Birds of the Season — August 2016

Western Tanager, September/October 2016

by Jon Fisher

Though spring migration was essentially over by mid-June, it didn’t mean that birds had stopped moving.  Even in the comparative doldrums of early summer it was clear that unusual summering birds, late spring and early fall vagrants and some with a simple case of wanderlust were there to be found. 

As usual, shorebird numbers at favored spots increased markedly in July, with a few rarities thrown into the mix of more common species.  While shorebirds can be found in any patch of suitable habitat, the Edwards Air Force Base Piute Ponds and the lower Los Angeles River continued as the county’s premier spots to watch them.  These locations continued to be a big draw for birders.  However, that doesn’t mean that the Ballona wetlands, Malibu Lagoon, Rio Hondo, San Gabriel River and other parts of the LA River should be neglected.  All are well worth checking. 

A handful of passerines were already on the move by the end of July.  Lazuli and a few Indigo Buntings are among the earlier arrivals, but the number and variety of fall migrants really begin to expand in August.      

It’s hard to believe that the massive Station Fire, which altered habitat for decades to come, occurred seven years ago.  Though only a quarter the size of the Station blaze, this year it was the Sand Fire near Santa Clarita that obliterated over 40,000 acres.  The effects of persistent drought were evident in this and in several other major and a handful of minor wildfires in the southern half of the state. 

Yet despite the paucity of rain, there is still water here.  It’s in the narrow ribbons of streams and rivers, in ephemeral patches and in reservoirs large and small.  Wherever it is, water attracts birds. 

Along with the naturally occurring species was the usual array of parrots and parakeets, an occasional Black-throated Magpie-Jay, a wandering Northern Cardinal or two, many bishops and munias and a sprinkling of less often encountered exotics.  This “exotic” dimension of LA County birding is shared to the same degree by few other places. 

Unusual inland in summer were single Brant at the Piute Ponds on June 25 (Mark Scheel, Amy Williamson) and at the Lancaster Water Treatment Plant from July 9–11 (Darren Dowell).

Up to a half dozen summering Surf Scoters were along Ballona Creek near the 405 Freeway crossing from July 16–August 6 (Brooke Keeney).

A summering Common Merganser remained around the LA River in the Atwater Village area through August 9 and two were at Castaic Lagoon on July 2 (Mei Kwan), with one still there through August 4.  Red-breasted Mergansers were at Lake Balboa from June 16–August 1 (Mike Stensvold), at the Piute Ponds on Edwards AFB on June 25 (Mark Scheel, Amy Williamson) and at Quail Lake near Gorman on August 8 (John Garrett).

Spotted Doves were in Montebello on July 7 (Michael San Miguel Jr.), continuing at Col. Leon H. Washington Park in Los Angeles and in Huntington Park on July 13 (Tammy & David McQuade).  Inca Doves continued at Col. Leon H. Washington Park through July 22.

A wayward Yellow-billed Cuckoo was on San Clemente Island on June 16 (Nicole Desnoyers).  Today it’s hard to imagine that this species was once a common breeder in the Los Angeles basin prior to the wholesale destruction of the willow riparian habitat it requires.

The only report of a Chimney Swift was one seen from Flat Rock Point on the Palos Verdes Peninsula on July 8 (Jun & Bin Wu).

A Ridgway’s Rail continued at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh though June 26 and apparently summering Soras were at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh on June 25 (Anders Frunck) and at the Piute Ponds from July 6–12 (Joseph Lepisto).

An early Whimbrel was at the Piute Ponds on July 3 (Jaclyn Catino).

The Piute Ponds also produced a Ruff that was present from July 20–24 (Kerry Ross)

A Stilt Sandpiper was at the ever productive Piute Ponds from August 5–7 (Darren Dowell, John Birsner).

The season’s first Semipalmated Sandpiper was along the LA River in Long Beach from July 17–21 (Luke Tiller, David Bell) and was followed closely by one along the Rio Hondo in Rosemead from July 22–23 (Andrew Lee).  The lower LA River produced another from August 5–7 (Andrew Lee) and one on August 10 (Richard Barth).

The Piute Ponds had an early Wilson’s Snipe on July 30 (Jon Feenstra).

Scarce in summer—especially in the interior—was a Glaucous-winged Gull continuing at Apollo Park near Lancaster through June 13.  More expected was a bird at Malibu Lagoon from June 17–26 (Irwin Woldman), with another at Lake Balboa in the San Fernando Valley from July 11–26 (Irwin Woldman).

A Laysan Albatross southwest of Santa Catalina Island on August 8 (Mark Girardeau) was outside of the expected window of occurrence for this species.  Also unusual at this time of year was a Flesh-footed Shearwater spotted just off the Palos Verdes Peninsula on June 29 (Philip Carnehl).

A Magnificent Frigatebird was seen from Pt. Dume on June 21 (Cynthia Shotte) and another was over Redondo Beach on August 2 (Jeff Ward).  These sightings were coincident with a few others found along the southern California coast this summer.

Brown Boobies were seen just off San Pedro on June 26, from Flat Rock Point on the Palos Verdes Peninsula on June 29 (Jun & Bin Wu) and over Redondo Canyon west of the Palos Verdes Peninsula on July 2 (many observers).

Always rare in the county was a Little Blue Heron at Malibu Lagoon on August 4 (Irwin Woldman, Ken Chotiner, and Wayne Hyland).  Also infrequently reported were Reddish Egrets that flew past Pt. Fermin on July 4 (Larry Schmahl) and at Malibu Lagoon on July 30 and—likely the same bird—at Topanga Lagoon on August 2 (Jeffrey Sondheimer).    

The Yellow-crowned Night-Heron in the Ballona area continued with a second bird discovered there on July 23 (Don Sterba).  At least one of these continued through August 10, being seen mostly at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh.

An American Bittern was at the Piute Ponds on July 5, with what was presumably the same bird still present on July 21 (John Birsner).

Quail Lake produced a California Condor on June 18 (Frank & Susan Gilliland, Dessi Sieburth).

A pair of Bald Eagles present near the San Gabriel Reservoir north of Azusa since March eventually successfully fledged a single young bird.

Early was a Northern Harrier at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh on July 26.  It was reported there through July 30 (Don Sterba).

An early fall migrant—or possibly a potential local breeder—was a Willow Flycatcher at Hansen Dam on July 18 (Kimball Garrett).

Vermilion Flycatchers included one at the Piute Ponds on June 14 and again from August 3–9 (John Birsner) and several continuing at Oakdale Memorial Park in Glendora.

A late spring vagrant Eastern Kingbird was on San Clemente Island on June 28 (Brian Flick), while a remarkable two presumed early fall migrants were at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh on July 24 (Dean Schaff). 

Single Purple Martins were at the Piute Ponds on July 31 (Joseph Lepisto) and along the LA River in Long Beach on August 7 (Jon Fisher).

At least one Bank Swallow was at the Piute Ponds from June 13–26 (Jon Feenstra), with multiple reports that may have involved more than one individual.

Small numbers of Cedar Waxwings typically stay late in spring and arrive early in fall, but eight lingering at the LA County Arboretum through June 11 were of note (Julia Ray, Javier Vazquez) and an exceptionally late bird was in Rubio Canyon above Altadena on June 26 (Darren Dowell).

A stunning record was that of a Common Redpoll found on San Clemente Island on June 27 (Justyn Stahl, Matt Brinkman).  This marks the second record for both the island and the county, with this one greatly surpassing the late May 4 date of the first in 2012.  There are now dozens of records for the state, but only a very few of these have been from the southern portion.  In addition, a late June record is without precedent.

Very unusual was a White-crowned Sparrow at Hahamongha Watershed Park in Pasadena on July 30 (Darren Dowell).  This species does not normally appear until mid-September, thus this bird almost certainly summered locally.

San Clemente Island produced a Summer Tanager on June 13 (Justyn Stahl, Michael Novak) and another was at the George F. Canyon Nature Preserve on the Palos Verdes Peninsula on July 27 (Philip Carnehl).

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were in Topanga Canyon on June 13 (William O’Leary) and on San Clemente Island on July 9 (Alex Bartolo).

A summering male Indigo Bunting continued at Malibu Creek State Park through July 28, while fall migrants turned up at Peck Road Water Conservation Park in Arcadia on July 31 (Judy Hwa) and at Hahamongna Watershed Park in Pasadena on August 4 (Darren Dowell).

Eight Red Crossbills at Table Mountain on June 17 included two begging for food (Lance Benner) and three were at Apollo Park near Lancaster on July 19 where it’s possible they are again breeding (Darren Dowell).

As we head into September, passerine migration will be a primary focus.  But shorebirds will still be passing through and early waterfowl will begin to arrive.  Vagrants from the southwestern U.S., eastern North America and Asia are all possible.  This is also a time to watch for signs of irruptive species such as Red-breasted Nuthatch and Varied Thrush.  As predictable as the movements, timing and numbers of many birds are, there is always an element of the unexpected.

As well-birded as Los Angeles County may be, there is plenty of room for exploration.  The Palos Verdes Peninsula is extensive and offers many possibilities, as do the San Gabriel Mountains and adjacent desert. 

There is certainly no bad season for birding in southern California, but no matter what flavor of birding you enjoy, autumn is a time that caters to every preference.  That it spans a full six months makes it all the better for birders.