By Jon Fisher

We all know that change is constant and inevitable — some is good, some not so good. For local birders nothing offers change of the good kind like fall migration. Of course in this context “fall” is loosely defined... beginning in early summer and lasting for six months. That long period sees birds of every type heading south, or west, or even north in some cases.

Given typical August and September temperatures in the southwest, it’s hardly surprising that many passerines migrate by night. This strategy takes advantage of cooler temperatures and generally calmer conditions, both of which reduce the energy required during flight.

The hot days are put to best use resting and feeding and this also benefits birders, as it makes migrants easier to find. But flying at night has its perils: striking wires and buildings, flying off course or out over the ocean are not unusual occurrences.

Regular coverage of San Clemente Island — especially in fall — has produced a remarkable number of vagrants. The island is ideally located to attract southbound birds that have missed the eastward bend of the California coastline and find themselves over the ocean. The concentrative effects of such migrant traps- islands, points of land on the coast, or oases in the desert- can be impressive.

Even strategically placed city and county parks can be quite good. They offer shelter, water and food for tired migrants. Apollo Park near Lancaster, the West San Gabriel River Parkway Nature Trail in Lakewood, DeForest Park in Long Beach and Peck Road Water Conservation Park in Arcadia were all good this fall.

While this period in 2013 was marked by an incursion of Blue-footed Boobies and 2014 was the year of the Varied Thrush, not surprisingly neither species was reported the following year. Whether cyclical or apparently random, these irruptions rarely occur in consecutive years.

This summer, Cedar Waxwings and Yellow-rumped Warblers arrived earlier than normal. By October there was a definite though not overwhelming movement of Red-breasted Nuthatches and Golden-crowned Kinglets into the lowlands.

While good numbers of shorebirds were present, this group turned in a rather lackluster performance as far as vagrants were concerned. In fact no truly “high end” rarities of any kind were found during the period, but a good number and variety of expected vagrants definitely kept things interesting.

What was likely the same Eurasian Wigeon seen well into last spring — and may have summered locally — was again at Hansen Dam from August 31-September 2 (Kimball Garrett). A definitely summering Canvasback continued on the lower LA River through September 12.

Early Common Mergansers included three along the San Gabriel River north of Azusa on September 13 (David Bell), three at Hansen Dam on September 14 and two more along the LA River in Glendale on September 25 (Kimball Garrett).

A Common Loon that spent the summer at Quail Lake near Gorman was reported through August 27. Two Horned Grebes at Entradero Park in Torrance on September 21 were early and away from expected areas (David Moody).

Always of interest in the county was a Wilson’s Storm-Petrel at Cortez Bank on September 10 (Gilbert Bouchard).

Brown Boobies were present in above average numbers with up to ten reported between September 6 and October 6. Far more unusual was a Red-footed Booby found in distress at the Redondo Beach pier on September 13. This bird was taken to rehab and doing well a month later. This occurrence was coincident with increased numbers in California waters this summer.

An American Bittern was at the Piute Ponds on Edwards AFB on September 19 (Frank & Susan Gilliland, Dessi Seiburth). Also at Piute was a Least Bittern- one of the few ever found at this seemingly suitable locale-on August 16 (Bruce Aird, Steve Sosensky). Another Least Bittern was at the Sepulveda Basin on September 30 (Mike Stensvold). The Yellow-crowned Night-Heron first found in June in the Ballona Area continued through October 4.
Bald Eagles were at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas as early as September 30 (Rod & Pat Higbie) and in Redondo Beach on October 7 (Margarita Lee).

Always scarce on the coastal slope, and earlier than expected, was a Ferruginous Hawk over Pasadena on September 25 (David Bell). At least two more were seen with a large group of Turkey Vultures over Pasadena on October 7 (Luke Tiller).

Constituting only the second record for the Antelope Valley was at Black Turnstone at the Lancaster Water Treatment Plant ponds on August 22 (Mike Coulson, Kerry Morris, Jim Moore, Becky Turley).

Rare but occasional in fall was a Pacific Golden-Plover at the Ballona Creek Mouth on October 11 (Amy Williamson, Mark & Janet Scheel). Rather scarce as a migrant in the county was a Red Knot along the LA River in Long Beach on October 5 (Richard Barth).

A Sabine’s Gull, rare away from the open ocean, was on the LA River in Long Beach on September 25 (Richard Barth).

White-winged Doves were at Colonel Leon H. Washington Park in Los Angeles on September 3 (Tom Miko), at Apollo Park near Lancaster from September 12-19 (Darren Dowell) and at El Dorado Park in Long Beach on October 7 (Karen Gilbert). A Common Ground-Dove continued at the Linden H. Chandler Preserve on the Palos Verdes Peninsula through October 8 (Philip Carnehl).

Quite rare in the county were Short-eared Owls over Hollywood on October 3 (Zach Smith) and offshore in the San Pedro Channel on October 3 (Kimball Garrett).

Foreshadowing what may be a decent winter for this species locally were five Lewis’s Woodpeckers at Mt. Wilson on October 3 (C. Star), three at Oak Park Cemetery in Claremont on October 11 (Tom Miko) and two at Griffith Park on October 14 (Dan Cooper).

A Least Flycatcher was found on San Clemente Island on October 2 (Justyn Stahl), while far more regular Gray Flycatchers were at Wheeler Park in Claremont on August 16 (Tom Miko), at DeForest Park in Long Beach on September 12 (Jeff Boyd) and at Peck Road Water Conservation Park in Arcadia on October 5 (Tom Wurster).

On the early end of expected arrival dates was an Eastern Phoebe at Peck Road WCP in Arcadia from October 3–6 (Jon Fisher).

About a half dozen Vermilion Flycatchers were recorded on the coastal slope, but the most noteworthy report was just the third ever recorded on San Clemente Island on September 18 (Justyn Stahl).

A Tropical Kingbird, probably a returning wintering bird, was at El Dorado Park in Long Beach from October 3–7 (Kim Moore).

Over a half dozen Plumbeous Vireos on the coastal slope between August 30 and October 12 was an above average number for a species that is more expected later in the year.

Seven Pinyon Jays at Chilao in the San Gabriel Mountains on October 1 was quite interesting, especially given a number of unconfirmed reports in the past few years (Christopher Rustay).

Regular as a migrant on the desert but scarce on the coastal slope was a Bank Swallow on the lower LA River in Long Beach on August 24 (Richard Barth).

Quite a decent selection of wood-warblers was found during the period, with a few nice highlights among the more usual vagrants. In addition to our eleven regulars, another sixteen species were recorded over the period for a total of twenty-seven varieties.

Northern Waterthrushes were at Hansen Dam near Lake View Terrace from September 1–2 (Kimball Garrett), at Peck Road Water Conservation Park in Arcadia from September 19–20 (Jon Fisher) and along the LA River in Glendale on September 25 (Kimball Garrett).

In the rare but regular category were over a half dozen Black-and-White Warblers recorded between September 3 and 25.

A great find was a Prothonotary Warbler at the West SGR Parkway Nature Trail in Lakewood on September 12 (Jim Roe, Jon Dunn).

San Clemente Island produced a Lucy’s Warbler present from September 5–6 (Justyn Stahl, Nicole Desnoyers, Ben Sandstrom). Virginia’s Warblers were at Hahamongna Watershed Park in Pasadena from August 28-September 6 (Darren Dowell), at the West SGR Parkway Nature Trail on September 14 (Jon Feenstra), at Creek Park in La Mirada on September 16 (Jonathan Rowley) and on San Clemente Island from September 17–20 (Ben Sandstrom).

Tennessee Warblers numbered about a half dozen between September 1 and October 3, while American Redstarts were found in Santa Monica on September 9 (Luz Plauzoles), on San Clemente Island on September 10 (Justyn Stahl), in Lakewood at the West SGR Parkway Nature Trail on September 13 (Larry Schmahl), at Lancaster City Park in Lancaster from September 24–25 (Trina Jones) and in Palmdale on October 4 (Kimball Garrett).

A Northern Parula was at Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale on October 10 (Andrew Lee) and Magnolia Warblers were found at the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Preserve in Van Nuys from September 17–20 (Larry Schmahl), at the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area in Baldwin Hills on September 20 (Frank & Susan Gilliland, Dessi Seiburth) and near Cal State Dominguez Hills on October 12 (John Thomlinson).

At least six Chestnut-sided Warblers were reported between September 7 and 27, with the most interesting one being along Barley Flats Road in the San Gabriel Mountains on September 27 (Brad Rumble). This record is a reminder that we shouldn’t restrict fall vagrant hunting to lowland hotspots.

About a half dozen Blackpoll Warblers turned up between September 11 and October 6, while Palm Warblers were notably absent thus far.

A serendipitous find was a Yellow-throated Warbler in Pacific Palisades from October 2–6 (Larry Schmahl). Prairie Warblers were at Apollo Park near Lancaster from September 4–9 (Jon Fisher) and on San Clemente Island from October 2–5 (Justyn Stahl).

Quite unusual in the county was a Canada Warbler at the productive San Gabriel River Parkway Nature Trail in Lakewood from October 9–12 (Andrew Lee).

Two Painted Redstarts at Kenneth Hahn SRA on September 25 were remarkable in being together at the same place and time (Randy & Polly Ehler).

A Green-tailed Towhee, likely a returning bird, was at the West SGR Parkway Nature Trail in Lakewood on September 10 (Andrew Lee).

About ten Clay-colored Sparrows were found between September 10–October 8 and a handful of Black-throated Sparrows— scarce but regular fall migrants on the coastal slope— were noted between August 29 and October 6.

A Lark Bunting was on San Clemente Island from September 10–22 (Justyn Stahl, Nicole Desnoyers).

Rarely detected in migration were Grasshopper Sparrows at Hahamongna Watershed Park in Pasadena on August 26 (Darren Dowell) and at Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale on September 22 (Amy Williamson) with either the same or a new bird seen there on October 12 (Jon Feenstra).

The only White-throated Sparrow reported thus far was in Lakewood from October 9–11 (Andrew Lee).

The odd White-crowned Sparrow summering at the Sepulveda Basin in Van Nuys was reported through September 3, while early fall arrivals included one at the Piute Ponds on September 6 (Wayne Martin). By late September of course they were ubiquitous in the lowlands.

Rare in the county was a Dark-eyed “Pink-sided” Junco at the Rancho Sierra Golf Club in the Antelope Valley on October 4 (David Bell). Care is required to separate this type from the common and variable regular “Oregon” type juncos.

Summer Tanagers numbered about six between August 22 and October 9, all being found on the coastal slope.

The over half a dozen Indigo Buntings found between August 16 and September 23 was an expected number, but more interesting was a female Painted Bunting at the West San Gabriel River Parkway Nature Trail in Lakewood from September 10–13 (Andrew Lee). Males of this species are regularly kept in captivity and thus inevitably have their origin questioned. This is far less an issue with the drab female and immature birds however.

Dickcissels were at Peck Road Water Conservation Park in Arcadia on September 13 (Darren Dowell), along the San Gabriel River at Valley Blvd. from September 23–26 (Jon Feenstra).

A Bobolink was at Pepperdine University in Malibu on September 12 (Dan Cooper) and another was at Peck Road Water Conservation Park in Arcadia on September 13 (Darren Dowell). Subsequently, up to three were at Peck through September 20 (Amy Williamson) and another was along the San Gabriel River at Dunlap Crossing from September 20–25 (Larry Schmahl). The last report was of one in the Wilmington Drain on September 28 (Philip Carnehl)

Yellow-headed Blackbirds included one along the LA River in Long Beach on August 30 (Darren Dowell) and four at Lake Balboa in Van Nuys on September 24 (Mike Stensvold, Kate Rogowski). A Baltimore Oriole was at Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area from September 13–14 (Ann & Eric Brooks).

It has already been a productive fall, and with more to come. Even as the passage of passerine migrants comes to a close, lingering and wintering passerines will continue to be found. This is just one of the benefits of our mild climate.

Waterfowl will still be on the move into December and our inland deep water bodies of water will be good places to check for possible Red-necked Grebes or Barrow’s Goldeneye.

But at this point as we’re still in the thick of autumn migration, it’s hard to imagine that Christmas Bird Counts will begin in about six weeks. Our local counts — especially Los Angeles, Pasadena and Malibu — have produced many rarities over the years. Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Red-necked Grebe, Marbled Murrelet, Kentucky Warbler and many others have been found. While the Lancaster CBC doesn’t enjoy the mild weather and resulting species diversity of the aforementioned counts, it has nevertheless produced a number of notable Antelope Valley records.

These CBCs produce a wealth of data on the bird life within their fifteen mile diameter circles. They also concentrate bird-finding efforts in a specific area for a single day and thus regularly turn up birds that otherwise might have gone unnoticed.

Participating in these counts is always enjoyable, as well as a worthwhile venture into the realm of citizen science.

All the data from Christmas Bird Counts is available online and is just one component of the wealth of resources available to birders today. Field guides and other published references have proliferated in recent decades. The online site Xeno-Canto offers a vast library of bird recordings and there is a seemingly endless supply of photographs at our fingertips. In addition there is mind-boggling array of optical and camera gear at the ready to helps us both see and document birds.

The scant resources available when I first began birding seem laughable by comparison. Yet in the end, while all of these sources of information are useful, good birders know that there is no substitute for spending time in the field simply watching and listening to birds.