While the uninformed may insist on calling California a desert, only about a quarter of the state actually qualifies as such.  Yet the last few years might tempt anyone to question that fact.  Dry has been a most apt description.  This spring a couple of late and moisture laden fronts brought some unexpected and very welcome rain, though hardly enough to make any significant impact.  Nevertheless they provided at least a brief respite for parched habitat.

Despite the mostly gloomy drought news, migrants were streaming through the state in April and May.  There were still plenty of natural and man-created green patches to provide shelter, rest and food for birds.  A handful of early vagrants made for a good April and enough rare birds turned up in the latter half of May to keep things interesting.  Typical for spring, some of these were one day birds… others lingered.  San Clemente Island proved that it’s not only a great vagrant trap for fall migrants, but also for spring birds.

Spring wouldn’t be complete without an ABC (America’s Birdiest County) event.  Though interest overall has waned since it began in 2003, it’s heartening to know that LA County birders remain enthusiastic participants.  The fact that they have a lot to work with in terms of birds and habitats definitely doesn’t hurt.  This year the three day event in late April recorded 275 species, just two short of 2011’s record count.

Just as the varied geography of Los Angeles County results in a variety of bird species and complex distribution patterns, so does it in terms of weather and microclimates.  Extremes between the mountains, desert and coastal areas can be encountered any day of the year.  Snow can be- and was this year- falling in the mountains in April and May as beachgoers enjoyed the warmth of the sun.  Spring on the desert is typically marked by chilly mornings and often windy days, while on the coastal slope a marine layer regularly extends far inland.  Birders know that both of these conditions can result in very good migrant days. 

Always an interesting question to me when it comes to birds is:  which is a true vagrant as opposed to a rare migrant?  At some point along the continuum the lines between these two groups become blurred.  The status of any species can also change over time as more and more records are accumulated, or as they decline. 

Black-and-white Warblers and American Redstarts fall more logically into the “rare migrant” category, while Connecticut and Worm-eating Warblers are truly rare birds in California.  In between those extremes are dozens of species, a number of which may simply be stragglers at the edge of their normal migration routes.  As is typical, there were examples both from the middle and at each end of these extremes this spring.  The variety was enough variety to satisfy almost any birder.  Here’s a look at what was found…

Cackling Geese were at MacArthur Park on April 29 (Ed Stonick) continuing at Scherer Park in Long beach through April 24 and over Santa Clarita on May 4 (Jim Pike).

Other waterfowl of note included a male Eurasian Wigeon continuing at Hansen Dam through April 29.  Lingering Canvasbacks were in Silver Lake on May 7 (Doug Willick) and on the LA River in Long Beach from June 10-15 (Richard Barth).  Rare inland was a White-winged Scoter at the Lancaster Water Treatment Ponds from April 24-May 4 (Catherine Hamilton, Brittany O’Connor).  Not far from there, a Hooded Merganser stayed at the Piute Ponds through May 25.

A Common Loon at Bonelli Park in San Dimas on May 15 (Rod Higbie), two Horned Grebes at the Ballona Creek mouth from May 3-12 (Mark Scheel, Frank Baele), two more at Bonelli Park in San Dimas on May 16 (Rod Higbie) and one at Piute Ponds on June 6 (Mark Scheel) were all a bit late.

Common to abundant along the immediate coast but very rare inland was Brown Pelican was at Lake Palmdale on May 14 (Cal Yorke).

Coincident with the early occurrence of numbers of Buller’s Shearwaters in San Diego County waters, ten were observed off San Clemente Island on June 18 (Justyn Stahl).  With conditions appearing good for an El Niño which will affect conditions in the eastern Pacific, we should be prepared for unusual events when it comes to pelagic birds.

Cattle Egrets were at the Piute Ponds on April 18 (Lance Benner, Kathi Ellsworth, Amy Williamson) and along the LA River in Van Nuys on May 1 (Irwin Woldman).  Considering that they are regular in adjacent coastal counties, there have been remarkably few Yellow-crowned Night-Herons recorded in Los Angeles County.  The latest was a bird at Del Rey Lagoon in Playa del Rey from May 31-June 7 (Mickey & Jan Long, Elaine MacPherson). 

Two tagged California Condors from the reintroduced population were near Pyramid Lake on May 24 (Eileen & Cary Aguila).

Rather unexpected was an American Golden-Plover at Rosamond Dry Lake on Edwards AFB from June 17-18 (Jon Feenstra), this bird presumably being a very late spring migrant.  This record falls in between expected spring and fall dates for this very rare LA County migrant.

Four Semipalmated Plovers at the Ballona Wetlands on June 1 (Manuel Duran, Alejandra Cedillo) and one at Edwards AFB on June 4 (Jon Feenstra), with two there on June 6 (Mark Scheel) were all a little late.

Tringa sandpipers included single Solitary Sandpipers at the Piute Ponds on April 19 (Jon Feenstra) and in the west Antelope Valley on April 21 (Steve Ritt), while two were along the San Gabriel River on April 27 (Amy Williamson).  A late Lesser Yellowlegs was at Peck Road Water Conservation Park in Arcadia on June 10 (Luke Tiller, David Bell).

The spring Ruff first discovered on March 30 at Cabrillo Beach was remarkable in remaining there nearly a month, being last reported on April 24.  Regular in fall but far less so in spring was a Baird’s Sandpiper at the Piute Ponds on April 19 (Mark & Janet Scheel), while a rare inland Red Phalarope was also there on May 15 (Jon Feenstra).

As usual, Franklin’s Gulls were moving though the deserts in small numbers, but two along the lower LA River in Long Beach on April 19 were less expected (Alex Coffey, Bhaskar Krishnamachari).  Late Glaucous-winged Gulls included one at Polliwog Park in Manhattan Beach on May 15 (Richard Barth) and two at Malibu Lagoon on May 26 (Irwin Woldman).

Terns that are common coastally but rare inland included one to two Least Terns at the Piute Ponds on Edwards AFB from May 24-June 14 (Vern Benhart) and an Elegant Tern on Silver Lake Reservoir on May 8 (Doug Willick).

Common Ground-Doves were at Linden H. Chandler Park in Rolling Hills Estates from May 5-June 15 (Phil Carnehl) and at the Dominguez Seminary and Museum in Compton on May 16 (Richard Barth).  A White-winged Dove was observed flying over Claremont on May 2 (Michael San Miguel).

The only Black Swifts reported were three over Claremont Wilderness Park on May 20 (Tom Miko) where they have been somewhat regular in recent years.  Breeding is likely occurring not far away.

Telling Vaux’s and Chimney Swifts apart is no mean feat, though by the first of June, Chimney is the expected species in southern California.  But when not vocalizing- Chimney of course having a much louder call- separating them can be tricky and some are best called Chaetura sp.  Three such birds were over Hansen Dam on June 4 (Mickey Long, Laura Garrett, Elaine MacPherson), while two more were over downtown Los Angeles on June 12 (Tom Miko) and one was over Pomona on June 12 (Josh Lefever). 

Up to five Vermilion Flycatchers were at Oakdale Memorial Park in Glendora on May 17 where breeding has been confirmed (Rick Fisher).  Two juveniles in the west Antelope Valley near Neenach on June 7 (Dan Cooper) and one at Peck Road Water Conservation Park in Arcadia on June 14 (Mark & Janet Scheel) were likely the result of local breeding. 

Linden H. Chandler Park in Rolling Hills Estates produced a Tropical Kingbird on April 30 (Phil Carnehl).  This bird probably spent the winter in the area.  An Eastern Kingbird at Legacy Park in Malibu on June 15 reinforces the idea that we shouldn’t stop looking for vagrants after early June (Dan Cooper).  The Ballona Freshwater Marsh hosted a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher on April 16 (Dean Schaff), with what was presumably the same bird still present on April 27.

Almost any spring Plumbeous Vireo could have wintered locally, or it might be a spring migrant.  One such bird was at Roxbury Park in Beverly Hills on April 23 (Richard Barth). 

Horned Larks are now rare along the coast and on the coastal slope, thus five at Pt. Dume in Malibu on June 13 were noteworthy (Mark & Janet Scheel).

Scarce as a migrant on the coastal slope was a Bank Swallow in Silver Lake on April 24 (Doug Willick).  Purple Martins were nearly absent this spring with just a single report- a male over South Gate Park- on May 10 (Jon Feenstra).

A variety of unusual warblers made an appearance.  One of these was an Ovenbird, always a nice find in the county, at Hopkins Wilderness Park in Redondo Beach on May 28 (Mark Rubke).

A Black-and-white Warbler continued along the San Gabriel River in South El Monte through April 26 and what appeared to be a different individual was there on May 20 (Jon Feenstra).

American Redstarts included a continuing bird along the San Gabriel River in South El Monte through May 2, with new ones found at Cabrillo Beach on May 28 (Bernardo Alps), on San Clemente Island on May 30 (Mark Billings, Justyn Stahl) and from June 10-17 (Justyn Stahl).

A remarkable record was a Cape May Warbler in Marina del Rey on April 21 (Dan Cooper).  Nearly three quarters of California records are from fall and this species has also declined in California since the 1980s, coincident with a decrease in Spruce Budworm outbreaks- a preferred food- in the east.  If you happened to be staying at the Ritz Carlton, this was most convenient as the bird was just across the street.  Unfortunately for many who wanted to see it, this great find was a one day bird.

San Clemente Island produced a Northern Parula present from May 29-30 (Justyn Stahl, Curtis Twellman, Lena Ware) and another was seen briefly in Altadena (Luke Tiller, Catherine Hamilton).  Magnolia Warblers were on San Clemente Island from May 29-30 (Justyn Stahl, Lena Ware) and in Arcadia at Peck Road Water Conservation Park on June 10 (John Ivanov).

Palm Warblers were represented by continuing birds in Compton through April 24 and at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh through April 24.  Others were found at Madrona Marsh in Torrance from April 18-21 (Manuel Duran, Alejandra), at Peck Road Water Conservation Park in Arcadia on April 25 (Luke Tiller, Catherine Hamilton), at Legg Lake in South El Monte on April 25 (Mickey Long, Laura Garrett) and at DeForest Park in Long Beach on April 26 (Andrew Lee).

A Yellow-throated Warbler was seen only briefly at Peck Road Water Conservation Park in Arcadia on May 24 (Jon Fisher).  As this species breeds in the southeastern U.S. rather than anywhere to the north of us, its pattern of vagrancy favors spring rather than fall records.

For the second year in a row, a Cassin’s Sparrow was discovered in the county in spring.  While last year’s bird was in the west Antelope Valley in June, this one was in Castaic from May 26-31 (Brian Daniels).  It seems counterintuitive that this species would show up in two very dry years, since range expansions are expected in wetter than normal years.  This second appearance in as many years has to make us wonder how many others might be out there.  Interestingly there appeared to be no pattern of occurrence between this species’ normal mid-west range and these two southern California records.

Clay-colored Sparrows were at Madrona Marsh in Torrance from May 2-10 (Tracy Drake) and at the Earvin Magic Johnson Recreation Area in Willowbrook on May 11 (Richard Barth).

The Harris’s Sparrow found at White Point Nature Preserve on the Palos Verdes Peninsula on March 18 continued to be reported through April 30.  Almost as rare- at least in terms of the date- was a very late White-crowned Sparrow at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh in Playa Vista from May 30-June 6 (Manuel Duran, Alejandra Cedillo).

Summer Tanagers were at Blaisdell Park in Claremont on May 23 (Tom Miko) and at Three Sisters Reserve in Rancho Palos Verdes on June 6 (Philip Carnehl).

It’s rare that we get to see a male Bobolink in breeding colors, thus they are prized finds in spring.  This spring one was at the Piute Ponds on May 23 (Wayne Martin) and another was on San Clemente Island from May 31-June 1 (Dacia Wiitala).

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were spotted at a feeder in Palmdale on May 8 (Becky Kitto), on San Clemente Island on May 26 (Nicole Desnoyer) and on June 16 (David Lumpkin), along the Playa Vista bluffs near Loyola Marymount University from May 28-31 (Don Sterba) and at Alondra Park in Lawndale on June 13 (David Moody).

Indigo Buntings were at Madrona Marsh in Torrance on May 5 (Ron Melin), in Antelope Acres on May 19 (Steve Ritt) and on San Clemente Island from May 28-29 (Justyn Stahl, David Lumpkin).

Though they went unreported in the county last winter, a lone Evening Grosbeak did turn up at Grassy Hollow Picnic Area in the San Gabriels on May 10 (Amy Williamson).

The long staying Orchard Oriole first found on March 22 continued in Cheviot Hills through April 23.  Also of note was a Baltimore Oriole found on San Clemente Island on June 4 (Nicole Desnoyers).

It’s a pretty safe bet that there’s long hot summer ahead, but at least for birders it will be made tolerable by the migrants passing through.  As of mid-June Wilson’s Phalaropes have already begun to trickle through, and good numbers of a variety of shorebirds will be present by July.  The lower LA River and Piute Ponds will be prime spots to watch them, but any patch of suitable habitat can support at least a few.  August will be a good time to find southbound passerines moving through the mountains.  Seawatching for pelagics along the coast- while often uneventful- can offer rewards at any time of year.    

While spring offers plenty of chances for rare birds, the fall migration period has even more impressive potential.  Vagrants or not, simply visiting a favorite and well-traveled patch brings something different each time.  Change comes not only with the seasons, but often by the day.  And that constant change is one of the most enjoyable components of the pursuit of birding.

Western Tanager Vol. 81 No. 6 July August 2015 (PDF)