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A Stilt Sandpiper was one of the lost migrants that showed up in Los Angeles County this year

YOUNG BIRDERS: Lost Migrants in Los Angeles County—Highlights of My 2016 Birding Year

By Dessi Sieburth

Many birds migrate hundreds or even thousands of miles. They migrate from areas with low food supply and harsh weather to areas where food and nesting sites are available. Scientists believe birds use the sun, the stars, and the earth’s magnetic field to navigate, but exactly how birds find their way remains a mystery. Occasionally, migrating birds can lose their way and can be found outside their normal range. These “rarities” delight many birders, as it gives them the opportunity to observe birds they typically do not see in their region. A variety of interesting and unusual birds who lose their way or wander from their usual areas show up in Los Angeles County every year. This year, the best hotspots for those rarities were the San Gabriel and Los Angeles Rivers, Piute Ponds in Lancaster, DeForest Park in Long Beach, and Madrona Marsh in Torrance.

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Field notes of the Glaucous Gull

This year, the San Gabriel Spreading Grounds in Pico Rivera was a particularly interesting place, where many unexpected birds, especially gulls, showed up. In January, a third-year Glaucous Gull was spotted at the spreading grounds. When I saw it, it was mixed in with hundreds of other gulls. Although it was sleeping, it could be identified by its overall paleness, especially on the mantle and the primaries. Glaucous Gulls are usually found in winter in the Northwestern United States, and in summer, they are found in the high arctic. An even more rare gull was found at the Spreading Grounds in March, an adult Yellow-footed Gull. It was the first Yellow-footed Gull seen in Los Angeles County. Even though it was surrounded by thousands of other gulls, I found the large size and yellow feet distinctive compared to the other gulls. The Yellow-footed Gull is usually found at the Salton Sea and at the Gulf of California. One reason that Yellow-footed Gulls are so rare in Los Angeles County may be that they only migrate a short distance between the Salton Sea and the Gulf of California, and therefore, they are less likely to get lost during migration.

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Glossy Ibis at the Los Angeles River at the Sepulveda Basin on May 28th, 2016

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Field notes of the Glossy Ibis

In May, a beautiful Glossy Ibis in full breeding plumage was spotted along the Los Angeles River at the Sepulveda Basin. When I saw it, it was feeding on small mussels in the river. At a first glance, it looked like a White-faced Ibis, but then I noticed the pale blue lines between the eye and the bill, which are field marks of the Glossy Ibis. This bird is normally found along the Gulf Coast, and there are only two records for Los Angeles County.


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Field notes of Black-throated Blue Warbler

This fall, many rare eastern warblers were found in Los Angeles County, including Prairie Warbler at Madrona Marsh in Torrance, Blackpoll Warbler at Deforest Park in Long Beach, Tennessee Warbler at the Hahamongna Watershed Park in La Canada Flintridge, Chestnut -sided Warbler at Tierra Bonita Park in Lancaster, and Magnolia Warbler at Monte Verde Park in Lakewood. My favorite warbler was a female Black-throated Blue Warbler that was reported in October at Descanso Gardens in La Canada Flintridge. It stayed at Descanso Gardens for a week, where it delighted many birders. When I located the bird it was foraging on the ground looking for insects. I was able to get a very good look at this bird, as it was not shy at all and stayed about seven feet from me. I identified it by its white wing patch and white supercilium. The Black-throated Blue Warbler can be usually found in the eastern United States in the summer, and it migrates down to the Caribbean in winter. In November, a Painted Redstart was reported at a private residence in Palos Verdes. When I was looking for this bird, it was calling, which made it easy to locate. Since it was vocalizing, I was able to get a recording. It was also easily identifiable by its red belly and its large white wing patch. The warbler was foraging for insects in a tree and on the porch of a building. The Painted Redstart breeds in Arizona and winters in western Mexico. Interestingly, many of the rare warblers are juvenile birds and are found in the fall. These birds are more likely to get lost, as this is their first migration.

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Field notes of Painted Redstart

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Sonogram of Painted Redstart call, to listen go to http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S32755333

During August, a breeding plumage adult Stilt Sandpiper was reported at Piute Ponds in Lancaster. When I saw it, it was preening in the water and hiding among 150 dowitchers. I identified it by its dark barring on the belly and decurved bill. This species breeds in the Arctic and migrates down to Mexico for the winter, passing through the Midwest. In November a juvenile Sharp-tailed Sandpiper was reported along the Los Angeles River at Willow Street in Long Beach. It was only the second Sharp-tailed Sandpiper in the county in over 30 years. When I saw this bird it was sleeping in some vegetation and I had to be patient to get a good look at this bird. Eventually it flew off near a large group of dowitchers, and I was able to see its field marks. I identified it by its buffy, streaky breast. This bird breeds in the Russian Far East and winters in Australia and New Zealand.
Interestingly, many of the rare birds found in the fall are juveniles. Juvenile birds are more likely to get lost, as this is their first migration. However, some adult birds get lost as well. Birds might get confused because of poor weather conditions. Storms and fog might obscure the moon and stars, which birds use to navigate. Birds might also use habitat as a clue to find their way. Much habitat is altered or destroyed, which may contribute to birds getting lost. Our knowledge of bird migration is still very limited, and much research on why birds get lost on their migration journey is needed.
It is always exciting to see and study rare birds. Birders can be part of citizen science and submit their sightings to eBird, an online data base used by scientists to study birds. Thousands of birders across the continent enter their sightings every year. These data help to monitor birds and changes in bird populations. Ebird also helps conservationists, who can use the data to identify which species need help and determine whether their efforts are successful. I submit my sightings to eBird, but I also keep my field note book, where I record more detailed information about the birds. Recording bird sounds is also important because scientist can use the recordings to study birds. Birders can upload recordings on eBird as well. The more we learn about birds, the better we can protect them.

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Field notes about the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper

Drawings, photo and field notes by Dessi Sieburth,