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Birds of the Season – December 2016

By Jon Fisher

What is it that motivates birders to rise before dawn, drive many miles and brave all kinds of weather to look for feathered creatures?  The answer isn’t a short one.  Birds are aesthetically pleasing, their behavior is fascinating, the chance of finding a vagrant is tantalizing and they offer a very real connection to nature… there are many reasons.

Another is that while some things remain the same, every season offers something different.  With that in mind, it’s hard to deny the appeal of spring and fall migration.  Now as autumn comes to a close, we can look back at a very respectable list of birds.  The sheer volume of notes to be transcribed for this month’s column attested to this having been a productive period. 

A wide variety of vagrants in the low to mid-range were recorded, with a couple of high end rarities adding some excitement.  Irruptive species have essentially been absent this fall, although a few Lewis’s Woodpeckers and Varied Thrushes were noted as were an above average number of Mountain Bluebirds on the coastal slope. 

Although the unfortunate fact is that birds in general are declining, it seems we continue to detect more vagrants and add new county birds.  In most cases this is due to the increased number of observers and coverage in Los Angeles County, rather than an actual increase in the numbers of rare birds. 

It’s hard to imagine that not all that long ago a once weekly recorded RBA tape was the only link many birders had to finding out about rarities.  There’s been little to match the revolutionary effects that the internet and mobile devices have had on birding.  Today dozens of birders can converge on a newly discovered vagrant within hours or even minutes.  Other advances in technology meant that most rarities were also documented with photos… rare is the birder today who does not carry a camera.

A Tundra Swan was at the Piute Ponds on Edwards AFB from December 9-12 (Jon Feenstra) and three more presumed Tundra Swans—not seen well enough to conclusively eliminate other species—were at Quail Lake near Gorman on December 11 (David Bell).

Unusual inland were five Surf Scoters at Castaic Lagoon on October 22 (Yvonne Burch-Hartley).  Up to four female Black Scoters were off Dockweiler State Beach in El Segundo from November 18-December 9 (Richard Barth) and two White-winged Scoters were there on December 9, with three there on December 13 (all Richard Barth).

Rare inland was a Long-tailed Duck at the Piute Ponds on Edwards AFB from December 9-12 (Jon Feenstra), with two present there on December 10 (Mark & Janet Scheel).

Common Ground-Doves were in Long Beach on October 23 (Becky Turley) and at Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale on October 28, while White-winged Doves were in San Pedro from November 27-30 (David Ellsworth) and in Mission Hills on November 28 (Rachel MacNutt).

Very unusual in the county was a Sandhill Crane in the east Antelope Valley on November 19 (Jun Wu, Bin Cao).  Those that do occur are typically lone individuals that do not linger.

A Mountain Plover—expected in the Antelope Valley in fall and winter but rare coastally—turned up at Malibu Lagoon on October 23 (Jon Fisher).

Hansen Dam near Lake View Terrace hosted a Solitary Sandpiper on October 16 (Kimball Garrett).

A great find was a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper on the Los Angeles River in Long Beach from November 15-21 (Bob Schallman).  This species, which breeds in coastal Siberia and winters in the South Pacific, has occurred over two dozen times in the state, but very few of those have occurred in LA County.  In fact this was the first solidly documented record for the county in thirty-four years, although a probable Sharp-tailed was at Malibu Lagoon in September, 2015.

Adding to the above average number of reports of Sabine’s Gulls this fall was one at the Piute Ponds on Edwards AFB on October 31 (multiple observers).  The San Gabriel Coastal Basin Spreading Grounds in Pico Rivera has been very productive for gulls both common and rare the past few winters.  Kicking things off this season was a Lesser Black-backed Gull there from December 4-7 (Andrew Lee).

Scarce in LA County waters was a Wilson’s Storm-Petrel at Thirty Mile Bank on October 21 (Laura Keene).

American Bitterns were at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh on December 10 (Darren Dowell) and at the Piute Ponds on December 10 (Jim Moore).  An immature Yellow-crowned Night-Heron continued through November 1 at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh, one of several in that general area over the past year and a half.

Late was a Swainson’s Hawk at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas on November 6 (Rod Higbie).  Later still were two were at the West San Gabriel River Parkway Nature Trail in Lakewood on November 18 (Linda LeRoy) and one at the Sepulveda Basin in Van Nuys on November 15 (Mike Stensvold, Kate Rogowski).

Pockets of habitat remain on the coastal slope that can support transient or wintering Burrowing Owls.  Single birds were at the Rio Hondo Spreading Basins in Pico Rivera on October 16 (Larry Schmahl), at LAX on October 29 and apparently present for several weeks prior (Alex Viduetsky), at the Ballona Salt Pan on November 4 (Jonathan Coffin) and at Esperanza Middle School in Los Angeles from November 29-December 2 (Brad Rumble).

A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker at the Village Green Condominiums in Los Angeles from November 19-December 10 was the only one recorded thus far (Bruce Aird, Jeff Bray, Steve Sosensky).

Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale had a Prairie Falcon on October 22 (Luke Tiller) and again on November 26 (Alex Viduetsky).  A rare “Prairie” Merlin of the subspecies richardsoni was in the east Antelope Valley on November 20 (Luke Tiller).

Lingering and potentially wintering Pacific-slope Flycatchers were at William Andrews Clark Library in Los Angeles from November 22-30 (Rebecca Marshall), at the West SGR Parkway Nature Trail on December 3 (Andrew Lee) and at Creek Park in La Mirada on December 4 (Tom Miko).

Eastern Phoebes were recorded at Peck Road Water Conservation Park in Arcadia on October 26 (Ed Stonick), at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas from November 12-December 13 (Michael San Miguel) and at Madrona Marsh in Torrance from November 15-December 13 (Tracy Drake).

Returning as of December 1 for its ninth winter at Creek Park in La Mirada was a Dusky-capped Flycatcher (Jonathan Rowley).  It was reported through December 10.

Late Ash-throated Flycatchers were at Madrona Marsh in Torrance through December 13, at the Rancho Sierra Golf Club on October 30 (David Bell) and along the San Gabriel River in Pico Rivera on November 25 (Larry Schmahl).

Tropical Kingbirds were at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh from October 22-23 (Dean Schaff, Barbara Johnson), at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas on October 29 (Kathy Duret) and at the Earvin Magic Johnson Recreation Area in Willowbrook from November 6-December 5 (Richard Barth).

Horsethief Canyon Park in San Dimas hosted a Thick-billed Kingbird back for its third winter as of October 31 (Eric Smith Jr.).  It was reported through November 21, but has at times proved difficult to find.  Vagrants of this species in California have been noteworthy for their fidelity to wintering sites and for the number of years they’ve returned to those locations.

Late or potentially wintering Western Kingbirds were at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas through November 6 and at Hahamongna Watershed Park in Pasadena on November 6 (Candice Byers).

Rather scarce on the coastal slope were thirty-eight Horned Larks at Brackett Field in La Verne on December 11 (Michael San Miguel Jr.)

The county’s second ever Cave Swallow was found at Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale on November 30 and seen again on December 1 (Jon Feenstra), almost a year to the day after the first was recorded.  Just one record in 1987 and two from 1995 had been accepted for the state until recently.  There have been over a dozen found in the last decade, with nearly all of these being from the south end of the Salton Sea.  Bearing in mind that Cliff Swallows are quite rare after September, any Petrochelidon swallow from October to early January should be carefully scrutinized. 

Noteworthy was a Verdin found at White Point Nature Preserve in San Pedro on October 16, where it continued through November 25 (Jun Wu, Bin Cao).  There are a very few records of this desert species on the coastal slope.

Pacific Wrens were found near the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont on October 19 (Dan Guthrie) and in Big Santa Anita Canyon above Arcadia on November 23 (Darren Dowell).

Greater than average number of Mountain Bluebirds were found on the coastal slope, but thirteen at Brackett Field in La Verne on December 11 (Martha Estes, Michael San Miguel Jr.) and thirty-eight there the following day (Rod Higbie) were notable high counts.  Rather late was a Swainson’s Thrush found at Arcadia County Park on October 20 (Luke Tiller).

A Gray Catbird was at the Piute Ponds on October 25 (Joe Lepisto).  Another returned for a second winter to the WSGR Parkway Nature Trail in Lakewood as of November 2, with an apparent second bird found at the south end of the park that same day (Cuyler Staplemann, Joyce Brady, Sandy Remley).  While the second was not seen again, the returning bird remained around the north end of the park through December 12.

A likely continuing Red-throated Pipit was on San Clemente Island through October 14 (Justyn Stahl).

Single Lapland Longspurs were in the east Antelope Valley from October 22-23 (Andrew Lee) and again from November 11-13 (Tom Miko, Rick Fisher).  A Chestnut-collared Longspur was at Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale on October 22 (Luke Tiller), where they have been almost regular in the past few years.  Longspurs are certainly scarce in the county, but an aggressive census of suitable habitat would likely reveal they are more plentiful than records suggest.

Warblers were well represented.  A Northern Waterthrush at the Wilmington Drain in Harbor City on October 25 was the only one reported for the period (Philip Carnehl).

About ten Black-and-white Warblers recorded from mid-October through mid-December was an expected number.

Tennessee Warblers included one at Sand Dune Park in Manhattan Beach on October 20, with either the same individual or a new one there on October 27 (Jun Wu, Bin Cao) and one on San Clemente Island on October 27 (Joel Throckmorton).

A Lucy’s Warbler was at DeForest Park in Long Beach on November 5 (Jun Wu, Bin Cao) and several late Nashville Warblers were found on the coastal slope from November 2 and 25.

A Northern Parula was on San Clemente Island on October 20 (Justyn Stahl) and Magnolia Warblers were at the West SGR Parkway Nature Trail in Lakewood from October 22-November 7 (Becky Turley) and on San Clemente Island from October 23-November 2 (Nicole DesNoyers).

Also on San Clemente Island was a Blackburnian Warbler on October 25 (Justyn Stahl, Nicole DesNoyers).  Chestnut-sided Warblers were in San Gabriel on November 8 (Norm Vargas) and at the Village Green Condominiums in Los Angeles from November 13-26 (Don Sterba).

Descanso Gardens in La Canada hosted a Black-throated Blue Warbler from October 27-November 11 (Kathy Duret) and about a dozen Palm Warblers—one of our more regular “vagrant” warblers—were recorded over the period, all on the coastal slope.

Always a nice find in the county was a Yellow-throated Warbler at the Earvin Magic Johnson Recreation Area in Willowbrook from December 3-6 (Chris Dean).

A rare Prairie Warbler was at Madrona Marsh in Torrance from November 3-10 (Mark Rubke) and a Black-throated Green Warbler was in the east Antelope Valley near 117th Street East and Ave. I on October 30 (Mark & Janet Scheel, Luke Tiller, David Bell).

Ever productive San Clemente Island produced a very rare Canada Warbler on October 26 (Joel Throckmorton), the second recorded in the county this fall.

A Painted Redstart was found in Palos Verdes Estates from November 25-29, and was reportedly present since at least November 18 (Joe Usiewicz).

Green-tailed Towhees were at the West SGR Parkway Nature Trail in Lakewood from October 21-December 12 (Joyce Brady), at Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale on November 1 (Darren Dowell) and in Santa Monica on November 20 (Conley Day).

The only Black-throated Sparrow reported on the coastal slope was on San Clemente Island on October 22 (Nicole DesNoyers).

A Lark Bunting was at Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale from November 25-27 was a nice find (Jun Wu, Bin Cao).

Grasshopper Sparrows, rare as migrants and winter visitors, were at Vina Vieja Park in Pasadena from November 8-10 (Luke Tiller) and at Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale on November 28 (Brittany O’Connor, Becky & Steve Turley).

“Red” Fox Sparrows were at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh on November 12 (Bill Figueroa) and at Hahamongna Watershed Park in Pasadena on November 27 (Darren Dowell).

Swamp Sparrows turned up at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas from November 12-December 3 (Michael San Miguel), at Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale on November 26 (Tom Miko, Chris Dean) and along the Playa Vista Riparian Corridor on December 12 (Kevin Lapp).

Clay-colored Sparrows were at Vina Vieja Park in Pasadena from October 12-13 (Luke Tiller), continuing at Madrona Marsh in Torrance through November 21, at Oak Park Cemetery in Claremont from November 1-December 9 (Michael San Miguel Jr.) at Peck Road WCP in Arcadia on November 4 (Darren Dowell) and at the West SGR Parkway Nature Trail on December 3 (Andrew Lee).

Eleven White-throated Sparrows were recorded during the period while a rare Harris’s Sparrow was at a residence in Rolling Hills on the Palos Verdes Peninsula from November 15-17 (Jim Aichele, Kathy Nichols).

Expected on the deserts in spring but rare elsewhere in the county were dark-lored White-crowned Sparrows at Vina Vieja Park in Pasadena on October 31 (Luke Tiller) and at the Rancho Sierra Golf Club in the east Antelope Valley on November 20 (David Bell).

Identifiable subspecies- particularly rare ones- are always worth identifying.  Falling into both of those categories were Dark-eyed “Gray-headed” Juncos at Sunset Peak Saddle north of Claremont on October 29 (Catherine McFadden) and at Grassy Hollow Picnic Area near Wrightwood on November 6 (Vern Benhart, Mark & Janet Scheel).

Summer Tanagers were at the Bette Davis Picnic Area in Glendale on October 25 (Richard Barth), on San Clemente Island from October 25-26 (Justyn Stahl, Nicole DesNoyers), at Malaga Dunes on the PVP on October 27 (Philip Carnehl) and at American Gold Star Manor in Long Beach on November 22 (Richard Barth).

Late Cardinalids included a Rose-breasted Grosbeak in the Los Feliz area on December 8 (Andy Birch), Black-headed Grosbeaks in Pasadena on October 15 and at Hahamongna Watershed Park in Pasadena on October 26 (both Darren Dowell) and a Blue Grosbeak at the WSGR Parkway Nature Tail in Lakewood on November 13 (Tom Wurster).  Also late were Lazuli Buntings at Vina Vieja Park in Pasadena from October 12-18 (Luke Tiller) and in La Canada on October 22.  Of greater interest to county listers was a Dickcissel at the West SGR Parkway Nature Trail in Lakewood from October 23-24 (Mark & Janet Scheel).

A late Bobolink—probably a lingering bird—was at Peck Road Water Conservation Park in Arcadia through November 4 (Darren Dowell).

Several late and potentially wintering Hooded Orioles were found on the coastal slope.  Baltimore Orioles included one at Chavez Ravine in Elysian Park in Los Angeles on October 15 (Ron Cyger), one at Holmby Park on October 23 (Rebecca Marshall) and two at Creek Park in La Mirada on December 11 (Julie Szabo, Cathy Wisel).  Rounding this group out was an adult male Scott’s Oriole in Glendora on December 4 (Michael Peralez).

Autumn comes late to southern California.  We’re well into December and trees are still dropping their leaves.  Winter has hardly begun when the start of spring migration us upon us.  Early spring arrivals will start moving through in January, but occupying our time until then shouldn’t be difficult. 

Coastal spots offer a wide variety, from winter waterfowl, a mix of shore and land birds and the opportunity to spot pelagic species that wander close to shore.  Our many parks and recreation areas host plenty of common resident and wintering birds and always the chance for a rare one or two. 

The Antelope Valley and environs are worth a visit any time of year, although wintering specialties—Mountain Plovers, Ferruginous Hawks, Mountain Bluebirds and possible longspurs—are especially appealing.

Quail Lake and other interior deep water reservoirs such as Pyramid Lake and Castaic Lake and Lagoon are deserving of coverage.  Also, where accessible, the LA Aqueduct in the Antelope Valley hosts wintering waterfowl and is little birded. 

Though getting to them may sometimes be problematic, a shortage of places to bird is not an issue in LA County.  Even close to home, birders have proven that small local patches are deserving of attention.  Finding your own nearby spot or “patch” and covering it regularly has many rewards, in addition to saving gas and driving time.

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