By Jon Fisher

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Though the prospect of a truly wet season is still looming for southern California, rainfall continued well below average through mid-February. After four dry winters, we’re off to an uncomfortably slow start for what was billed as a year of change.

While we may eventually end up thanking El Niño for denting if not breaking the state’s drought, the event comes with a mixed bag of effects. The warmer waters associated with it tend to wreak havoc on the ocean food chain by suppressing the upwelling of cold nutrient rich waters. This ultimately causes a decrease in the fish that many birds rely on for food. Double-crested and Brandt’s Cormorants, Brown Pelicans, Common Murres and Cassin’s Auklets were some of the species affected thus far along the west coast, with all experiencing significantly increased mortality—largely due to starvation—over the last six months.

During the period the coastal slope experienced generally pleasant weather and an abundance of both regular birds and vagrants. The deserts and mountains were a different story, as they offered something more akin to “real” winter weather. But it’s all a boon to birders as the widely varied habitats and microclimates of the county combine to maximize the number of species present throughout the year.

Many rarities in Los Angeles County were continuing birds and these constituted the bulk of reports over the period. Christmas Bird Counts ended up with average or slightly below average species counts, but still produced a good selection of rare birds. New vagrants continued to be found and we added a new species to the county list. It was hardly an uneventful season.

Irruptive species were represented by a fair number of Red-breasted Nuthatches on the coastal slope as well a couple of out of place Brown Creepers and Pygmy Nuthatches. Lewis’s Woodpeckers and Varied Thrushes continued few in number, with both present in single digits.

Few notable ducks were reported. About seven rare but regular Eurasian Wigeons were recorded. The returning “Eurasian” Common Green-winged Teal at the San Gabriel Coastal Basin Spreading Grounds in Pico Rivera continued through January 12. Interesting and potentially confusing was an intergrade Eurasian/American Green-winged Teal present there from January 23–30 (John Garrett). The Long-tailed Duck lingering near the Ballona Creek mouth in Playa del Rey was seen off and on through January 24.

Rare inland were Red-throated Loons continuing at Legg Lake in South El Monte through December 23 and at Lincoln Park through December 19. New was one at Castaic Lagoon on February 8 (Thomas Hinnebusch, Rose Leibowitz). Also at Castaic was a continuing Red-necked Grebe reported through February 6.

Over five dozen Brown Boobies were on Ventura County’s Anacapa Island during the period, thus it should be no surprise that a few were observed off the LA County coast. These included two off Pt. Dume on December 20 (Kimball Garrett, John Garrett), and single birds at Malibu Lagoon on December 22 (Ron Steffans), at the LA Harbor entrance on December 27 (Kimball Garrett), in the San Pedro Channel on January 1 (Bernardo Alps) and at Leo Carillo State Beach on January 18 (Kimball Garrett). This species has been increasing in southern California waters, but LA County records have yet to catch up to those in other counties.

Away from expected areas was a Least Bittern at Westlake Marina in Westlake Village on December 20 (Mark & Janet Scheel). An American Bittern was at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh on January 3 (Darren Dowell, Mark & Janet Scheel) and three Cattle Egrets were at Lake Balboa on December 31 with two still present through January 1 (Julia Ray). The Yellow-crowned Night-Heron first found in late November continued near the World Cruise Center in San Pedro through December 23.

Three California Condors were spotted along Gorman Post Road on December 13 (Mark & Janet Scheel) and seen in the general area through December 18.

It’s hard to know where a Swainson’s Hawk over La Crescenta on December 31 may was headed (Kimball Garrett), but a few birds noted in the latter half of January were almost certainly early spring migrants. Scarce on the coastal slope was a Ferruginous Hawk at Lake Balboa on January 15 (Mike Stensvold).

Quite rare in the county was a Sandhill Crane northwest of Lancaster on December 31 (John Garrett, Alex Rinker).

Gulls included a Black-legged Kittiwake off Pt. Dume on December 20 (Kimball Garrett) and a Heermann’s Gull — quite unusual inland — along the LA River in Glendale on February 6 (Keri Dearborn). Always a nice find in the county was a Glaucous Gull at the San Gabriel Coastal Basin Spreading Grounds in Pico Rivera on January 10 (John Garrett).

A superb find was a Kelp Gull also at the spreading grounds in Pico Rivera from February 4–5 (John Garrett). Though there are a handful of other North American records, this southern hemisphere gull had only been recorded once before in California, with a single bird being responsible for several occurrences on the northern coast in April and May of last year.

Up to three Common Ground-Doves continued along the San Gabriel River in Bellflower through January 30. White-winged Doves included a continuing bird at Cabrillo Beach through January 5 and one at the West SGR Parkway Nature Trail from December 18–January 10 (Joyce Brady).

Now reduced in abundance and far outnumbered by Yellow-chevroned Parakeets, a few White-winged Parakeets nevertheless persist. Two were in Exposition Park in Los Angeles on December 15, two more were at Rosedale Angelus Cemetery on January 26 (Kimball Garrett) and one was a Legg Lake on February 6 (John Garrett, Darren Dowell).

Owls of note included a Short-eared Owl at the Piute Ponds from January 2–12 (Mark & Janet Scheel) and a Northern Saw-Whet Owl found in Griffith Park on the Los Angeles CBC on January 3 (Lance Benner). The latter report makes one wonder where else Saw-Whets may be wintering locally. As always with owls, nocturnal coverage—or more precisely the lack of it—is the limiting factor in the number of records.

Rare but occasional in the lowlands in winter was a Williamson’s Sapsucker in Griffith Park on January 3 (Dan Cooper, James Bailey). One to two more continued at Veteran’s Memorial Park in Sylmar through February 9, an almost lowland locale where they are regular in winter.

Two Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers were also at Veteran’s Park in Sylmar, with both present on December 20 and again on January 13 (Brittany O’Connor, Scott Logan, Patricia Bates) and one continuing through January 30.

Intergrades are relatively common in the county, but pure Northern “Yellow-shafted” Flickers are rare and frequently reported without the necessary characters being confirmed. This winter, pure birds were documented at Woodlawn Cemetery in Santa Monica on December 15–January 3 (Larry Schmahl), at Holmby Park in Holmby Hills on January 3 (Kimball Garrett), at Culver City Park on January 11 (Walter Lamb) and in Pasadena from December 19–January 18 (John Garrett).

A pale “Prairie” Merlin of the subspecies richardsonii was in the east Antelope Valley on January 3 (David Bell, Luke Tiller).

Hammond’s Flycatchers included one continuing at Legg Lake in South El Monte through December 26, one at Lake Balboa in Van Nuys from January 2–15 (Mike Stensvold) and another at Pan American Park in Long Beach from December 16–January 6 (Richard Barth).

A Gray Flycatcher persisted at Vina Vieja Park in Pasadena through December 13 and others were at Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale from December 13–February 2 (Luke Tiller) and at Arcadia Park in Arcadia on December 23 (Mickey Long). Pacific-slope Flycatchers were in San Marino on December 19 (Jon Fisher) and at Monte Verde Park in Lakewood from December 28–January 23 (Joyce Brady).

An Eastern Phoebe continued at the Piute Ponds on Edwards AFB through December 24 as did one at Madrona Marsh in Torrance through February 7.

About ten Vermilion Flycatchers were present on the coastal slope during the period, with numbers increasing over the past few years.

Rare as a wintering bird was an Ash-throated Flycatcher continuing at Madrona Marsh in Torrance through February 6.

A Tropical Kingbird continued at El Dorado Park in Long Beach through January 8, but far rarer was the Thick-billed Kingbird back for another winter at Horsethief Canyon Park in San Dimas and present through January 8. Woodlawn Cemetery in Santa Monica hosted a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher through January 28.

Cassin’s Vireos were at Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale on December 13 (Luke Tiller), in Harbor City on December 27 (Don Sterba). Nearly a dozen of the more common—at least in winter— Plumbeous Vireos were also present during the period.

A few early Cliff Swallows turned up in the first week of February, soon to be followed by the usual multitude of others.

Santa Anita Canyon above Arcadia held a continuing Pacific Wren through December 19, but potentially far rarer was a not-determined-to-species Pacific/Winter Wren found on the Palos Verdes CBC on December 27 (Jim Pike).

A rare county find was a Gray Catbird at Monte Verde Park in Lakewood on December 26 (Amy Niemeyer). Though it proved not always easy to find, it was reported through January 17.

Eleven Black-and-white Warblers were either found or continued during the period. Scarce in winter Nashville Warblers were in Exposition Park in Los Angeles from December 18–January 3 (Kimball Garrett) and at Pt. Dume on December 20 (Kimball Garrett).

An American Restart continued at the San Gabriel Coastal Basin Spreading Grounds in Pico Rivera through January 23 and the Northern Parula at Legg Lake in South El Monte was reported through December 23.

Palm Warblers included one north of the 91 Freeway on December 12, with two there on January 23 (Andrew Lee). Others were in Harbor City on December 27 (Don Sterba) and at Terminal Island in Long Beach on January 21 (Doug Willick). A few rungs higher on the vagrant scale was a Pine Warbler found at Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale on December 24. It was reported again from February 2–9 (David Bell, Luke Tiller).

A Painted Redstart continuing in Mar Vista through December 17 was the only one found this winter.

Clay-colored Sparrows continued at Madrona Marsh in Torrance through February 6, at Vina Vieja Park in Pasadena through January 30 and at Oak Park Cemetery in Claremont through February 9. A new bird was at Valhalla Cemetery in West Hollywood on January 10 (Richard Barth).

Rare but somewhat regular at the Ballona Creek mouth was a “Large-billed” Savannah Sparrow found on January 27 (Sarah MacLellan).

Very unusual in winter was a Grasshopper Sparrow continuing at Madrona Marsh in Torrance through January 24 and another on the UCLA campus in Westwood from December 21–January 5 (Richard Hedley). The ultra-rare Le Conte’s Sparrow first found at Castaic Lagoon on November 22 was reported through December 27. Subsequently, rising water levels inundated the weed patch the bird was inhabiting and its whereabouts thereafter are unknown.

Swamp Sparrows included one continuing at Wheeler Park in Claremont through December 29 and one at Madrona Marsh in Torrance on January 8 (Tom Miko).

About a half dozen “Red” Fox Sparrows, the least common of the four types locally, were present during the period. At least ten White-throated Sparrows were discovered or continued through the period.

Among the abundant Gambel’s White-crowned Sparrows were rare oriantha White-crowned Sparrows at the Piute Ponds on December 21 (Jon Feenstra) and at Peck Road Water Conservation Park in Arcadia on January 9 (John Garrett).

About ten Dark-eyed “Gray-headed” Juncos and another half dozen or so “Pink-sided” Juncos found over the period were both above average numbers. Notable was the fact that four of those Gray-headed birds were found together at Charlton Flat on February 3 (Luke Tiller), a surprising concentration for a bird so scarce locally.

About seven Summer Tanagers were on the coastal slope between mid-December and late January.

Very rare as a wintering bird was a Lazuli Bunting continuing at Madrona Marsh in Torrance through February 6. More expected but still noteworthy was a Black-headed Grosbeak near West Hollywood on December 27 (Maria Gritsch, Warren Tenhouten)

The Los Angeles CBC produced an Orchard Oriole at the Los Angeles Country Club on January 3 (Kimball Garrett) while rare in winter Hooded Orioles included one continuing at Madrona Marsh in Torrance through December 11 and one at the Huntington Gardens in San Marino on December 19 (John DeModena). A Baltimore Oriole continued at Holmby Park in Holmby Hills through December 27.

Away from the higher San Gabriels, small numbers of Red Crossbills were reported in the Antelope Valley and near Castaic Lake over the period. An Evening Grosbeak at a residence in Glendale on December 17 was the only report for the period (Yvonne Burch-Hartley).

We can’t know what the effects of El Nino will be in March and April, but spring typically brings a series of fronts moving from northwest to southeast in the desert. These often generate strong winds that pin down migrant songbirds and then, once they diminish, may open the door for a flood of migrants. When that happens these can result in some of the excellent birding days on the deserts. Places such as Apollo Park, Lancaster City Park and various windbreaks and patches of trees scattered across the Antelope Valley can be literally dripping with birds.

Calmer and milder conditions typically prevail on the coastal slope and either clear or overcast days there can make for productive spring birding, with good numbers of migrants possible almost anywhere. The south facing slopes and canyons of the front range of the San Gabriels can be especially good at this time as they are often filled with migrants.

Over the next few months, an array of migrants will traverse the county. Some of these travel only a few hundred miles or less, while species such as Swainson’s Hawks cover up to 14,000 miles each way travelling from wintering areas to breeding sites. Sooty Shearwaters, common at times along our coast, travel up to 40,000 miles each year from here to New Zealand and back.

While migration is in essence a very simple concept, birds have taken it to a level and complexity that challenges the human concept of what is possible in nature. Each species is different in its timing and abundance and spring offers an unmatched opportunity to watch this event unfold.

Spring is intoxicating for the avid birder. For the many species that change plumages, this is the time when they are at their most attractive. Residents and even many migrants are singing and evidence of breeding can’t be missed. It’s a rewarding time to get out and enjoy the rejuvenation of life that the season brings.

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