo Alps).  Though a number of Blue-footed Boobies persisted on Anacapa Island and two remained at Lake Skinner in Riverside County, all had apparently left LA County before the end of the year.

Brown Pelicans, unusual even a short distance from the coast, were at El Dorado Park on January 9 (Kim Moore) and over Pasadena on January 12 (Brendan Crill).

Reddish Egrets were at Malibu Lagoon on January 5 (Peter Haines) and at the Los Cerritos Wetlands- this one probably a continuing bird- on January 21 (Jon Feenstra).  Also of note was White-faced Ibis at the Piute Ponds on the Lancaster CBC on December 14.

A few Bald Eagles were in the area, with one continuing at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas, another at Castaic Lagoon on December 22 (Kimball Garrett) and one over Lake Balboa in Van Nuys on January 14 (Daniel Tinoco).

Presumed late migrant Swainson’s Hawks were reported in Long Beach on December 13 (Jan Wilson) and in Malibu on December 21 (Nikki Cross, Jacob Keen), while a bird at the Piute Ponds from January 18-27 may have wintered locally (Richard Sparks).  The first spring migrant was a bird over Pasadena on February 7 (Luke Tiller).

The reliable “Harlan’s” Red-tailed Hawk in the west Antelope Valley was reported through January 26.  On the coastal slope where they are scarce, a Ferruginous Hawk continued at Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area in the Baldwin Hills through December 29. 

Shorebirds included three Lesser Yellowlegs along the LA River in Long Beach from February 2-9 (Kimball Garrett), a very late Pectoral Sandpiper at the Piute Ponds on the Lancaster CBC on December 14 (Mary Freeman) and small but above average numbers of Dunlins along the lower LA River and at the Ballona Wetlands.

An interesting and perplexing find were three Inca Doves at Leo H. Washington Park in southeast Los Angeles on February 6 (Richard Barth).  As it turned out, at least seven birds were present here, though their origin- naturally occurring or man assisted- must remain a mystery.  Rare away from the Powder Canyon area where a few are resident, a Common Ground-Dove was at Hansen Dam on December 21 (Jim Moore).

Owls included a Burrowing Owl at the Ballona Wetlands that was seen off and on through January and a Long-eared Owl in the Arroyo Seco area of Pasadena present for most of December and January (Linda Zinn).  Though known to occur only rarely on the coastal slope in winter, Long-eared Owls are probably more regular than records indicate.  They are most often detected by chance when observant residents discover them roosting literally in their own backyards.  

Quite unusual in winter was a Rufous Hummingbird at Zuma Creek on December 15 (K. Ross, A. Bevilacqua).  An Allen‘s Hummingbird- abundant on the coastal slope but unusual on the deserts- was at Division St. and Ave. O in the Antelope Valley on December 31 (John Garrett).  The resident subspecies sedentarius should be watched for on the deserts, with the caveat migrants of the nominate subspecies can appear by mid January. 

Both a male and female Williamson’s Sapsucker were reported off and on through January at Veteran’s Park in Sylmar.  Also continuing at there were a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Red-naped Sapsucker.  With a bit of effort and luck it was possible to see all four sapsucker species here in a single day. 

Elsewhere, a Yellow-bellied x Red-naped Sapsucker continued and caused some confusion at Legg Lake in South El Monte and Red-naped Sapsuckers were at Woodlawn Cemetery in Santa Monica from January 11-21 (Joyce Waterman), at Topanga Canyon on December 15 (Lance Benner, Kathy Ellsworth), in La Canada- two birds- from December through January (Linda Moore) and at Harbor Regional Park from February 1-9 (Ed Griffin).

Wrapping up the woodpeckers were seven Northern “Yellow-shafted” Flickers found between mid December and early February among the more numerous intergrades which show characters of both subspecies.

Always rare in winter were Hammond’s Flycatchers at Rosie the Riveter Park in Long Beach on December 14 (Robb Hamilton), at Woodlawn Cemetery in Santa Monica on January 26 (Alex Coffey) and at Lake Balboa in Van Nuys on February 7 (Lynda Elkin).  More expected but still scarce, Gray Flycatchers were at Hahamongna Watershed Park in Pasadena on February 6 (Darren Dowell) and continuing at Vina Vieja Park in Pasadena through February 7.

The Eastern Phoebe at Legacy Park in Malibu and the Vermilion Flycatcher at the Earvin Magic Johnson Recreation Area in Willowbrook both continued through January.

Returning for another winter were Ash-throated Flycatchers at the Sepulveda Basin through January 2 and at Jim Gilliam Park in Baldwin Hills on December 28 (Richard Barth).

An unresolved find was a Myiarchus flycatcher in Atwater Village on December 15 (Jesse Moorman).  While this bird looked good for a Brown-crested Flycatcher, it could not be re-found and photos did not rule out Ash-throated.

Tropical Kingbirds included one at the now closed Hollywood Park Racetrack in Inglewood on the December 29 (Jon Fisher), while others continued at Legg Lake in South El Monte, at Harbor Park in Harbor City and at El Dorado Park in Long Beach. 

A nice find was a Thick-billed Kingbird at Horsethief Canyon Park in San Dimas reported from January 18 through February 3 (Eric Smith).  This was the third found in this part of the county, the others being in Claremont in 1984 and in Pomona in 1993.  This species exhibits a remarkable degree of site fidelity and the latter bird returned to the same spot for nine consecutive winters.  The remainder of the few county records have been concentrated near the south coast and most have involved wintering birds.

Plumbeous Vireos appeared in fewer than usual numbers this winter.  They included birds at the Baldwin Hills Recreation Center on January 8 (Richard Barth), at the Earvin Magic Johnson Recreation Area in Willowbrook on January 17 (Richard Barth), at Veteran‘s Park in Sylmar on January 25 (Mark Hunter) and at Hermon Park near South Pasadena on January 28 (Richard Barth). 

Less common were a Cassin’s Vireos at Harbor Park in Harbor City through February 9 and in Rancho Dominguez on February 12 (Richard Barth), the latter likely a continuing bird.  Also at Harbor Park was a far rarer Blue-headed Vireo back for at least its second winter and seen from December 13-January 5 (Dan Maxwell, Matt Brady).

Unseasonal was a Cliff Swallow at Hansen Dam on December 14, several weeks ahead of early spring arrival dates (Kimball Garrett).

Fairly common in the Antelope Valley but scarce on the coastal slope were five Mountain Bluebirds at LaVerne’s Brackett Field from February 3-8 (Tom Miko).  The only Varied Thrush of the period was at Whittier Narrows on December 14 (Amy Williamson).

Though they are common on the deserts as spring migrants, Sage Thrashers are rare on the coastal slope.  One of them was in Sylmar on February 10 (Doug Martin).

In addition to a few continuing Black-and-white Warblers, new ones turned up at Harbor Regional Park on December 13 (Dan Maxwell, Matt Brady) and at Del Valle Park in Lakewood on December 14 (John Willis).

Rare in winter was a Nashville Warbler at the Palos Verdes Golf Club in Palos Verdes Estates on December 22 (Jim Pike) and a Virginia’s Warbler returning for second winter at the Veteran’s Administration in Westwood as of December 28.

An American Redstart that persisted at Harbor Park through February 8 was the only wintering bird reported.

Continuing at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh was a Palm Warbler reported through January.  New Palms turned up along the LA River at Dominguez Gap from January 22-February 7 (Tracy Drake), at Harbor Park on December 23 (Dany Sloan), in Pico Rivera on January 4 (John Garrett), at LA State Historic Park near Chinatown from January 6-12 (Richard Barth) and at Elysian Park through January 22 (Frank & Susan Gilliland).

The Pine Warbler wintering at Hansen Dam in Lakeview Terrace was reported through January while the Black-throated Green Warbler near the Ballona Freshwater Marsh was not reported after January 3.

Rare in winter was a Green-tailed Towhee at the Parkway Nature Trail in Long Beach on December 14 (Robb Hamilton).

Clay-colored Sparrows were at Lacy Park in San Marino from December 13-February 11 (John Garrett), near the Whittier Narrows Nature Center on January 3 (Manuel Duran) and at Hansen Dam on January 18 along with two Brewer’s Sparrows (Ron Cyger).  Also of note was a Black-chinned Sparrow near Division Street and Ave. O in the Antelope Valley on January 22 Dean Greenberg).

Swamp Sparrows were at Legg Lake in South El Monte from December 14-January 26 (Mark & Janet Scheel), at Harbor Regional Park on December 17 (Manuel Duran) and in the Sepulveda Basin on January 5 (Kris Ohlenkamp).  Others continued in Culver City and at Hansen Dam.

Among a handful of previously reported birds, at least seven White-throated Sparrows were discovered between December 14 and January 8.

Dark-eyed “Pink-sided” Juncos were at Apollo Park in Lancaster on January 25 (Ron Cyger) and at Veteran’s Park in Sylmar on January 28 (Brittany O’Connor).

A Hepatic Tanager continued at Gonzales Park in Compton through February 9, while more common were Summer Tanagers continuing at Creek Park in La Mirada through December 14, at West LA College through December 29, at Rancho Dominguez through February 12 and at the Bette Davis Picnic Area in Glendale through February 5.  New Summer Tanagers were found along Ramirez Canyon Road in Los Angeles on December 15 (John Lobel, Louis Tucker) and at Ladera Park in Ladera Heights from December 26-February 3 (Richard Barth). 

A Black-headed Grosbeak wintering in Beverly Hills continued through January and another was found in Westwood on January29 (Jesse Ellis).

A male Orchard Oriole found at the LA County Arboretum in Arcadia on December 14 drew many observers and was reported through February 7.  Hooded Orioles were at West LA College on December 15 (Don Sterba) and at the Huntington Gardens in Pasadena on December 22 (Mark Hunter).  A Baltimore Oriole was at the Bette Davis Picnic Area in Glendale on February 5 (Josh Chapman).

A lone Red Crossbill was at Chilao Flat in the San Gabriel Mountains from January 4-19 (Kimball Garrett), but none were detected in the lowlands.

By mid February, swallows will be moving through in numbers and the rest of our spring passerines won’t be far behind.  If there’s one possible upside to the drought, it’s that we expect migrants in dry years tend to in patches of good habitat.  Those well watered green spots are all the more obvious in drier years and should attract plenty of birds. 

Coastally, loons, scoters, brants and others will be visible as they stream northward- or as we’re in LA County, westward.  Shorebirds, while largely a summer and fall phenomenon at least as far as rarities are concerned, will be wearing alternate plumages and are to be looked for in all the usual places. 

As with so many human pursuits, that which is rare is most prized.  In the birding world, that means vagrants.  Late May will offer the best chance for those, yet spring migration from start to finish is an amazing event to witness.  There is enormous variety and much to learn about timing and distribution.  It’s also something that can be experienced by traveling thousands of miles or literally in your own yard.

Published Western Tanager Vo. 80 No. 4 Mar/Apr 2014