By Jon Fisher


It may seem counterintuitive that Los Angeles County, the most populous in the United States, remains one of the best for birding.  Including a handful of introduced species, the county’s bird list now stands at 523 species.  As regular readers of this column will already know, that number inexorably ticks upwards.  Stretching optimism a bit, one of the benefits of overpopulation is that many avid birders reside in the county.  And they have been adding new species at a steady pace.   

A major reason for this is Los Angeles County’s varied topography, which also includes coastline, offshore waters and islands, creating a diversity of habitat and birds matched by few places in North America.  As examples, consider the thirty-nine species of shorebirds, fifteen woodpeckers, and forty-two wood-warblers that have been recorded.  Members of seventy different bird families have occurred here.

Spring invariably showcases this avifaunal variety, with winter birds lingering, summer visitors arriving, resident birds busy with breeding activities and migrants passing through on their way north.    

For practical purposes our rainy season ended with February.  March was dry, barely making a dent in the two and a half inches of precipitation normal for the month.  Still, winter was good to the county and the state as a whole. 

Spring was evident everywhere, but it was especially obvious on the deserts.  Brown and gray for so much of the year, the Antelope Valley was carpeted with greenery and wildflowers.  While it was aesthetically pleasing it was also great for rodents, lagomorphs, insects, arthropods and for everything that preys on them.

As usual, a number of wintering vagrants stayed well into April, allowing plenty of opportunity for birders wanting to see them.  Following the always early swallows, Neotropical migrants began appearing by mid-March, with numbers and variety slowly but steadily increasing. 

Noteworthy waterfowl included a Tundra Swan at Pierce College in Woodland Hills from February 19–March 22, a “Eurasian” Green-winged Teal continuing on the LA River in Glendale through February 20 and up to four White-winged Scoters and as many as three Black Scoters off Dockweiler State Beach in El Segundo between February 24-April 5 (Richard Barth).

Though some years are exceptions, Calliope Hummingbirds are generally quite scarce as migrants in immediate coastal areas.  Thus one at Malaga Dunes on the Palos Verdes Peninsula on April 5 was worth noting (Philip Carnehl).

Rare was a Sandhill Crane observed flying over the Antelope Valley on March 12 (Joseph Dunn).

Continuing to dominate as the best place in the county for rare gulls, the Rio Hondo spreading basins in Pico Rivera produced an apparent Iceland Gull on February 18 (Jon Dunn).  Based on plumage differences, a presumed second individual was present there from March 2–4 (Jon Feenstra).  These would constitute the first two records of this species in the county, but muddying the waters is the fact that Iceland and Thayer’s Gulls are increasingly viewed as geographic forms of a single species. 

At least two presumably continuing Lesser Black-backed Gulls were also present intermittently at the basins from February 18–20 and again on March 18.

As stationary as gulls appear when resting, they do move around… a lot.  The Yellow-footed Gull continued at the Rio Hondo basins through February 22, but it was also seen on the lower LA River near Commerce from March 9-12 (John Garrett).  The Slaty-backed Gull previously at the Rio Hondo spreading basins was found at Junipero Beach in Long Beach on February 19.  Because they are conspicuous, it’s often vagrants that reveal the degree of bird movements.

It should be noted that records of both the Iceland Gulls and the Slaty-backed Gull are still going through the CBRC review process and have thus not yet been accepted.

A Brown Booby in San Pedro from April 7–10 may have been the same rehabbed individual released there in mid-January (Scott & Linda Terrill).

The county’s second Neotropic Cormorant was at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas on April 2 but was not seen again (Michael San Miguel Jr.).  Bonelli also hosted the first which was present from February through April of last year.  Additional records are to be anticipated.

A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker at Bixby Marshland in Carson on March 4 was the only one reported during the period (Philip Carnehl).  Likewise Sycamore Canyon in Whittier produced the only Northern “Yellow-shafted” Flicker during the period on March 5 (Larry Schmahl).

Rare in the county was a “Black” Merlin spotted at Echo Park on February 23 (Dan Cooper).  At the other end of the color spectrum for this species was a pale “Prairie” Merlin at the Piute Ponds on March 23 (Devon DeRaad, James Maley, Whitney Tsai).

A Least Flycatcher found on March 17 behind the Whittier Narrows Dam in South El Monte continued there through April 10 (John Garrett).  This bird almost certainly spent the winter at this location, undetected until recently. 

Hammond’s Flycatchers included one continuing at Valley Plaza Park in North Hollywood through February 21 and one at the South Coast Botanic Garden in Rolling Hills Estates from March 12–26 that probably wintered locally.  Other Empidonax were a Gray Flycatcher a Valhalla Memorial Park in North Hollywood on February 21 (Rebecca Marschall) and a Pacific-slope Flycatcher continuing at the William Andrews Clark Library just west of downtown Los Angeles through February 27.

Wintering Eastern Phoebes continued at Madrona Marsh in Torrance through March 15 and at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas through March 12.

A handful of Vermilion Flycatchers were scattered over the coastal slope as records of this species there increase.

The wintering Dusky-capped Flycatcher at Creek Park in La Mirada was reported through March 22 while another was at John Anson Ford Park in Bell Gardens from March 10–15 (John Garrett).  Nearly as rare in winter were Ash-throated Flycatchers at Madrona Marsh in Torrance through February 26 and at the South Coast Botanic Garden in Rolling Hills Estates on February 26 (Alejandra Cedillo).

Following a three month absence of sightings, the Thick-billed Kingbird wintering at Horsethief Canyon Park in San Dimas was reported again from February 19–March 6.

Tropical Kingbirds continued at the Earvin Magic Johnson Recreation Area in Willowbrook through February 26 and at El Dorado Park in Long Beach through March 20.  A new bird discovered at Lake Balboa on March 30 almost certainly wintered locally (Mike Stensvold).

Very rare was a Black-tailed Gnatcatcher on Edwards AFB on March 23 (Jon Feenstra).  A small population exists in Kern County just southwest of Mojave and this species is common on the eastern deserts.  Though these are relatively close to us, there is but one previous county record; a bird west of Lancaster in 1938.

In addition to several continuing birds, Black-and-white Warblers were found at La Mirada Park on February 20 (Jonathan Rowley) and along the LA River adjacent to Elysian Park on April 7 (Kimball Garrett).  

A Nashville Warbler at American Gold Star Manor in Long Beach on March 15 probably wintered in the area (Philip Carnehl).

Palm Warblers were at the LA National Cemetery on February 26 (Richard Barth) and continuing at Entradero Park in Torrance through March 7.  The most recent report was of one at Hahamongna Watershed Park in Pasadena on April 9 (Darren Dowell). 

The Pine Warbler wintering at Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale continued through April 2 and the Yellow-throated Warbler at the Earvin Magic Johnson Recreation Area in Willowbrook continued through March 12.

A Painted Redstart in Rolling Hills Estates on the Palos Verdes Peninsula continued through February 21.

Wintering Green-tailed Towhees were at the South Coast Botanic Gardens in Rolling Hills Estates through March 18 and at the West SGR Parkway Nature Trail in Lakewood through March 4.

A Clay-colored Sparrow continued in Exposition Park in Los Angeles through March 9 and one was at Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale from March 26–April 8 (David Bell, Luke Tiller).

San Clemente Island produced a Black-throated Sparrow on March 24 (Alison Nevins).

Other sparrows of interest included a “Red” Fox Sparrow continuing at Hahamongna Watershed Park in Pasadena through March 27 and a Swamp Sparrow along the Playa Vista Riparian Corridor observed through February 28.

Quite rare in the county was a Harris’s Sparrow found along Thompson Creek trail in Claremont and present from February 22–April 8 (John & Linda Baker).

Linden H. Chandler Preserve in Rolling Hills Estates held a Dark-eyed “Pink-sided” Junco on February 14 (Philip Carnehl) and other new birds turned up at Loyola Marymount University on March 25 (Russell Stone) and at Grant Park in Pasadena on March 30 (Naresh Satyan).  Apollo Park near Lancaster hosted a continuing bird through March 7.

Summer Tanagers included birds in Pasadena from February 15–26 (John Garrett), in La Canada on February 18 (Kyle Adams) and at Wardlow Park in Long Beach on April 8 (Jeff Moore).

A Black-headed Grosbeak in Trancas Canyon on February 17 was certainly a wintering bird (Jo Ruggles).

Orioles included an Orchard Oriole continuing at the LA County Arboretum in Arcadia through February 27, and Baltimore Orioles at La Mirada Park in La Mirada on March 7 (Jonathan Rowley) and continuing at Elysian Park through April 5.  Coastal slope Scott’s Orioles were at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas from February 20–21 (K.D.) and near West Los Angeles on March 26 (Amanda Keating).

As we approach the end of April and there’s still much to come.  This is the peak time for migrant passerines.  In May, our later migrants such as Willow Flycatchers and Swainson’s Thrushes will be passing through in numbers.  Vagrants are possible throughout the migration period, but the odds for wayward birds typically increase in late May.

Rejuvenated by rain, the San Gabriel Mountains should be good in spring and early summer from their many foothill canyons to higher elevations.  These mountains are loaded with birding potential but tend to suffer disproportionately during droughts compared to other parts of the county.    

The deserts too should support above average numbers of breeding birds and any green or wet patches will attract migrants.  This is a good year to see if migrants will be less concentrated than they were during drought years, since food and water will be more widely available.    

I would be remiss not to mention the excellent and recently released Los Angeles County Breeding Bird Atlas.  This book contains so much useful information that a copy should be on the shelf of every birder who covers the county.  One might be misled by the title, but this volume goes far, far beyond a compendium of maps. 

Additionally, the atlas serves as a timely reminder that we should always be watching for breeding behavior and document it when submitting our field lists in eBird.  Birders are doubly fortunate to not only do what they most enjoy, but to be able to contribute to the scientific record.  As threats to birds inevitably continue to increase, documenting our observations is ever more important.