Birds of the Season- August 2015, By Jon Fisher

With the exception of shorebirds, June and July are comparatively slow months that lie between spring and fall migration, but this year they did emphasize quality over quantity.  The period also brought some unusual weather.  The remnants of tropical storm Dolores dropped an inch or more of rain on much of the southland in mid-July.  It was a tiny fraction of what’s needed, but still welcome. 

The looming and potentially promising El Niño appears to be ever more certain.  The experts predict it will be a major event, though that doesn’t mean California will be enjoying a wet winter- although that could certainly happen.  For birds and birders the above average ocean temperatures in the eastern Pacific will definitely mean one thing- unpredictability.  Warmer water tends to decrease nutrients and thus available food and often causes birds to move in ways that are difficult to anticipate.  Thus it could be that some unexpected birds turn up in LA County waters.  The downside are the die-offs could also occur due to the lack of anything for seabirds to eat. 

A couple of records- a Black-bellied Whistling-Duck in LA County and a Gray Thrasher in San Diego County- highlighted the question of origin.  Fortunately the vast majority of vagrants leave little or no question as to their provenance, but for those that do, determining whether or not they are of natural occurrence is the cause of much debate. 

Those kept as cage birds or in collections offer one challenge, while potentially ship-assisted land or sea birds offer another.  The answers aren’t always definitive, but the questions are taken quite seriously by birders. 

Fortunately, aside from a few wildly off the charts strays, vagrancy in each species typically displays a pattern that helps in assessing problematic records.  The condition of feathers and bare parts, coloration and behavior are also useful.  More recently, most records also have the benefit of many good photos.  The proliferation of digital cameras, from inexpensive point and shoot superzooms to DSLRs with high end telephoto lenses have been game changers, enabling experts from anywhere in the world to immediately review records and weigh in on the discussion.  In most cases all this information leads to a consensus, and as with any such process, the conversation is often informative and engaging.

As usual, the lower LA River and Piute Ponds were the most productive locations for shorebirds from June and into August, but these weren’t the only places to find them.  While the above “hotspots” generally produce most of our vagrants, our more common species and an occasional rarity can be found at almost any wetland area, large or small. 

Small numbers of passerines were also on the move and migrants, lingerers and wanderers made for a few interesting finds.  Some regular birds were also found in odd places for this time of year.  While migrants were obviously increasing in the lowlands by mid-August, numerically the show will really begin in September.      

Quite a surprise was a Black-bellied Whistling-Duck found at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas on July 2 (Rod Higbie).  Though this species is one commonly kept in captivity, most evidence pointed to this bird being a naturally occurring vagrant.  It had no leg bands and showed no signs of having been captive, nor was it suspiciously tame.  It was also gone by the next day and this species known for its propensity to wander long distances.

Other unusual summer waterfowl included a Lesser Scaup at the Sepulveda Basin in Van Nuys from July 19-29 (Mike Stensvold, Kate Rogowski), a Canvasback on the LA River in Long Beach through August 8 and a Common Merganser at the Piute Ponds from July 2-7 (Amy Williamson).

Summering Common Loons were at Quail Lake near Gorman from July 11-August 8 (John Garrett) and at the Piute Ponds from July 12-16 (Wayne Martin).

Rare in summer was a Northern Fulmar off San Clemente Island on July 16 (Justyn Stahl). Also unusual, but present in above average numbers in California waters this year, were up to ten Buller’s Shearwaters off San Clemente Island between June 18 and 22 (Justyn Stahl, L. Ware).

A Brown Booby was a few miles south of Pt. Fermin on June 21 (Darren Dowell, Dessi Sieburth) and another was near San Clemente Island on June 23 (David Lumpkin).

The waters off Redondo Beach produced a Magnificent Frigatebird on June 21 (Eric Combs) and a few others turned up elsewhere coastally and one was found at the Salton Sea during the period.

An apparent juvenile American Bittern along the San Gabriel River in South El Monte on June 26 may have been an indication of local breeding, or it may have simply lingered late or even summered locally (Jim Pike).  The previously discovered Yellow-crowned Night-Heron continued in the Ballona area through July 26, having moved from Del Rey Lagoon to the Ballona Freshwater Marsh.

Not particularly easy to find in the county were two Cattle Egrets at the Piute Ponds on July 27 (Jon Feenstra) and one at the Sepulveda Basin in Van Nuys on August 5 (Alex Coffey).

The South Coast Botanic Garden in Rancho Palos Verdes produced a Mississippi Kite that was present from July 10-13 (Steve Wolfe).  This species has been recorded in the county only about a half dozen times and remarkably half of those records are from this locale.    

Very rare for us at any time- but even less expected in late spring- was an American Golden-Plover on Edwards AFB property from June 16-21 (Jon Feenstra).  The majority of these birds occur in the state in September and October, with late spring and early summer records being virtually non-existent.

The earliest Solitary Sandpipers were one at Hansen Dam near Lake View Terrace on August 2 (Kimball Garrett) and one along the LA River in Cudahy on August 8 (Richard Barth).

The first Semipalmated Sandpipers of the fall were at Rosamond Lake on July 27 (Jon Feenstra) and along the lower LA River in Long Beach on July 27 (Andrew Lee) and in Vernon from August 1-2 (Richard Barth).  Both of these birds lingered and may have involved more than one individual.  Another was along the LA River in Maywood on August 9 (Tom Miko).  A Baird’s Sandpiper at the Piute Ponds on July 17 was also the first of the fall for that species (Jon Feenstra).

Two Franklin’s Gulls, far less numerous in fall than in spring, were at the Lancaster Water Treatment Ponds on August 4 (Amy Williamson, David Hurst).  The Least Tern continued nearby at the Piute Ponds through June 28, having been there since May 24.

A Common Ground-Dove at the Linden H. Chandler Preserve on the Palos Verdes Peninsula continued through July 22 and a White-winged Dove was in Quartz Hill in the south Antelope Valley from July 15-16 (Beverly Shoemaker). 

Yellow-billed Cuckoos are rarely detected in the county, but one was found at the Piute Ponds on July 1 where it remained for six days (Jon Feenstra).  It’s perhaps unlikely but possible this species still breeds in isolated patches of suitable habitat within the county.  They used to do so in abundance, along with a host of other riparian obligates before suitable habitat was nearly eliminated by development.

Three Black Swifts were above Claremont Wilderness Park on July 25 (Luke Tiller).  They have been reliable in this area recently as they presumably return to nearby but yet undiscovered nest sites late in the day.

A Lesser Nighthawk at Madrona Marsh in Torrance on July 5-19 has wandered unexpectedly far from breeding areas before expected to do so (Tracy Drake).

An adult and two immature Vermilion Flycatchers- scarce but regular breeders on the desert- were in the west Antelope Valley near Neenach from August 4-8 (Sarah Thomas, Adam Searcy).  On the coastal slope, five of them, including three young birds that were the result of local nesting, continued at Oakdale Memorial Park in Glendora through August 9 (Rick Fisher). 

Rather intriguing were single Pygmy Nuthatches at Pt. Dume on July 18 (John Garrett) and at the Piute Ponds on July 27 (Jon Feenstra).  Perhaps this portends a dispersal away from expected areas this fall, as this species is entirely absent from the lowlands in most years.  On the other hand no additional reports of them the lowlands followed. 

A MacGillivray’s Warbler at Eaton Canyon in Pasadena on July 1 was notable (Tom Wurster).  Though this species breeds just a relatively short distance away in the higher San Gabriels, a migrant in the lowlands at this date was a surprise.

The Sepulveda Basin in Van Nuys produced a White-crowned Sparrow on the very unusual dates of August 5-7 (Alex Coffey).  This is a full six weeks before the first fall birds are due to arrive.  The fact that it was missing a tail and thus may have had other physical issues could have prevented it from departing.  Yet if so, one wonders how it remained undetected for so long in this well birded area. 

Quite interesting was the discovery of both a male and female Hepatic Tanager along Blue Ridge Road near Wrightwood on June 20 (Jim Pike).  Small numbers of this montane breeder occur in the eastern San Bernardino Mountains in similar habitat, thus breeding in the San Gabriels may be a possibility.

The genus Piranga was also represented by a migrant Summer Tanager at Switzer’s Picnic Area in the San Gabriel Mountains on August 11 (Amy Williamson).

Spring Rose-breasted Grosbeaks included a continuing bird near Playa Vista through June 20, one in Palos Verdes Estates on June 18 (Bob Shanman) and another in Rolling Hills Estates on June 20 (Randy Hayward).  Indigo Buntings were in Big Tujunga Wash on July 12 (Jon Feenstra) and at Hahamongna Watershed Park in Pasadena from July 31-August 6 (Steven Goodman).

Coastal Yellow-headed Blackbirds were in the Ballona area on June 21 (Bob Shanman) and again on August 1 (Walter Lamb, Bhaskar Krishnamachari).

Late July is an odd date for an Orchard Oriole, even more so for the pair that turned up on San Clemente Island on July 24 (Ben Sandstrom).  One presumes at this date these are fall migrants but this is at least several weeks before they are expected.

Now as we’re in the middle of fall migration, almost anything is possible.  San Clemente Island has hosted some spectacular Asian vagrants over the years, such as Bluethroat, Red-flanked Bluetail and Stonechat.  Any of these have the potential to turn up on the mainland.  Dusky Warbler has been recorded near California City only a few miles outside the county and a Northern Wheatear was found at Malibu Lagoon just four years ago.  These possibilities inevitably capture the imagination of birders.  Rare shorebirds, wayward songbirds from eastern North America and “reverse” migrants from northern Mexico are also in the mix.

As far as birding goes, LA County offers excellent variety at any time of year and autumn is second to none.  There will be a lot going on in the bird world over the next few months and many places worth visiting.  Watching it all unfold is but one fascinating part of the enjoyment of birding.


Published Western Tanager Vol. 82 No. 1 Sep/Oct 2015