Birds of the Season- February 2017

By Jon Fisher

For those of us who may have forgotten, this is what a typical southern California winter looks like.  While last winter’s El Niño was mostly a bust, 2016-2017 is at last bringing us above normal precipitation.  It’s been a long time coming… six years since we’ve had anything close to average rainfall. 

Where birders and their pursuits are concerned, it’s about more than filling reservoirs and piling up the Sierra Nevada snowpack to see to California’s water needs through the summer and beyond.  Lakes, ponds and streams will be fuller, seasonal wetlands will persist later and habitat from the desert to the coast will benefit.  Increased essential resources- food, shelter and water- will attract more birds and increase reproductive success.

In addition to the welcome rain, this winter produced the usual trove of interesting birds.  Although many previously discovered vagrants continued, new birds kept turning up, especially from mid-December through early January when local Christmas Bird Counts were held.  The saturation of count circles and coverage of spots that are often overlooked almost always generates a handful previously undiscovered rarities. 

Irruptive species continued to be conspicuous by their absence this winter.  As far as true red letter birds, gulls stole the limelight with some remarkable sightings.  With the continuing trend of more birders taking to the field and changing lifestyles putting more birders in the field throughout the week, the inevitable result is an increased number of records.

A “Eurasian” Green-winged Teal was back for another winter along the San Gabriel River in Pico Rivera as of December 26 and was reported through February 11 (John Garrett).

Diving ducks included a lone White-winged Scoter at the expected spot off Dockweiler State Beach in El Segundo on December 27, with up to five present there between January 4 and 26.  A Black Scoter was at this location on January 26 (Richard Barth) and at least one of each species continued through February 2.

Scarce along the coast was a Common Merganser at Malibu Lagoon on December 26 (Luke Tiller) with two there from January 24-29 (John Garrett).

The only White-winged Dove was at Wheeler Park in Claremont on January 23 (Tom Miko).

Castaic Lagoon hosted a Red-necked Grebe from December 31-January 21 (Kimball Garrett).

Scarce in the county was a Red Knot at the Ballona Creek Mouth from January 1-29 (Marc Better).

The San Gabriel Coastal Basin Spreading Grounds in Pico Rivera- and the adjacent Rio Hondo basins- have rapidly become the hottest spot in the county for gull-watching. To put it charitably, most gulls have a very low bar for what qualifies as food.  The nearby Puente Hills Landfill is thus a magnet for them, with the basins offering a convenient place for them to rest and sleep.  The only problem here is the often wildly fluctuating water levels and numbers of birds.

More than proving their value this winter, these basins hosted an extremely rare Yellow-footed Gull off and on from December 26 through February 11 (John Garrett).  This may well be the same bird that was found here in March of 2016.

Though not quite as rare in the county, a Lesser Black-backed Gull at the spreading basins on December 26 was an excellent find.  The following day produced an astounding five there, with at least two continuing through February 11 (John Garrett).  These records virtually doubled the total previous number for the county. 

The gull extravaganza didn’t end there.  The least expected- and a first for the county if affirmed by the CBRC- was a Slaty-backed Gull at the basins on January 31 and still present as of February 11 (John Garrett).  This species wasn’t added to the state list until 2005, with records having increased substantially since that time and about five dozen now accepted.

While it’s tempting to avoid learning the sometimes overwhelming complexities of gull identification, it seems inevitable that birders will encounter more such rarities in the county.  Being familiar with their field marks- and documenting any likely vagrants with photographs- is a prudent course of action.

Owls of interest included a Short-eared Owl at the Piute Ponds on Edwards AFB on December 19 (Joe Lepisto), one in the west Antelope Valley on February 11 and a Long-eared Owl in the Sepulveda Basin on December 17 (Alexander DeBarros).

A California Condor was east of Quail Lake on January 9 (Kerry Ross).

A Swainson’s Hawk over Almansor Park in Alhambra on January 6 was either wintering or a very early migrant (John Garrett).

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers included a continuing bird at the Village Green Condominiums in Los Angeles through December 20 and new birds at the Bixby Marshland in Carson on January 7 (Philip Carnehl) and at the LA County Museum of Natural History from January 24-25 (Kimball Garrett).

Northern “Yellow-shafted” Flickers included one at Lower Arroyo Park in Pasadena on January 26 (Mickey Long) and one at Inglewood Park Cemetery on February 10 (Richard Barth).

Scarce on the coastal slope was a Prairie Falcon at Santa Fe Dam on December 17 (Andrew Lee) and one at Bonelli Park in San Dimas from January 8-14 (Michael San Miguel).

Five Hammond’s Flycatchers was a good number for winter.  Birds were noted at Valley Plaza Park in North Hollywood from December 14-February 11 (Richard Barth), at the Huntington Gardens in San Marino on December 17 (Sarah Ngo, Jon Fisher), on the Palos Verdes Peninsula from January 1-19 (David Barton), at the SCBG through February 12 and at Occidental College from January 24-25 (James Maley, Whitney Tsai, Devon DeRaad).

Pacific-slope Flycatchers- also rare in winter- were at the West SGR Parkway Nature Trail through February 12, at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library in Los Angeles through February 10 and at Hansen Dam near Lake View Terrace on December 20 (Rebecca Marschall). 

Wintering Eastern Phoebes continued at Madrona Marsh in Torrance through February 11 and at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas through February 12.

Vermilion Flycatchers are being increasingly encountered away from the deserts, and about ten were present during the period from the Santa Clarita area to the coastal slope. 

The Dusky-capped Flycatcher wintering at Creek Park in La Mirada was reported through February 11 and Ash-throated Flycatchers included a continuing bird at Madrona Marsh through February 4 and one at the Sepulveda Basin in Van Nuys on December 22 (Daniel Tinoco).

The Tropical Kingbird at the Earvin Magic Johnson Recreation Area in Willowbrook continued through February 11.  A wintering Western Kingbird at Madrona Marsh in Torrance from January 27-February 12 was the only one reported (Manuel Duran, Alejandra Cedillo).

The Verdin- a species extraordinarily rare away from the deserts- at White Point Nature Preserve on the Palos Verdes Peninsula remained through January 19.

The only Pacific Wren reported was in Monrovia Canyon from December 17-January 2 (Ron Cyger).

Back for its second winter, the Gray Catbird continued at the West SGR Parkway Nature Trail through December 17 and may well still be present.

Lapland Longspurs were on San Clemente Island on December 23 and again on January 18.  Remarkable were no fewer than seven there on February 6 (Justyn Stahl, Nicole DesNoyers). 

Rare but regular in winter, over a half dozen Black-and-white Warblers were reported over the period.

Nashville Warblers included one continuing at the West SGR Parkway Nature Trail through December 12, one at DeForest Park through December 17 and one in Long Beach on December 20 (Richard Barth).

Hansen Dam near Lake View Terrace hosted a rare Blackburnian Warbler from December 17-19 (Kimball Garrett).  A Yellow-throated Warbler continued at the Earvin Magic Johnson Recreation Area in Willowbrook through February 11.

Back for a second winter was a Pine Warbler at Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale from December 17-29 (Andrew Lee).  Much less rare were the half dozen Palm Warblers reported during the period.

Two Painted Redstarts were found.  One returned for its second winter in Mar Vista as of December 21 (fide Richard Hedley) and was reported through February 11.  Another was on the Palos Verdes Peninsula from December 26-February 11.

The wintering Green-tailed Towhee at the West SGR Parkway Nature Trail in Lakewood continued through February 10.  Another was at the South Coast Botanic Garden in Rolling Hills Estates from February 9-12 (Manuel Duran, Alejandra Cedillo). 

A Clay-colored Sparrow continued at the West SGR Parkway Nature Trail through January 21.  Another was at Exposition Park in Los Angeles on February 8 (Kimball Garrett).

Rare were “Red” Fox Sparrows at Hahamongna Watershed Park in Pasadena on December 17 (Darren Dowell) at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas from mid-December through January 8 (Michael San Miguel) and continuing in Porter Ranch through February 4.

Swamp Sparrows included a continuing bird along the Playa Vista Riparian Corridor through February 12 and a new one discovered at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh on February 14 (Don Sterba).

Over a dozen White-throated Sparrows were present during the period, while much rarer locally was a dark-lored White-crowned Sparrow was in Pasadena on February 10 (John Garrett).

Rare junco subspecies included Dark-eyed “Pink-sided” Juncos at Elysian Park on January 3 (Brad Rumble), at Apollo Park in Lancaster from January 17-February 5 (Jon Fisher), at Rancho Sierra Golf Club on January 17 (Luke Tiller) and at Gloria Heer Park in Rowland Heights on February 2 (Richard Barth).  A Dark-eyed “Gray-headed” Junco was at Charlton Flat in the San Gabriel Mountains on February 3 (Bernardo Alps).

The Summer Tanager at the Bette Davis Picnic Area in Glendale continued through February 12 and was the only one reported during the period.

Rare winter Black-headed Grosbeaks were at Cheviot Hills Park on January 2 (John Garrett), at the Playa Vista Riparian Corridor on January 3 (Manuel Duran, Alejandra Cedillo) and in Topanga on January 22 (Scott Logan).  A Rose-breasted Grosbeak was at the Palos Verdes Golf Course on December 26 (Jim Pike).

An Orchard Oriole, present since early November but its identity not confirmed until later, was at the LA County Arboretum in Arcadia through February 11 (Tom Wurster).

Nine Hooded Orioles present during the period was a good number.  Rarer was a wintering Baltimore Oriole in the Holmby Hills area of Los Angeles on January 2 (Kimball Garrett).

Worthy of mention was a Eurasian Tree Sparrow in Wilmington from February 8-15.  While some unusual birds raise the question of provenance, this one surely did not.  This bird clearly did not get here on its own, with a ship-assisted crossing being the most likely scenario.  With arrivals at Los Angeles ports from all over the world, there is a long list of species that could potentially turn up here, either as hitch-hikers or escapees. 

While many vagrants are assumed to be naturally occurring, a number of them do not fit easily into that category.  The Painted Bunting is a good example, with escaped birds occurring along with natural vagrants.  Great care is take by county reviewers and the CBRC to eliminate records of birds that definitely or likely arrived with human assistance.      

With so many “continuing” birds remaining through the winter, spring migration will offer a refreshing change.  The first arrival of even our more common species gives birders satisfaction.  It’s the rebirth of the seasonal cycle.

Though every season in southern California offers great birding, this is one of the most enjoyable.  Not only is breeding activity in full swing, but songbirds and others in breeding colors are especially attractive.  Northbound migrants are everywhere and the avian landscape is continually changing. 

Viewing from coastal areas typically produces numbers of loons, scoters and others heading north.  Any wetland area can hold shorebirds, gulls and waterfowl.  Patches of flowering plants will attract hummingbirds.  The coastal slope, foothills and deserts can all be great for migrating songbirds. 

Well before migration in the lowlands winds down, the San Gabriel Mountains ought to be worth visiting this spring and summer and activity there should be robust in comparison the recent drought years.  Finding time to visit all the places we want to bird is often the biggest challenge.