Birds of the Season–April 2015 

By Jon Fisher

Spring allows us a remarkable window into the avian world. Without even leaving the county, we’re able to observe dozens of species from a score of different families as they make their way north to breed. For some of these birds, southern California will be the final destination. Many more are merely passing through on their way to more northerly latitudes.

Though a wide variety of birds pass through in spring, passerines are often the first group that comes to mind. While their migration occurs almost entirely from mid-March through May, the mix of birds present over that window of time is far from uniform. Even those new to birding are generally familiar with the fact that species such as Western Kingbirds and Bullock’s Orioles arrive early—in the middle of March, while Swainson’s Thrushes don’t appear until late April and Willow Flycatchers rarely arrive before May.

The differences are attributable to a number of factors including what they eat, where they’re coming from, where they’re going and how tolerant of inclement weather they are. Arriving on breeding grounds too early and either freezing to death or not finding sufficient food is not a sound survival strategy.

Thus no two species share the exact same timing. By late May when Wilson’s and Yellow Warblers are still streaming through in numbers, our most common wintering songbirds- Yellow-rumped Warblers and White-crowned Sparrows- are nearly absent.

Western Wood-Pewees winter in northern South America and some of them undertake a phenomenal 6,000 mile journey to reach breeding grounds as far north as Alaska. Other species are far less ambitious: often because they lack the need to move great distances to either find food or a survivable climate. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, depending on where they breed, either migrate short or long distances, or not at all.

All of these birds create an intriguing pattern of movements through southern California that make spring a time of constant change. It’s also an excellent opportunity to learn the details of each species’ distribution and abundance. Given that, and the generally pleasant weather, it’s a time of year that leaves most of us wishing we could spend more days in the field.

Though the period was initially marked by a number of continuing rarities, as migration unfolded a number of new vagrants appeared and a couple of quite unexpected spring birds were recorded.

The Tundra Swan in Pico Rivera lingered through March 12 at the San Gabriel Coastal Basin Spreading Grounds as did the Eurasian Green-winged Teal through February 20. Even when only partially filled with water, these basins are a magnet for waterbirds and are often capable of producing something unusual. This can also be a great inland location to study gulls.

The only other dabbling duck of note was a Eurasian Wigeon at Hansen Dam on April 15 (Kimball Garrett).

A lone Black Scoter continued off Dockweiler State Beach in El Segundo through March 18, while a Surf Scoter was unusual inland at Lake Balboa in the San Fernando Valley on February 22 (Daniel Tinoco). Also generally scarce inland was a Red-breasted Merganser at Peck Road Water Conservation Park in Arcadia from February 14-21 (Mario Pineda). Conversely more common inland but scarce on the immediate coast was a Common Merganser at Malibu Lagoon on March 28 (Rick Fisher).

The only Red-necked Grebe reported was a continuing bird at Castaic Lagoon that remained through March 15. Two Horned Grebes, typically associated with deeper water bodies of water, were at an unusual inland locale—on the San Gabriel River in Pico Rivera- on April 3 (Larry Schmahl).

A Brown Booby continued near the Los Angeles Harbor mouth through February 19, with possibly the same bird southwest of San Pedro on April 5 (Jon Feenstra). Up to three were on San Clemente Island through February 23 (Mark Billings, Ben Sandstrom) and three more were about ten miles off Long Beach on April 5 (Jon Feenstra).

Not always easy to find in the county was a Cattle Egret at Legacy Park in Malibu on March 12 (Kathleen Waldron).

Quite rare for the county was a “Harlan’s” Red-tailed Hawk back for its second winter at the Ballona Wetlands where it stayed through at least March 4.

Scarce but regular in spring were two Solitary Sandpipers at the Piute Ponds on March 21 (Mark & Janet Scheel) and one there on April 12 (David Bell). Unusual at this desert location were two Marbled Godwits on February 15 (Mark & Janet Scheel).

Cabrillo Beach is not known as a shorebird hotspot, but a Ruff was present on the sandy beach there from March 30–April 12 (Bernardo Alps). This species is a scarce but regular fall transient, but very unusual in spring.

The very few Gull-billed Tern records in the county have been characterized by visits that were quite brief. The same appears to be the case for two observed at the Ballona Wetlands on April 11 (Jonathan Coffin). However these birds were unique in providing the first photographic documentation for LA County.

White-winged Doves were represented by a bird in Pico Rivera on February 20 and one flying over Claremont on February 22 (Tom Miko).

A few Inca Doves continued to be reported at Leo H. Washington Park in Los Angeles, where a small population was first discovered a little over a year ago. Up to three Common Ground-Doves continued in Bellflower along the San Gabriel River from March 25-29 (Becky Turley, David Bell). This is about the only location in the county where they can now be regularly found.

Very rare in winter was a Black-chinned Hummingbird at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Gardens in Rolling Hills Estates on February 15 (Neil Gilbert). An influx of Calliope Hummingbirds in southern California this spring were represented by just a few birds—mostly at feeders—through mid-April.

Though largely absent this winter, a few Lewis’s Woodpeckers eventually turned up. One was at Brackett Field in La Verne on February 16 (Mark & Janet Scheel) and up to three were in Monrovia from January 28–April 4 (Scott Warwick, et al).

A returning wintering Yellow-bellied Sapsucker remained at Veteran’s Park in Sylmar through February 18. Also present through February 16 were two Red-naped Sapsuckers and at least two Williamson’s Sapsuckers.

Continuing pure Northern “Yellow-shafted” Flickers were at El Dorado Park in Long Beach on February 15 (Brian Clements) and at the Village Green Condominiums in Los Angeles through March 4. A new discovery was a bird was at Legg Lake in South El Monte on April 4 (Larry Schmahl).

The intermediate columbarius subspecies of Merlin is far and away the expected subspecies in the county, thus one of the pale “Prairie” subspecies richardsoni spotted at Castaic Lagoon on March 8 was noteworthy (Tom Benson).

Adding to the fairly lengthy list of previously discovered wintering Western/Pacific-slope Flycatchers was one at Loyola Marymount University on February 15 (Russell Stone).

Three Vermilion Flycatchers persisted at Oakdale Memorial Park in Glendora through March 23, while presumed migrants were at Vina Vieja Park in Pasadena on March 11 (Luke Tiller), at Hansen Dam near Lakeview Terrace on March 14 (Kimball Garrett) and at Garvey Ranch Park in Monterey Park on April 10 (Phil Richardson).

Wintering Ash-throated Flycatchers continued at Peck Road Water Conservation Park in Arcadia through February 16 and at Madrona Marsh in Torrance through March 3. Another was found at El Dorado Golf Course on March 6 (Becky Turley).

A Tropical Kingbird, presumably the same bird that spent last winter, was at Harbor Regional Park in Harbor City on February 14 (Martin Byhower, Manuel Duran). The park is currently closed but birders have had some success looking in from the perimeter fence. Continuing birds were at El Dorado Park in Long Beach through April 9 and at Legg Lake in South El Monte through April 12.

A Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, a kingbird by genus if not by its common name, was at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh on April 16 (Dean Schaff). In spring this species is more regularly recorded in California in May and June.

In addition to a small number of wintering Plumbeous Vireos, new birds were found at Mayfair Park in Lakewood on March 9 (Richard Barth), at Vina Vieja Park in Pasadena from March 15–April 1 (Luke Tiller) and at Fremont Park in Glendale on April 11 (Nick & Mary Freeman).

Common as a spring transient on the deserts but rarely wandering to the coastal slope, a Sage Thrasher was at Madrona Marsh in Torrance on March 18 (Manuel Duran).

The remarkable and often observed Worm-eating Warbler persisted at the Village Green Condominiums in Los Angeles through March 30. It was searched for but never seen again after that date.

Black-and-white Warblers continued at Legg Lake in South El Monte through April 4 and at the Earvin Magic Johnson Recreation Area in Willowbrook through March 25. New birds, likely spring migrants, were at Cheviot Hills Park on April 12 (Kris Ohlenkamp) and along the San Gabriel River in South El Monte on April 16 (Jon Feenstra).

Likewise continuing was the American Redstart at the San Gabriel Coastal Basin Spreading Grounds in Pico Rivera continued through February 20. Another American Redstart was discovered singing along the San Gabriel River in South El Monte on April 10 (Jim Pike).

A Northern Parula was found along the LA River near Glendale on March 12 (Kimball Garrett), and another continued at Castaic Lagoon through February 25. A stunning male Blackburnian Warbler was at Wardlow Park in Long Beach from April 4–6 (Richard Barth). This long distance migrant normally keeps to the eastern half of North America during its travels to and from northern South America and is also far more often recorded in fall than in spring in California.

Palm Warblers included continuing birds at the San Gabriel Coastal Basin Spreading Grounds in Pico Rivera through February 23 and in along Compton Creek in Compton through April 11. New birds turned up at Harbor Regional Park in Harbor City on March 15 (Ed Griffin), at Legg Lake in South El Monte on April 12 (Mickey & Jan Long) in West Long Beach (Richard Barth) and at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh (Don Sterba) on April 16.

The reliable Painted Redstart wintering at Oakdale Memorial Park in Glendora was reported mostly in the same large Cork Oak tree through March 20.

Rare in winter was a Green-tailed Towhee continuing at the West San Gabriel Parkway Nature Trail in Lakewood through March 1.

First found on January 11, then not seen for nearly six weeks, an American Tree Sparrow was rediscovered at Castaic Lagoon on February 20 where it remained through March 12 during which time many observers got the chance to see it.

Others sparrows of interest included a Clay-colored Sparrow continuing at Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale through March 2, a Red Fox Sparrow at Alta Vicente Park on February 27 (David Moody) and Swamp Sparrows at Madrona Marsh in Torrance on February 14 (Dinuk Magammana) and continuing at Legg Lake in South El Monte through March 16.

Hard to come by in the county—and the first found since 2011—was a Harris’s Sparrow at White Point Nature Preserve on the Palos Verdes Peninsula from March 18-April 15 (Juan Antonio, Philip Carnehl). It’s interesting that both of these recent birds turned up on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

Rounding out the sparrows was the typical handful of continuing and a few newly discovered White-throated Sparrows present on the coastal slope.

A Black-headed Grosbeak at Madrona Marsh in Torrance on the early date of February 14 was certainly wintering rather than an early spring migrant (Tracy Drake).

Very rare in the county was a Painted Bunting discovered at a residence in La Cañada on March 24 and present through April 4 (Mark Hunter). This species will be problematic for the foreseeable future, as escapees coupled with changes in distribution of naturally occurring birds more often than not make it difficult to determine their origin. For what it’s worth however, this individual was a female type bird—and thus far less likely to be kept in captivity—and also showed no obvious signs of having been caged.

A flock of 2000 Tricolored Blackbirds at Holiday Lake in the west Antelope Valley on March 7 (Alex Coffey, Bhashar Krishnamachari) illustrates the importance of being at the right place at the right time, often called being just plain lucky.

Hooded Orioles included a continuing bird in Granada Hills through February 15, and one at Sand Dune Park in Manhattan Beach on February 16 that could have been an early migrant (David Moody). An Orchard Oriole that may have wintered was in Cheviot Hills from March 22–April 5 (Bob Pann) and Baltimore Orioles were at Cheviot Hills Park on April 11 (Dick Norton) and near the Rio Hondo in Rosemead on April 15 (Robb Hamilton).

Numerically, most of spring migration will have ended by mid-May, but even so there will still be plenty of migrants. Slowly declining numbers will be present through early June, along with an increasing chance for wayward strays. Migrant hotspots, especially those on the desert, will be worth checking for these errant birds as well as regular ones. As soon as spring migration is over, fall migration for some shorebirds is about to commence and Selsaphorus hummingbirds will be poised to start their southbound journey.

In late spring and early summer, there will be plenty of breeding activity continuing in the lowlands and throughout the San Gabriel Mountains. Vagrant warblers are always a possibility here, though rarely recorded in the last few years. Persisting dry conditions will undoubtedly suppress bird numbers and breeding activity in the mountains—and elsewhere for that matter, and may be responsible for the recent dearth of vagrants. Nonetheless, Williamson’s Sapsuckers, Clark’s Nutcracker’s, Green-tailed Towhees and Cassin’s Finches and many others will draw birders to higher elevations.

The San Gabriels are indeed a popular spot at this time of year, yet there’s no need to restrict birding to areas we know to be most productive or appealing. Often, unexpected finds are made when birding outside the box. Visiting overlooked places or seasonal hotspots at off times of year can be rewarding and also helps fill in gaps in the record.

Regardless of where you go, May and June in southern California will offer an abundance of birds and birding opportunities, as it does with every season.

Published The Western Tanager Vol. 81 No. 5 May–June 2015