Birds of the Season—August 2014

By Jon Fisher

Most birders end up being interested in many more subjects than birds alone. Plants and habitats, other animals, photography and environmental issues are a few that come to mind. Climate change is another, and one which will eventually affect many of the birds we pursue in some way.

While the primary cause of our current drought has been a persistent high pressure zone off California’s west coast, climate change is expected to produce a future that is similarly warmer and drier. We don’t yet know how profound the alterations will be, but birds will be a very observable barometer of their effects.

Studies have already shown that the ranges of many species are shifting northward as average global temperatures rise. Given the rapidity of these changes, it’s questionable whether plants and habitats will adjust quickly enough to adequately accommodate the altered ranges of these birds.

It’s plain that a lack of water is detrimental in both the short and long term, especially when it comes to reproduction. Less precipitation means less plant and insect biomass. This directly leads to decreased breeding success, a reduction in breeding attempts or fewer eggs laid per clutch. eBird, ever more useful, will help measure population and distribution shifts.

On a lighter note, birding Los Angeles County can truly be an international experience. The mild climate of the coastal slope and available suitable habitat supports a number of well-established exotics in addition to many other escapees or semi-established species. Rosy-faced Lovebird, Bronze Mannikin, White-winged Widowbird, Yellow-collared Lovebird, Orange-cheeked Waxbill and the ubiquitous Orange Bishop (all from Africa), Saffron Finch (South America) and the widespread Scaly-breasted Munia (Asia; until very recently known here as Nutmeg Mannikin) were among those recorded over the period. That doesn’t even include our many parrots and parakeets which originate primarily—though not naturally— from Mexico and South America.

While encouraging the introduction of non-native species is rarely a good idea, it’s undeniable that these birds add more variety and color to birding in the county. Many of these birds may not survive—let alone become established—but documenting their occurrence is good practice. At one point in time Red-crowned Parrots and Yellow-chevroned Parakeets were considered a novelty.

Shorebird numbers were building in July and good numbers were appearing by the second half of the month in all the usual places. At this time of year and when practicable, it’s worth checking these areas every day if not several times a day. Birds are arriving regularly and turnover can be significant.

A few late or summering passerine vagrants were also found over the period. As usual some fall migrants were evident by the latter half of July, with the volume of birds slowly increasing as the weeks passed.

Summer is not a great time to observe waterfowl in southern California, but a few interesting ducks were around. A Surf Scoter lingered along lower Ballona Creek through June 22 (Michael Zarky). Common Mergansers included one at Castiac Lagoon on July 11 (Julia Ray) and five there on August 2 (Mei Kwan, Beverly Chou). Another was at Cogswell Reservoir along the San Gabriel River’s West Fork on August 6 (Jon Feenstra) and one was at Quail Lake near Gorman on August 12 (Daniel Tinoco). Breeding—documented for the first time in the county last year on the San Gabriel River—is to be watched for.

Generally scarce inland, but especially so in summer, was a female Red-breasted Merganser was at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas from June 19–22 (Rod & Pat Higbie).

Also rather odd in summer was a Horned Grebe on the lower LA River in Long Beach on June 21 (Mark Scheel).

Regular off California yet still quite rare in Los Angeles County waters, a Manx Shearwater was spotted off Pt. Dume on July 6 (John Garrett, Mark Scheel).

A Nazca Booby about four miles off Palos Verdes on June 27 was a first county record (Tim Hammond). This “new” species, split fairly recently from the very similar Masked Booby, was also the first ever for the state. A 2001 ship assisted record from San Diego was not accepted by the CBRC. There are however a number of records of Masked/Nazca Booby not determined to species. It’s possible that Nazca Boobies may prove to be more regular.

There were a spate of Brown Booby sightings off the California coast this summer, but they were scarce off our local coast. Either one or two were observed at San Clemente Island on July 27–28 (Justyn Stahl).

A Reddish Egret was at Colorado Lagoon in Long Beach from July 5–9 (Keith Quinlivan). Though regular in both Orange and Ventura Counties, this species continues to be very rare in LA County, with a lack of suitable habitat being the significant factor.

Raptors of note included a Bald Eagle over Mt. Wilson on July 21 (Norm Vargas) and a Broad-winged Hawk, first found on San Clemente Island in mid-May, was still present on July 11.

A Sora was at the Piute Ponds from July 5–13 (Mark Scheel).

The first Solitary Sandpipers of fall were two at the Piute Ponds on July 29 (Jon Feenstra), while two Willets were unusual inland at Bonelli Park in San Dimas on June 22 (Rod & Pat Higbie).

A most interesting shorebird to date was a male Ruff on the lower LA River in Long Beach August 2–3 that drew many observers (Becky Turley).

More first of fall shorebirds were all adults and included two Baird’s Sandpipers at Piute Ponds on July 29 (Jon Feenstra), two Pectoral Sandpipers on the lower LA River in Long Beach on July 26 (Andrew Lee), a Semipalmated Sandpiper at Piute Ponds on July 25 and 26 (Larry Sansone) and another there on August 12 (Jon Feenstra). This species was surprisingly scarce in the county last fall.

A Laughing Gull present since May 10 lingered on the lower LA River in Long Beach through August 13. Rare in summer were Glaucous-winged Gulls near the Ballona Creek mouth on June 22 (Dessi Sieburth) and in Santa Monica on July 13 (Amy Williamson).

Two Least Terns were unusual inland at the Piute Ponds on June 30 (Jon Feenstra, Dan Maxwell).

Craveri’s Murrelets, moving north into California waters earlier and in greater than normal numbers this year, included two south of Long Beach from June 28–August 8 (John Garrett, et al).

White-winged Doves, typically scarce late summer and fall visitors to coastal California, were in Downey on July 15 (Marcus England), in West Los Angeles from July 20–25 (Jesse Ellis) and at Leo Carillo State Park near Malibu on August 10 (James Bailey).

A single Black Swift was over Claremont on June 24 (Tom Miko) and three were there on July 11 (Amy Williamson);, these birds almost certainly breeders from nearby in the San Gabriels.

A Hairy Woodpecker at Limekiln Canyon on June 16 was at an unexpected location at this time of year (Michael Zarky).

Early was a Willow Flycatcher at Chilao Flat on July 31 (David Bell). Vermilion Flycatchers were at Hahamongna Watershed Park in Pasadena on August 6 (Darren Dowell) and at the Piute Ponds from August 10–13 (Kimball Garrett).

Typically a late spring vagrant, an Eastern Kingbird was at Colorado Lagoon in Long Beach on July 6 and 7 (John Garrett, Mark Scheel), though this bird could have been present prior to those dates.

Red-eyed Vireos were near Loyola Marymount University on June 26 (Don Sterba), at Hahamongna Watershed Park in Pasadena on July 20 (Darren Dowell) and at the Village Green Condominiums from July 23–August 6 (Don Sterba).

Three Bank Swallows were at the Piute Ponds on June 30 (Jon Feenstra, Dan Maxwell) and two were along the LA River in Long Beach on the more expected date of August 13 (Tom Miko).

A very rare wanderer to the coastal slope was a Verdin at Hansen Dam on July 23 (Kimball Garrett). The scattered coastal records for southern California indicate that this species may not be as restricted to the deserts as we presume.

Passerines on odd dates included a very late Hermit Thrush on San Clemente Island on July 5 (Nicole Desnoyers), a Gray Catbird there from July 8–26 (Nicole Desnoyers, Justyn Stahl), a Sage Thrasher at the Piute Ponds on June 23 (Wayne Martin, John Birsner, Horst Wetjen) and a Cedar Waxwing at Peck Road Water Conservation Park in Arcadia on June 27 (Chris Dean)

Eastern warblers included an rare Ovenbird at Banning Park in Wilmington on June 17 (Andrew Lee), a Prothonotary Warbler at Wilson Cove on San Clemente Island from June 29–30 (Justyn Stahl) and a remarkable summering Tennessee Warbler at Hahamongna Watershed Park in Pasadena from July 20–August 13 (Darren Dowell).

An Orange-crowned Warbler of the coastal and Channel Island subspecies sordida was at the Village Green Condominiums on July 30 (Don Sterba).

Black-throated Sparrows, typically rare but regular fall transients on the coastal slope, included birds at Hansen Dam near Lake View Terrace (Kimball Garrett) and at Pt Dume (Cynthia Schotte), both on August 1.

An injured White-crowned Sparrow was in Pacific Palisades from June 15–17 (Maxine Wolf) and three more were discovered in a backyard cage next to the LA River near Elysian Park on June 27. All of these birds had good reason not to leave to lowlands, but absent such extenuating circumstances this species is most unexpected in the summer months.

About a half dozen Indigo Buntings turned up on the coastal slope between July 13 and 31 among the more numerous Lazulis.

A Tricolored Blackbird was at the Village Green Condominiums on June 18 (Don Sterba) and Yellow-headed Blackbirds were near the Ballona Creek mouth on July 4 (Mark Scheel) and along the LA River in Cudahy from July 17–18 (Richard Barth) and on the LA River in Long Beach on August 9 (Jeff Boyd).

Now we’re in the thick of fall migration and birding can be productive almost anywhere. Coastal areas and patches of green vegetation on the desert tend to attract migrants and vagrants, especially so in this driest of years. So do the many city and county parks scattered throughout the coastal slope. Any body of water is worth a look. Irruptive species, if any are present this year, will make themselves known in September and October.

While the shortening days and cooler nights are welcome, it’s the birds that make this the best season to be in the field. It’s a time of year when we see a great variety of expected species, and one that’s wide open for vagrants and some stunning surprises.

Published Western Tanager Vol. 81 No. 1 Sept/Oct 2014