By Jon Fisher


In the end El Niño was hardly the drought buster that southern California had hoped for, but even with less than half of average rainfall March and April were adequately spring-like.  There was enough precipitation to fill streams, create swaths of greenery and produce copious wildflowers.


March saw our early passerine migrants arrive on schedule.  Pacific-slope Flycatchers, Western Kingbirds and Bullock’s and Hooded Orioles were in evidence by the middle of the month.  What begins with just a few migrants scattered about the county soon becomes a virtual stream of birds.  By mid-April it was difficult to go anywhere without encountering decent numbers of northbound passerines.


Though the focus in spring is on songbirds, a far wider variety of birds are on the move from waterfowl to raptors to hummingbirds.  And just as the timing of each species ranges from subtly to significantly different, so does their distribution.  If you want to see a Franklin’s Gull, Black Tern, Bank Swallows or Sage Thrasher, you head to the deserts.  For Brant and Pacific Loons, a trip to the coast is warranted.  Differences such as those aside, other migrants can be found throughout the county. 


Spring migration wasn’t the only news.  A significant number of unusual wintering birds lingered into April and rare gulls also made a good showing.


In addition, another new county bird was added to the list during the period, an event that has been remarkably regular recently.  Increased awareness and ever increasing time in the field have produced some memorable records over the past few years. 

Common along the coast but scarce inland, twenty-one Brant at Quail Lake near Gorman on March 29 was a good count (David Compton).

Diving ducks included a White-winged Scoter off Dockweiler State Beach in El Segundo on April 2 (Mark & Janet Scheel) and a wintering Long-tailed Duck near the Ballona Creek mouth reported through April 2.  Scarce coastally were three Common Mergansers at Malibu Lagoon on February 10 (Joshua Moses).

Red-necked Grebes were represented by a continuing bird at Castaic Lagoon through March 21 and one off the Palos Verdes Peninsula on February 18 (Jun & Bin Wu).

A Brown Booby was in the Santa Catalina Channel on February 18 (Philip Carnehl) and another was off Pt. Vicente on March 27 (Andrew Lee).

A first for the county was a Neotropic Cormorant found at Bonelli Park in San Dimas on February 17 and reported through April 9 (Rod Higbie).  Perhaps overdue, and certainly anticipated, this species has greatly increased in numbers in Imperial County and was recorded last year in nearby Ventura, Riverside and San Diego Counties.  Clearly this is a species to be looked for in the county.

Quite rare in LA County waters was a Red-billed Tropicbird in the Santa Catalina Channel on March 14 (Chris Rohrer).

An adult Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, very likely the same bird present as an immature from May to October in 2015 was at the Ballona Wetlands from April 8-9 (Bob Pann).  More expected but still scarce in the county was an American Bittern continuing at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh through February 27.

Intergrade oystercatchers are uncommon and their identification is often problematic, but quite rare was an apparently pure American Oystercatcher at the San Gabriel River mouth in Long Beach from March 13-28 (David Bell). 

The only other shorebird of note was a typically pelagic Red Phalarope at the Piute Ponds on Edwards AFB on February 19 (John Birsner, Wayne Martin).

Quite unusual was a Lesser Black-backed Gull found at the San Gabriel Coastal Basin Spreading Grounds in Pico Rivera on February 28 (Luke Tiller, David Bell), with two documented there on March 5 (Andrew Lee).  One continued to be seen on and off through March 11.  This were only the fourth and fifth ever found in the county.  Records of this European gull have increased significantly in North America and well over 100 have now occurred in California.

Even rarer- for LA County at least- was a Yellow-footed Gull at the spreading basins from March 2-6 (David Bell).  This constitutes only our second record, almost exactly twenty years after the first was found at Cabrillo Beach.  With a significant population in the Gulf of California and at the Salton Sea, it’s somewhat surprising that so few have appeared along the west coast.  A few may have been overlooked given their general similarity to the common and expected Western Gull.

Rounding out the gulls in Pico Rivera was a Glaucous Gull- almost certainly the same bird found there on January 10- on March 19 (Andrew Lee).  The size and composition of the gull flock at these basins is constantly changing, and is dependent on the ever-changing water levels.  Though some visits produce nothing of interest, clearly this spot is worth checking repeatedly.

Any alcid away from the immediate coast and offshore waters is unusual, thus a Common Murre well up Ballona Creek near the 90 Freeway on March 11 was noteworthy (Brittany O’Connor). 

Long declining, but maintaining at least a tenuous foothold, Spotted Doves were at the LA County Arboretum in Arcadia on February 13, along the LA River in South Gate on February 15 (Bobby Figarotta), at Col. Leon H. Washington Park in Los Angeles on February 21 and in Lynwood from March 17-April 1.

A few Common Ground-Doves continued along the San Gabriel River in Bellflower through February 24 and up to five Inca Doves were at Leon H. Washington Park in Los Angeles through March 4.

A Northern Saw-Whet Owl that was in Chatsworth from March 2-7 (fide Nick & Mary Freeman) begs the question of how many might winter in the lowlands.  Not often found in the county was a Short-eared Owl continuing at the Piute Ponds on Edwards AFB through February 25.

A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker continued at Veteran’s Park in Sylmar through March 19 while another was at the LA County Museum of Natural History Nature Gardens on March 16 (Kimball Garrett). 

Low elevation Williamson’s Sapsuckers included two continuing at Veteran’s Park with at least one present through March 16 and one at Brand Park in Glendale from February 13-16 (Yvonne Burch-Hartley).

Pure Northern “Yellow-shafted” Flickers included a continuing bird at Wheeler Park in Claremont through March 2 and new finds at the San Gabriel Coastal Basin Spreading Grounds on March 8 (Curtis Marantz), at Loyola Marymount University in Westchester on March 19 (Russell Stone) and at Columbia Park in Torrance on March 31 (Richard Barth).

A Crested Caracara that bounced around the Channel Islands for a while and then settled on Santa Catalina Island was reported there through February 13.  Rare on the coastal slope was a Prairie Falcon seen briefly at the Sepulveda Basin in Van Nuys on March 10 (Mike Stensvold).

Wintering Empidonax included a Hammond’s Flycatcher at John Anson Ford Park in Bell Gardens from February 16-March 3 (Richard Barth) and a Pacific-slope Flycatcher continuing at Monte Verde Park in Lakewood through February 28.

A handful of Vermilion Flycatchers were on the coastal slope during the period, with the most notable being three breeding pairs along with six juveniles at Oakdale Memorial Park in Glendora on April 10 (Rick Fisher).

The Eastern Phoebe at Madrona Marsh in Torrance was reported through March 23 and a wintering Ash-throated Flycatcher was seen there through March 3 and probably through March 26, by which time migrants cloud the picture.  A Dusky-capped Flycatcher at Creek Park in La Mirada was present from April 6-10, but likely wintered there as it has done since 2008 (Jonathan Rowley).

The Scissor-tailed Flycatcher at Woodlawn Cemetery in Santa Monica was reported through March 6 and what may have been a different bird was nearby in Pacific Palisades at the DWP Reservoir on March 3.

Presumably a very early spring migrant, a Western Kingbird was at Alondra Park Reservoir on February 28 (Andrew Lee).  The Tropical Kingbird at El Dorado Park in Long Beach continued through April 10 and another was found at West LA College on February 25 (Don Sterba).

Two Bank Swallows at the Piute Ponds on March 30 were a bit early (Lee Jones).

One to two Pacific Wrens continuing in Big Santa Anita Canyon above Arcadia through March 1 were the only ones reported.

Remarkably rare in the county was a wintering Gray Catbird continuing through April 4 at Monte Verde Park in Lakewood. 

Following last winter’s big invasion, Varied Thrushes continued to be scarce.  Reports included one at Rancho Sierra Golf Club in the Antelope Valley from February 9-March 26 (Paul Wolter), with two observed there on February 29 (Becky Turley, Brittany O’Connor), one in Elysian Park on March 1 (Kevin Bohannon) and one in Griffith Park on March 6 (Jon Fisher).

At least eight Black-and-white Warblers were present during the period, all on the coastal slope as expected. 

American Redstarts included one at Middle Ranch on Santa Catalina Island on February 13 (David Rankin), one continuing at the San Gabriel Coastal Basin Spreading Grounds through March 12 and one in West Long Beach from March 10-13 (Richard Barth).

A Palm Warbler continued along the LA River by the 91 Freeway through April 9 and a new bird was at Dominguez Seminary in Compton from April 11-14.  The Pine Warbler previously discovered at Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale was reported through February 15.

The Painted Redstart first discovered in December continued in Mar Vista through February 13.

A wintering Grasshopper Sparrow continued at Madrona Marsh through March 8 and up to five spring birds were in Mormon Canyon above Porter Ranch on March 9 (Mark Osokow).

Continuing Clay-colored Sparrows included one Vina Vieja Park in Pasadena through April 6, one at Madrona Marsh in Torrance through April 12 and one at Oak Park Cemetery in Claremont through April 4.

Eight White-throated Sparrows were present during the period.

A Dark-eyed “Pink-sided” Junco was found at Gloria Heer Park in Rowland Heights on March 5 (Richard Barth) and a Dark-eyed “Gray-headed” Junco continued at a residence in La Canada through March 5.

Summer Tanager reports were of single birds along Ballona Creek in Culver City on February 29 (Walter Lamb) and at Wardlow Park from March 12-13 (Andrew Lee).

Very rare in winter was a Lazuli Bunting that persisted at Madrona Marsh through March 4.

Occasional in winter on the coastal slope was a Scott’s Oriole at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas on February 20 (Paul Clarke, Catherine McFadden).  A Baltimore Oriole at the same locale from March 29-April 11 may well have wintered there undetected (Lew Johnson).

While the bulk of migrants will have passed through by early May, there will still be plenty of birds throughout the month.  This is prime time for such species as Willow Flycatchers, Western Wood-Pewees, Swainson’s Thrushes and Yellow and Wilson’s Warblers, all of which will be passing through in good numbers.

The deserts are always a go to spot during spring migration and though migrant numbers will taper off in May, the odds of finding vagrants tend to increase.  Migrant traps on the deserts are obvious- patches of wetland and greenery are conspicuous in this landscape- but the situation isn’t so simple on the coastal slope.  With vegetation and sources of water practically everywhere, birds too can be almost anywhere.  Thus the places to look for birds are practically limitless…

Of course nothing lasts forever, and so it is with migration.  Not to worry… it will begin anew starting in June, but the birds- at least most of them- will be heading in the other direction.

PDF May/June 2016 Western Tanager Vol. 82 No. 5 (2,855KB)