VariedBunting-San-Gabriel-River-at-Encanto-Park-bridge-3-26-14-by-Mickey-Long WEB

Varied Bunting, San Gabriel River at Encanto Park bridge, 3/12/2014. Photo by Mickey Long

Birds of the Season—April 2014 by Jon Fisher

For birders, nothing quite compares to spring.  While it may be a slow time for rare birds, the number and variety of migrants heading north makes for many great days in the field from the coast to the desert.  Perhaps appropriately, it’s the end of the spring migration period—when eastern vagrants tend to appear—that’s often the most exciting for birders.

That said, it’s clear that major rarities can turn up any time.  A first LA County record of Varied Bunting was found in late March and early April produced a Marsh Sandpiper—the second for the state—in Solano County. 

First of spring migrants this year were generally recorded on expected dates, but several species made earlier than normal appearances.  A handful of species—Black-chinned Hummingbirds, Pacific-slope Flycatchers, and Black-headed Grosbeaks among them—were in this category.  What causes these birds to start their journey ahead of schedule or complete it more rapidly?  The short answer is we’re not entirely sure. 

For our Neotropic migrants, migration evolved as a way to exploit available resources such as food, territories and nesting sites at more northerly latitudes.  This strategy also lessens the chance of predation once breeding begins.  For these birds, the difficulty of undertaking migration is rewarded by increased breeding success. 

For over 100 years bird banding has provided invaluable information about the migratory movements of individual birds.  Much more recently, eBird has aided the study of migration at a population level.  It’s now easier than ever to know precisely when and where birds are showing up and if they’re early or late, but we have yet to fully understand the reasons.  Short and long term climate changes, varying weather patterns and the availability of resources on wintering grounds may all have some bearing. 

While it was yet another very dry winter, thus far it’s been a fairly typical spring; warm then cool, wet then hot.  As always, the season offered plenty of variety including lingering wintering birds, lots of migrants and some new vagrants.   

A lone Brant, scarce away from the coast, was at Legg Lake in South El Monte on February 16 (Ron Cyger).  A Eurasian Wigeon was seen off and on at Hansen Dam near Lake View Terrace through April 8 (Kimball Garrett).  Diving ducks included a Long-tailed Duck continuing through February 24 and a Common Goldeneye last reported on February 19, both along lower Ballona Creek. 

Still truly rare in the county, three Barrow’s Goldeneyes were seen again at Quail Lake between February 22–24.  It would seem that late fall and winter is a good time to turn our attention to both Quail Lake and other deep water lakes and reservoirs in the interior.  This species may prove to be more regular than we think.

A long staying Pacific Loon persisted at Castaic Lagoon through March 30.  A continuing Red-necked Grebe was reported at the lagoon through February 22 and another was near the Ballona Creek mouth on March 20 (Rob and Cheryl Hargraves).

The Reddish Egret found earlier at the Los Cerritos Wetlands reappeared from March 1–15.  This species is regular just ten miles away at Bolsa Chica Lagoon in Orange County but it rarely recorded in nearby LA County.  A flock of twenty-seven White-faced Ibis over Claremont on April 7 (Tom Miko) indicated that this species is passing through and many of these flyovers surely go undetected. 

Swainson’s Hawks were moving northward in February and by early March, sizeable flocks were being encountered.  A very rare light morph “Harlan’s” Red-tailed Hawk was in the Ballona area from last December through at least March 30 (fide Dan Cooper).

One to two Bald Eagles were seen off and on at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas through March 23 (Rod Higbie).

A Harris’s Hawk at Hansen Dam on March 19 (Tom Miko) could have been a naturally occurring bird, but individuals in this part of the state are long suspected of being escapees.  This species is popular with falconers and there is little evidence to suggest that naturally occurring birds would move as far as the coastal slope, especially absent any incursion of the species into the southeastern deserts. 

A Ferruginous Hawk over the San Fernando Valley on February 20 was the only one reported away from the Antelope Valley (Doug Martin).

A Semipalmated Plover was at the Piute Ponds where rare in winter on February 22 and a Marbled Godwit was there from February 15–22. 

Other unusual shorebirds included a Red Knot near the Ballona Creek mouth on March 5 (Tim Spahr), a Pectoral Sandpiper continuing at the Piute Ponds through February 22 and a Red Phalarope there on March 2 (Curtis Marantz).

Quite rare in the county was a Laughing Gull at Shoreline Aquatic Park in Long Beach from February 24–March 9 (Andrew Lee).  Also very unusual was a Lesser Black-backed Gull at Dockweiler State Beach in El Segundo from March 26–29 (Logan Kahle).  With this species increasing rapidly in the northeast, the number of records in California is on the rise.  That fact, combined with increased observer awareness, means that additional records in the county are almost inevitable.  Wrapping up rare gulls was a Glaucous Gull observed flying past Pt. Vicente on March 15 (Bernardo Alps).

LesserBlackBackedGull1 by-Mark-Scheel Web

Lesser Black-backed Gull, Photo by Mark Scheel

Inca Doves continued to be reported at Col. Leo H. Washington Park in Los Angeles, with an occupied nest discovered on February 1.  Also at the park- and now rare and local in the county- was a Spotted Dove on March 2 with two there on April 8 (Robert McNab, Richard Barth).  Another Spotted was at Augustus Hawkins Park in Los Angeles on April 9 (Richard Barth).  Perhaps this species isn’t quite as close to being extirpated as we thought.  Rounding out the reports of Columbiformes, a couple of Common Ground-Doves continued along the San Gabriel River in Bellflower.

Numbers of migrant Calliope Hummingbirds can vary significantly from year to year, but 2014 is has definitely been a good spring for them locally.  Initial birds were in Big Tujunga Canyon on March 13 (Gregrie Merkel), in Sunland on March 22 and 28 (Gerard van Heijzen), in Pasadena from March 25-26 (Darren Dowell) and in Monrovia on March 28 (Ellen Zunino).  A smattering of reports followed, mostly along or near the San Gabriel foothills.

CalliopeHummingbird-by-mark-scheel WebCalliope Hummingbird, Photo by Mark Scheel 

A Burrowing Owl, probably a spring migrant, was in Pico Rivera at the Rio Hondo Spreading Basins from March 8-11 (Al Moreno, Linda LeRoy).

A few Lewis’s Woodpeckers continued, with one or two at the San Gabriel Country Club in San Gabriel through March 12 and at least three at Wilson Canyon Park in Sylmar through April 13.

The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker at Veteran’s Park in Sylmar continued through March 2 and Red-naped Sapsuckers were at El Dorado Park in Long Beach on February 14 (Steve & Becky Turley), continuing both in Claremont through February 15 and at Leo H. Washington Park in Los Angeles through February 20.

At least a half dozen Northern “Yellow-shafted” Flickers were present during the period, all reports being from the coastal slope. 

Merlin populations have rebounded nicely since DDT was banned, but always rare in the county was a bird of the pale subspecies richardsonii at Inglewood Park Cemetery on February 25 (Richard Barth).

A Gray Flycatcher continued at Hahamongna Watershed Park in Pasadena through March 24 and Hancock Park in Los Angeles hosted a Pacific-slope Flycatcher from February 15-18 (Kimball Garrett) and the Eastern Phoebe at Legacy Park in Malibu continued through February 14.

First one then two Vermilion Flycatchers were at Oakdale Memorial Park in Claremont from February 17-March 30 (Victoria Brennan).  On March 30, breeding was confirmed with the discovery of a nest with young (Rick Fisher).  This flycatcher is a quite rare breeder in the county with just two previous records, neither from the coastal slope.  The returning wintering Vermilion Flycatcher in Willowbrook continued through March 1.

Ralph Dills Park in Paramount hosted a Dusky-capped Flycatcher from March 7-April 8 (Richard Barth) and another continued at La Mirada’s Creek Park through March 2.  An Ash-throated Flycatcher- probably wintering- was at El Dorado Park in Long Beach on March 5 (John Fitch).

Wintering Tropical Kingbirds continued at Legg Lake in South El Monte through April 12, at Harbor Regional Park in Harbor City through March 8 and at El Dorado Park in Long Beach through April 5.

What was presumably an early migrant Western Kingbird was at Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale on March 3 (Dick Norton, Jim Moore, Judy Matsuoka, Becky & Steve Turley).  Another early individual was in Evey Canyon above Claremont on March 8 (Cathy McFadden, Paul Clarke).

Also rather early was a Bell’s Vireo at Hansen Dam on March 15 (Kimball Garrett) and it was followed closely by one in Arcadia on March 22 (Martha Estus). 

Wintering Plumbeous Vireos turned up at Kelly Park in Compton on February 14 and at Inglewood Park Cemetery on February 25 (both Richard Barth).  Less expected were spring birds at Wheeler Park in Claremont on April 7 (Tom Miko) and at Creek Park in La Mirada on April 11 (Jonathan Rowley), both of which probably wintered in the vicinity.  Records of spring migrants are remarkably few, even in May when this species is slightly more regular.  Also of note was a Cassin’s Vireo near Vina Vieja Park in Pasadena on February 14 (John Oliver). 

Though typically among our early arriving passerines, Warbling Vireos in San Dimas (Sandy Koonce) and in San Pedro (Andrew Lee) on February 25 were ahead of schedule.

Regular on the deserts but scarce on the coastal slope, a Bank Swallow was at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas on March 31 (Rod Higbie).

Miscellaneous passerines of note included a Brown Creeper away from expected areas at Wilderness Park in Redondo Beach on March 21 (Tracy Drake), a Pacific Wren continuing in Big Santa Anita Canyon above Arcadia through March 17 and a Varied Thrush at the South Coast Botanic Gardens in Rolling Hills Estates on March 2 (Ed Griffin).

New were Black-and-white Warblers at Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area in Baldwin Hills on February 15 (Eleanor Osgood) and at Creek Park in La Mirada on April 11 (Jonathan Rowley).  Others continued in Culver City through February 18, at Legg Lake in South El Monte though February 20 and in El Segundo through February 23.

Occidental College near Eagle Rock produced a very rare in winter Tennessee Warbler on March 7 (James Maley) and a Lucy’s Warbler was at Veteran’s Park in Bell Gardens from February 14-22 (Richard Barth).

Continuing were a Virginia’s Warbler at the Veteran’s Administration garden in West LA though February 14, a Palm Warbler at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh through April 4 and a Pine Warbler at Hansen Dam through April 8.

Continuing sparrows of interest included a Clay-colored Sparrow at Lacy Park in San Marino through April 11 and a Swamp Sparrow at Legg Lake through April 12.  A half dozen or so White-throated Sparrows either continued or were newly found over the period.  The only one of these away from the coastal slope was a probable migrant at Bob’s Gap near Valyermo on April 6 (Janet Scheel, Susan Gilliland).

The Hepatic Tanager at Gonzales Park in Compton was reported through March 30 while a Summer Tanager continued at Dominguez Seminary and Museum in Rancho Dominguez through March 24.

A continuing Black-headed Grosbeak, quite rare in winter, was in Beverly Hills through February 13.  The first possible spring migrant recorded was an early one at Hansen Dam near Lakeview Terrace on March 9 (Kimball Garrett).  A handful of others subsequently arrived ahead of schedule.

An excellent find was a male Varied Bunting along the San Gabriel River near Encanto Park in Duarte (Mickey Long).  This bird, present from March 26-April 13, constitutes the first substantiated county record.  In fact- assuming its acceptance by the CBRC- it’s only the fourth for the entire state.  The first record is perhaps the most intriguing- a flock of birds near Blythe in February 1914 from which two specimens were collected.  One has to wonder if others might have been in the state that year.  With the other two records being single birds on the eastern deserts in 1977 and 2012, this coastal bird was unexpected. 

With colorful Cardinalids such as this, possible captive origin must be considered.  The closely related Painted Bunting has been the source of much discussion and uncertainty when it comes to the origin of birds found in California.  However, this Varied Bunting showed no obvious signs of having been in captivity and appeared to be of the subspecies pulchra, whose range is closest to California and thus more likely to occur as a natural vagrant. 

The wintering Orchard Oriole at the LA County Arboretum continued through March 31 and another one was a surprise in Cheviot Hills on April 7 (Jesse Ellis).  Another new find was a Baltimore Oriole, also in Cheviot Hills, on March 28 (Bob Pann).

While most of spring migration is already over, May is nonetheless a month loaded with potential.  The deserts are a great place to look for migrants in spring, as green patches there are magnets for tired and hungry passerines.  As good as the deserts can be, northbound birds are virtually everywhere.   

Migrants will slowly decrease in number as the month progresses, but the numbers of such species as Willow Flycatcher, Western Wood-Pewee and Swainson’s Thrush will peak during May.  With just a bit of luck, the end of May should produce some good vagrant songbirds.

Once migration wraps up in early June, but also well before then, birding the San Gabriel Mountains will be productive and rewarding.  In addition to the migrants passing through the mountains, there are resident specialties such as Williamson’s Sapsucker and Red Crossbill and the possibility of such rare breeding birds as Gray Flycatcher and Lincoln’s Sparrow to draw birders there.

Even in heavily birded LA County, there are many spots that are sparsely covered, even if only for a part of the year.  What summering waterfowl might be present on Castaic, Pyramid and Quail Lakes?  The lower LA River— most popular for July to September shorebirding— can host unusual waterbirds almost anytime.  The northwest portion of the county in general is sorely lacking in coverage and seawatching from such appropriate spots as Pt. Vicente and Pt. Dume has potential at any time of year.      

One of the endlessly intriguing things about birding is the chances for discovery that it offers.  There are always new things to learn about identification, distribution, vocalizations and behavior and spring affords us these opportunities in spades. 

Published in the Western Tanager Vol. 80 No. 5 May/June 2014