Birds of the Season — February 2015

By Jon Fisher

While true winter weather affects much of the country, in southern California we can hardly relate to such extremes.  And our seemingly never-ending mild weather is attractive to birds as well as people.  The non-birder is typically shocked to learn of the diversity of birds present at any season, and having a high density of birders in the field literally 365 days a year means that we find more of them, both common and rare.

Naturally there isn’t uniformity across the county.  Wintering insectivores and frugivores avoid the brisk temperatures of the desert and mountains where their food is scarce.  Instead they are found primarily on the mild coastal slope, as are most birders.  Many passerine vagrants fall into this category, and December and January saw a number of such continuing birds reported repeatedly.  To be sure there were also a good number of newly discovered rarities. 


A couple of outstanding passerines turned up, along with a myriad of lesser but certainly interesting sightings.  Christmas Bird Counts produced another crop of good finds. 

Continuing since late November, Varied Thrushes were widely reported in suitable habitat into February.  A comparison of the eBird maps of this species for this winter and last vividly illustrates the scope of the invasion.  They remained the only land bird that showed any evidence of an irruption in the region however.

As usual, a handful of Ross’s, Snow and Cackling Geese were in the county, with a high count of 270 Snow Geese at Nebeker Ranch in the Antelope Valley on January 10 being noteworthy. 

Always a nice find in the county was a Tundra Swan at the San Gabriel Coastal Basin Spreading Grounds in Pico Rivera from December 23–February 7 (Darren Dowell).

Most interesting at these spreading grounds was an apparent “Mexican” Mallard— or Mexican Duck— that was found on December 23 (John Garrett).  Long considered a subspecies of the Mallard, the Mexican Duck may be more closely related to the American Black Duck and Mottled Duck and thus not a Mallard at all.  Plumages of males, relatively indistinct from that of females, would seem to at least superficially support this idea.  Birds like this one are easy to overlook, in part because most birders aren’t actively searching for them or even familiar with their identification.  The possibility of hybrids is further cause for caution and confusion.

Other dabbling ducks included Eurasian Wigeons at Hansen Dam on January 13 (Kimball Garrett) and continuing on the LA River through January 29 near the Bette Davis Picnic Area in Glendale.  Apparently back for another winter the spreading basins in Pico Rivera was a “Eurasian”/Common Green-winged Teal seen from December 14–February 7 (David Bell).

Male Black Scoters were at the Ballona Creek mouth on December 20 and again on December 27 (Irwin Woldman).  What may have been the same bird was observed off Dockweiler State Beach in El Segundo from January 5 through February 3 when it was joined by a female (Richard Barth).

A Common Merganser, always rare along the coast, was at Del Rey Lagoon in Playa del Rey on December 9 (Rebecca Marschall).

Scarce away from the immediate coast, Red-throated Loons were at Legg Lake in South El Monte from December 13–24 (Mickey Long), at Lake Balboa in Van Nuys from December 19–January 1 (Dan Cooper) and at El Dorado Park in Long Beach from January 17–February 5 (Alan Wells).  More expected was a Pacific Loon at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas on December 26 (Andrew Lee).

Red-necked Grebes were at Malibu Lagoon on December 12 (Dan Cooper), along the San Gabriel River in South El Monte from December 20–31 (Andrew Lee) and at Castaic Lagoon from December 22–February 9 (Dan Cooper).

Brown Boobies turned up at San Clemente Island from December 26–30 (Justyn Stahl) and near the Los Angeles Harbor mouth from January 10–February 2 (Lance Benner, et al).

Rare but regular in adjacent counties— but far more unusual for us— was a Zone-tailed Hawk over Sylmar on December 27 (Steve Summers).  Also of note on the coastal slope was a Ferruginous Hawk over Burbank on January 16 (Alex Viduetsky).  A returning light morph “Harlan’s” Red-tailed Hawk was in the Ballona area present through February 10 (Rick Pine).

Alcids were part of the story this winter, with unexpected numbers of two species of murrelets turning up in LA County waters.  These offered an all too infrequent chance to observe them from shore.

Reports began with a Marbled Murrelet off Leo Carillo State Beach from December 21–27 (Adam Searcy).  Subsequently, others were at Malaga Cove on the PVP on December 28 (Kris Ohlenkamp), at the Ballona Creek mouth from December 29–January 17 (Ed Griffin) and near the Malibu Pier on January 4 (C. Warneke)

Ancient Murrelets staged a more significant invasion starting in late December.  The first was at the Ballona Creek mouth on December 26 (Jeffrey Sondheimer).  Later up to eight were present in subsequent days and continued to be reported through January 9.  Well over a dozen others turned up elsewhere along the coast in late December and early January.  An inability to find sufficient food is the most likely first guess as to the cause of these incursions, but confirming that can be difficult.

Quite rare anywhere in the county, but particularly so in the interior was a Glaucous Gull observed flying over Apollo Park near Lancaster on January 1 (John Garrett).

Up to five Inca Doves continued to be reported at Col. Leo H. Washington Park in Los Angeles through February 10 and a White-winged Dove was at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro from January 13–22 (David Ellsworth).

Away from their usual higher elevation haunts, both male and female Williamson’s Sapsuckers continued at Veteran’s Park in Sylmar through December 28, with at least the male still there through January 26.

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers were at Castaic Lagoon from December 27–January 18 (Jeffrey Fenwick) and continuing at Veteran’s Park in Sylmar through February 5.  At least seven of the generally more numerous Red-naped Sapsuckers were present in the county over the period.

Northern “Yellow-shafted” Flickers were in the Lower Arroyo Seco on December 18 (Naresh Satyan) and in La Crescenta on January 17 (Linda Moore).  Two more were at the Village Green Condominiums in Los Angeles starting on December 20 with at least one still there on January 3 (Don Sterba).

Any Empidonax in winter is noteworthy.  Such was a Hammond’s Flycatcher at the Village Green Condominiums in Los Angeles from December 28–January 3 (Don Sterba) and a Gray Flycatcher– the most regular of the genus in winter– continuing at Vina Vieja Park in Pasadena through February 2.  A well above average eight Pacific-slope Flycatchers were found on the coastal slope during the period.

Vermilion Flycatchers were at the Piute Ponds on December 13 (Jim Moore, Becky Turley), continuing at the Earvin Magic Johnson Recreation Area in Willowbrook through January 27 and at Oakdale Memorial Park in Glendora where up to three birds continued through February 10.

A wintering Ash-throated Flycatcher continued at Madrona Marsh in Torrance through January 21 and two new birds were found in Arcadia on February 6 (Darren Dowell).

Single Tropical Kingbirds continued at El Dorado Park in Long Beach through January 13 and at Legg Lake in South El Monte through January 31 and the Thick-billed Kingbird wintering for its second year at Horsethief Canyon Park in San Dimas was reported through January 3.

Plumbeous Vireos were represented by at least six individuals while the rarer— in winter at least— Cassin’s Vireos were represented by two individuals.  One of these was along the San Gabriel River Parkway Nature Trail in Lakewood on December 21 (Robb Hamilton) and the other was at Valhalla Cemetery in Burbank on January 22 (Richard Barth).

Pacific Wrens were in Topanga Canyon on December 14 (Lance Benner, Kathi Ellsworth), on the Palos Verdes CBC on December 21 (Jim Pike) and at Alma Park in San Pedro from December 21-January 13 (David Ellsworth, Tom Miko).

Mountain Bluebirds were virtually non-existent on the coastal slope this winter with a single bird in San Pedro on December 20 being the lone report (Martin Byhower, Steve Wolfe, Steve Dexter).

Scarce on the coastal slope was a Townsend’s Solitaire at the Village Green Condominiums from December 27–January 24 (Don Sterba).  Another was on San Clemente Island from January 12–February 10 (Justyn Stahl, Ben Sandstrom).

With only about a dozen ever found in the county, a Worm-eating Warbler discovered at the Village Green Condominiums in Los Angeles on December 20 was a great find (Don Sterba).  This bird remained through February 11 and though sometimes elusive it was seen by many, many birders. 

In addition to several continuing Black-and-white Warblers, another half dozen or so were found between December 17 and February 11. 

The Palos Verdes CBC on December 21 produced a Nashville Warbler (Jim Pike) and a Virginia’s Warbler continued at DeForest Park in Long Beach through December 20.  A wintering Northern Parula at Castaic Lagoon from January 2–February 9 was a nice surprise (Steve Summers).

At least a half dozen Palm Warblers were present over the period, but notable was one in the Antelope Valley at 50th Street East and Ave. K-8 on January 10 (Kimball Garrett).  Wintering vagrant warblers are extremely rare on the cold deserts. 

Painted Redstarts continued at Oakdale Memorial Park in Glendora through February 10 and in Sierra Madre through January 20.

A Green-tailed Towhee in Long Beach on December 21 was the only wintering bird reported (Robb Hamilton).

Very rare for the county was an American Tree Sparrow found at Castaic Lagoon on January 11 (David Bell, Luke Tiller).  This was the second in as many winters, but to the disappointment of many observers neither bird could be refound on subsequent days.

Clay-colored Sparrows were at Madrona Marsh in Torrance on December 13 (Dinuk Magamanna) and at Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale from January 4–—25 (Andrew Lee) and the only “Large-billed” Savannah Sparrow reported was at Leo Carillo State Beach on December 30 (Jon Fisher). 

A “Red” Fox Sparrow was in La Canada on December 20 (David Bell) and Swamp Sparrows included one at Legg Lake in South El Monte that continued through February 1 and another found at the Rio Hondo Basins in Pico Rivera on February 7 (Larry Schmahl).

A Dark-eyed “Pink-sided” Junco was at the Rancho Sierra Golf Club in the Antelope Valley on December 9 (Dan Maxwell).  Care needs to be taken when identifying this subspecies, with the variable Oregon Juncos as well as intergrades and hybrids complicating the issue.  Still this subspecies is probably more common than records would indicate.

Always rare in winter, Black-headed Grosbeaks were found on the PVP CBC on December 21 (Jim Pike) and in Pasadena on January 2 (Frank & Susan Gilliland).

At least seven Summer Tanagers appeared to be wintering along with a handful of more common Western Tanagers.  Exotic plantings have been a boon to both species and enabled them to winter in the area.

Rare wintering Hooded Orioles included a continuing bird in Granada Hills through January 5 and one in Culver City on January 27 (Don Sterba).

Thus what there was of winter is for all practical purposes already over.  What appeared to be a promising start for a wet season ended up offering mostly false hope rather than anything in the way of significant precipitation.  As of mid-February it looks like we’re in for yet another dry year and continued drought, though we did fare slightly better than last winter. 

Regardless, spring songbird migration is around the corner.  With the exception of swallows, just a trickle of birds will begin passing through in early March, but numbers will build quickly.  The foothill canyons of the San Gabriels and the desert will be excellent places to watch northbound birds, but they won’t be restricted to those places.  Migrants can be found practically anywhere.

While rare birds drive a lot of our birding habits and activity, there’s nothing like spring to provide us a renewed appreciation for common birds.  The change in pace is obvious as resident species are bursting with song and busy with nesting activities.  Eagerly awaited spring migrants are arriving.  By mid-April and through early May, the sheer numbers of birds that can be encountered on a good spring day are inspiring.

Published Western Tanager Vol. 81 No, 4 March/April 2015