Birds of the Season—December 2014

By Jon Fisher

Even with the intense urbanization of the Los Angeles basin and surrounding areas, this area of the county produces a remarkable variety of birds.  Each season demonstrates that diversity in its own way, but autumn is notable for its complexity. 

The most obvious migrants are shorebirds from July through September and passerines that follow roughly a month behind.  Rare songbirds from the eastern and northern parts of the continent are regularly found and often linger or spend the winter. 

A handful of species from Mexico and the southwest undertake a reverse migration in fall, with Tropical Kingbirds and Painted Redstarts being examples of this group.  In addition, misoriented vagrants from Eurasia- such as White Wagtails and Arctic Warblers- are possible.   

Within these groups of course, no two species have exactly the same “fingerprint” in terms of timing, numbers and distribution.  As if all that weren’t enough, the movements of some are variable and unpredictable.  Autumn is indeed complex and this fall truly exemplified an “all of the above” theme.      

A good example of this unpredictability is the Varied Thrush.  Most years see very few recorded in the county, while occasionally modest numbers are seen.  Neither of those scenarios was true this fall, as this was a significant flight year, perhaps the most pronounced in decades.  The first few birds were noted in mid-October on San Clemente Island and by early November they were widespread on the mainland.  Multiple birds were in almost every place with suitable habitat and even flyovers were encountered with some regularity.  Farther north these movements were even more dramatic. 

Exactly what drives such events is unknown.  Drought, a lack of food, a good reproductive year, or a combination of these factors may be responsible.  Whatever the cause, these attractive and enigmatic thrushes are welcome sight for local birders.

Lewis’s Woodpeckers also vary in numbers from year to year.  Yet in spite of a few early reports in October, seeming to portend another good winter for this species, no others materialized.  Likewise, there was little evidence of such irruptive species as Red-breasted Nuthatches moving into the lowlands, nor much sign of Mountain Chickadees dispersing away from breeding areas.

But if some birds were lacking, plenty of others were there to be discovered.  Here’s a look at what was around…

Two White-winged Scoters were off Dockweiler State Beach on November 16 (Richard Barth) and single birds were at Quail Lake on November 20 (John Kelly) and at the Ballona Creek mouth on November 22 (Jonathan Coffin).

Still exceedingly rare in the county- the three birds found last winter notwithstanding- was a possible Barrow’s Goldeneye at Quail Lake near Gorman on November 17 (Becky Turley).  This bird showed an all yellow bill, but other features were less conclusive.  Separating the two goldeneyes- adult males excepted- is hardly the simplest of tasks.  If Barrow’s are present however, Quail Lake appears to be the prime place to look for them.

A Pacific Loon, scarce but regular inland, was on Westlake Lake in Westlake Village on December 9 (Jeri Edwards).

Red-necked Grebes included one flying past Pt. Dume on November 15 (Kimball Garrett), one at the Ballona Creek mouth on November 25 (Bob Pann) and two at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas on November 21 (Rick Fisher).

An American Bittern was at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh from November 16-December 11 (Doug & Joyce Waterman) and two Cattle Egrets were in Pico Rivera on November 29-December 4 (Ed Stonick).

A late Swainson’s Hawk was over Long Beach on November 2 (Bob Schallmann) and a dark morph Ferruginous Hawk returned to the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area in Baldwin Hills for a second winter on November 7 (Ann Brooks). 

Single Bald Eagles were at Harbor Regional Park in Harbor City on November 7 (Manual Duran) and at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas on November 28 (Ken Damon).

Unusual in the county were two Sandhill Cranes at the Piute Ponds, first found in late October and still present on November 22 (Wanda Deal).

Two Lesser Yellowlegs, scarce in winter, were on the lower LA River in Long Beach on November 28 along with a surprising nineteen Dunlins (Richard Barth).

The only gull of interest was a Sabine’s Gull at Lake Palmdale on October 21 (Cal Yorke).

A Burrowing Owl returned to the Ballona Wetlands for yet another winter as of November 2 (Jonathan Coffin).

Late was a Black-chinned Hummingbird in La Crescenta until October 25 (John Oliver) and a Costa’s Hummingbird in west Palmdale on November 27 (Cal Yorke, Becky Kitto).

Lewis’s Woodpeckers were at the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area on October 18 (Lynn Bossone), near Agoura on October 23 (Dan Cooper) and over Cabrillo Beach on October 29 (Bernardo Alps). 

Now expected in fall and winter at Veteran’s Park in Sylmar was a male Williamson’s Sapsucker from October 30-November 7 (Julia Ray) and a female there from October 31-November 11 (Amy Worrell).  At least the male was still present on November 30.  Another male was at Holiday Lake in the west Antelope Valley from November 15-25 (Mary & Nick Freeman).

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers were at Schabarum Regional Park on November 1 (Kimball Garrett), at the South Coast Botanic Garden in Rolling Hills Estates on November 2 (Manual Duran), at Veteran’s Park in Sylmar- returning for another winter- as of November 4 (Mei Kwan, Pam Dong), with a juvenile reported there from November 11-12 (John Oliver, Ed Stonick). 

Five Red-naped Sapsuckers and an equal number of Northern “Yellow-shafted” Flickers were also found in the county during the period.

Western Wood-Pewees at the Sepulveda Basin through October 18 (Daniel Tinoco) and at Apollo Park near Lancaster on October 20 (Brittany O’Connor) were both tardy, this species being rare after September.

Also late was Hammond’s Flycatcher at St. Andrew’s Priory near Valyermo on October 25 (Raewyn Mundhenk) and Pacific-slope Flycatchers at Lake Balboa in Van Nuys on November 25 (Kris Ohlenkamp) and in Lawndale through November 28 (Andrew Lee).

A Gray Flycatcher was at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas- in the same spot one has spent the past few winters- from November 24-December 1 (David Bell). 

An Eastern Phoebe at Madrona Marsh in Torrance from November 6-8 (Dave Moody) was the only one thus far reported.

A Vermilion Flycatcher was at Apollo Park near Lancaster from October 15-19 (Cal Yorke) and one was at the Piute Ponds near Lancaster on November 15 (Wayne Martin, John Birsner).  Another previously wintering bird continued in Willowbrook and two to three persisted at Oakdale Memorial Park in Glendora through December 6.

Late or potentially wintering Ash-throated Flycatchers numbered five in November and early December.

The Tropical Kingbird back for another winter at Legg Lake in South El Monte continued, as did one at El Dorado Park in Long Beach through December 8.  Another was briefly at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh near Playa Vista on October 28 (Dean Schaff). 

Far rarer and back for its second winter as of November 15 was a Thick-billed Kingbird at Horsethief Canyon Park in San Dimas (Tom Miko). 

Late Western Kingbirds were at the Kenneth Hahn SRA and the Village Green Condominiums in Los Angeles both on November 5 (Don Sterba).

Exceptionally rare was an “eastern” Bell’s Vireo on San Clemente Island from November 10-17 (Justyn Stahl).  Even birds of the western subspecies are very unusual in late fall and winter.

The usual handful of Plumbeous Vireos began to turn up by mid-October, while less common were late Cassin’s Vireos were at Schabarum Regional Park on November 2 (Kimball Garrett) and in Rancho Dominguez through November 5 (Richard Barth). 

A very nice find was a Yellow-Green Vireo at the West San Gabriel River Parkway Nature Trail in Lawndale on October 30 (Joyce Brady).  It wasn’t until weeks after its discovery that this bird’s identity came to light.

Three Pacific Wrens were in Big Santa Anita Canyon above Arcadia on November 22 (Lance Benner) and one was nearby at Chantry Flat on November 24 (Kathi Ellsworth).

Quite late was a Swainson’s Thrush at Reseda Park on November 5 (Dan Cooper).  This is a species that- aside from the occasional injured bird- is entirely absent in late fall and winter.

San Clemente Island produced a Lapland Longspur was on November 30 (Ben Sandstrom) and a Chestnut-collared Longspur was near Nebeker Ranch in the Antelope Valley on November 11 (David Bell).

Five Black-and-white Warblers were found between late October and early December.

A Tennessee Warbler was on San Clemente Island on November 17 (Nicole Desnoyers) and a Lucy’s Warbler was at Legacy Park in Malibu from October 23-November 3 (Dan Cooper) with another- perhaps the same bird- was across the road at Malibu Lagoon on November 8 (David Garrett).  One was also at Madrona Marsh in Torrance from November 16 (Tracy Drake).

Late Nashville Warblers were in West Long Beach on November 21 (Richard Barth) and in Lakewood on November 28 (Andrew Lee) and a Virginia’s Warbler continued at DeForest Park in Long Beach through October 31.

Two American Redstarts were at the Sepulveda Basin on October 25 (Jon Fisher), one was at the Kenneth Hahn SRA on October 29 (Don Sterba) and another was at Exposition Park in Los Angeles on November 20 (Kimball Garrett).

A Northern Parula was at Wilson Cove on San Clemente Island on October 27 (Justyn Stahl, Nicole Desnoyers), a Magnolia Warbler was at the South Coast Botanic Gardens in Rolling Hills Estates on November 2 (Brynne Bryan) and a Blackburnian Warbler was at Loyola Marymount University in Westchester from November 8-9 (Russell Stone).

A Chestnut-sided Warbler was at Peck Road Water Conservation Park in Arcadia on October 26 (Jon Fisher), while Blackpoll Warblers were in Rancho Dominguez on October 14 (Richard Barth) and at Sand Dune Park in Manhattan Beach on November 1 (David Moody) and at the West SGR Parkway Nature Trail in Lakewood on November 2 (Andrew Lee).

Up to five Palm Warblers were on San Clemente Island on October 14 (Justyn Stahl) and about a dozen more were scattered over the coastal slope during the period.

Quite rare was a Yellow-throated Warbler at the William Clark Memorial Library in Los Angeles from November 25-28 (Rebecca Marschall).

Three Painted Redstarts turned up in rapid succession in late November, though they may have been present before then.  The first was at the Huntington Gardens in San Marino on November 23 (Frank & Susan Gilliland), the second was at Oakdale Memorial Park in Glendora from November 23-December 12 (Rick Fisher) and the third was in Sierra Madre from November 26-December 5 (Patricia Duarte).

A Green-tailed Towhee at the West San Gabriel River Parkway Nature Trail in Lakewood through November 28 was the only report from the coastal slope (Andrew Lee).

Clay-colored Sparrows were at Vina Vieja Park in Pasadena on October 17 (Luke Tiller, Catherine & Charles Hamilton) and at Augustus Hawkins Natural Area in south central Los Angeles on October 20 (Richard Barth).

Rarely detected as a migrant was a Grasshopper Sparrow on San Clemente Island on November 4 (Ben Sandstrom, Justyn Stahl).

Two “Red” Fox Sparrows were at the South Coast Botanic Garden on October 31 (David Moody) and one was at Ralph Dills Park in Paramount on December 7 (Andrew Lee, Richard Barth). 

At Holiday Lake in the west Antelope Valley, a Swamp Sparrow was present on October 22 (Cal Yorke).  Another returned for a second winter to Legg Lake in South El Monte as of November 19 (Howard King) and one was at Quail Lake on November 28 (Kimball Garrett).

Dark-eyed “Pink-sided” Juncos were reported at Bonelli Regional Park on November 26 (Richard Fisher), at Rocky Oaks Park in the Santa Monica Mountains from November 30-December 4 (Zach Smith) and at Rancho Sierra Golf Club in the east Antelope Valley on December 9 (Dan Maxwell, Jon Feenstra).

At least eight White-throated Sparrows were found between October 22 and November 28.

A Summer Tanager returned for another winter to the Bette Davis Picnic Area in Glendale as of November 7 (Julia Ray).  Others were in Griffith Park on November 12 (Mario Pineda), at Recreation Park in Long Beach on November 23 (Andrew Lee) and at the Los Angeles National Cemetery in Westwood on December 11 (Richard Barth).

Late was a Blue Grosbeak at Peck Road WCP in Arcadia on November 2 (Darren Dowell) and a Black-headed Grosbeak at Elysian Park on November 13 (Richard Barth).  An Indigo Bunting at Peck Road Water Conservation Park in Arcadia on October 19 was the last one reported this fall (Andrew Lee).

Lingering Hooded Orioles were at Commonwealth Gardens in Los Angeles on October 23 (Kathryn Robinson) and in Granada Hills through November 26 (Scott Logan).  A male Scott’s Oriole was at the St. Andrew’s Priory near Valyermo on November 15 (Mark & Janet Scheel, Darren Dowell).

Far and away the most remarkable find of the fall was a Brambling that turned up at a residence in Rolling Hills Estates from October 9-22 (Christine Wojtowich).  While hardly the rarest of Eurasian vagrants in North America, this is still a great state bird.  This was the first for the county and for southern California.  And as if one weren’t enough, another was found in Orange County from November 6-10.  Prior to October there were but five accepted records for all of California.  The fall of 2014 nearly doubled that with four new records- pending CBRC acceptance of course.

A Cassin’s Finch found its way to Wilson’s Cove on San Clemente Island, being observed there from November 6-7 (Nicole Desnoyers, Justyn Stahl).  Regular coverage of this island has clearly shown just how productive it can be in fall.

Now as we move into winter, parks and residential areas offer attractive habitat for vagrants, as they do for more common species.  There are literally hundreds of such places and many are overlooked or rarely checked.  While some may offer little in terms of birds, they can also hold some surprises. 

While most chances for rare shorebirds have long gone, unusual waterfowl and seabirds can turn up in winter.  Barrow’s Goldeneye, King Eider and Black-tailed Gull have all been found in recent years.

Christmas Bird Counts will have barely ended when the first spring migrants start passing through.  Soon after, masses of northbound swallows will be obvious over most any body of water.  It is indeed a short winter in southern California, but thankfully it looks as though it may finally be a wet one.

In spite of the scores of birders out in the field each week, a lot of effort is concentrated on favored spots or on chasing known rarities.  There’s nothing wrong with that:  we tend to go where lots of birds are, and the phenomenon of vagrancy is one of the most exciting aspects of birding.  

That said, the county is rife with opportunities to go exploring, to head off the beaten path, to spend time in areas that get little attention and to fill in gaps in our knowledge.  Birding anywhere can be rewarding whether we see ten species or eighty.

Whatever your birding tastes, it’s a safe bet that Los Angeles County will offer something that appeals to you.  It’s easy to forget how fortunate we are to live in such a bird rich part of the continent.

Published Western Tanager Vol. 81 No. 3 January/February 2015