By Jon Fisher, Western Tanager Vol. 84 No. 1, Sept/Oct 2017


Although summer is to me the least pleasant season in southern California, the birds don’t leave much to complain about.  Granted, it’s a slower part of the year, but breeding activity continues, southbound shorebirds are present, early arriving fall songbirds begin to appear and there are always a few good rarities to be found. 

Late May to early June and September through October are considered prime for vagrant songbirds, but this year several surprises turned up in late June and July this year. 

Numbers of migrants are attracted to the San Gabriel Mountains in late July and August, as there they are afforded shelter, food and cooler temperatures.  But birds are also passing through the lowlands in increasing numbers. 

It’s counterintuitive, but the concrete channelization of the lower LA River has turned it into one of the best places in the county to watch shorebirds, with many other species also be found there.  No summer would be complete without at a few trips to the river to view significant numbers of common shorebirds and to get that annual “tick” of our scarcer migrants.  As good as the river is, the Piute Ponds on Edwards AFB is also excellent, and any coastal or wetland habitat also draws shorebirds.

Though most of the change we’ve seen in southern California has had adverse impacts on birds, some development has at least not been totally negative.  Manmade ponds and reservoirs offer feeding and resting places for birds, as do windbreaks, ranches, well-watered yards and parks.  These are especially beneficial to migrants for whom food, water and places to rest are essential.  They become even more important in late summer and fall when no significant rain has fallen for months.    

As usual, there was good avian diversity, and that variety extended to the rare birds recorded from mid-June to mid-August. 

Unusual in summer was a Long-tailed Duck on the LA River on Long Beach from July 23-August 14 (Jeff Boyd).  Though it was regularly reported, its diving proclivities made it less than an easy find for many birders.

Common Mergansers included a summering bird along the LA River in Glendale from June 22-July 27 (Brad Rumble) and one at Quail Lake on August 6 (Kimball Garrett).  A half dozen were at Castaic Lagoon on August 6, either early arrivals or possibly local breeders (John Kelly).

Scarce in summer- particularly inland- were Red-breasted Mergansers at Ken Malloy Harbor Regional Park in Harbor City from June 17-August 14 (Martin Byhower) and at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas from July 14-August 11 (Chuck Burt).

The only White-winged Dove reported thus far was at Malibu Lagoon on July 18 (Hans Spiecker).  The tiny colony of Inca Doves persisted in Los Angeles at Col. Leon H. Washington Park with reports continuing through July 29.  Common Ground-Doves included a continuing bird at Linden H. Chandler Preserve through July 29 and another at the Azusa Pacific University on July 28 (Seth G.).

Rare as a fall migrant was a Stilt Sandpiper found on the LA River in Long Beach on July 23 (Kimball Garrett).

The first Semipalmated Sandpipers were along the lower LA River in Long Beach on July 22 (Jon Fisher, Sarah Ngo), with two there the following day (Kimball Garrett).  Later, others were at the Piute Ponds on August 2 (Chris Dean, Dessi Sieburth) and along the LA River in Long Beach from August 6-7 (Jon Fisher) and in Cudahy on August 8 (Richard Barth).

Fairly common in adjacent counties but surprisingly scarce in the county, a Red Knot was near the Ballona Creek mouth on July 24 (Martin Meyers).

Unusual away from coastal waters was a Pomarine Jaeger that overflew the Piute Ponds on June 26 (Jon Feenstra).  Strong fliers, jaegers can turn up almost anywhere on the continent.

A nice find was an adult Sabine’s Gull on the LA River in Cudahy that was present from August 10-15 (Richard Barth).

Unexpected inland were three Least Terns at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas on June 12 (Eric Smith Jr.).

Increasingly recorded in LA County waters but still rare was a Brown Booby off Pt. Fermin on June 27 (Bob Schallmann).

Unusual in summer was an American Bittern at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh on July 30 (Dick Norton).

At least one Reddish Egret was observed at Malibu Lagoon off and on from June 20-July 21 (Lu Plauzoles).

Yellow-crowned Night-Herons were frequently reported in the Ballona area this summer, most often at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh.  At least two immatures and one adult were present off and on from early July through August 13. 

The Sepulveda Basin had a Vermilion Flycatcher on June 15 (Mike Stensvold) and others were along the LA River in Long Beach on June 23 (Andrew Lee) and at Castiac Lagoon from July 1-August 9 (Barbara Johnson).  Several more continued at Oakdale Memorial Park in Glendora through June 24.

A singing Red-eyed Vireo at the Village Green Condominiums in Los Angeles on July 7 must have been a late spring vagrant (Devin Peipert).  Unfortunately it could not be refound.

Expected in very small numbers as a spring and fall migrant, a late or wandering Purple Martin turned up along the LA River in the Sepulveda Basin on June 22 (Daniel Tinoco).  This species formerly bred commonly in the San Gabriel Mountains and even into the lowlands.  It has since been extirpated, mainly by the spread of European Starlings which have aggressively usurped the cavities the martins require as nest sites.

A California Gnatcatcher- presumably a wanderer from nearby breeding areas- was at Madrona Marsh in Torrance on August 9 (Bernardo Alps) and a Black-tailed Gnatcatcher was on Edwards AFB on August 12 (Jon Feenstra).  The latter species is regular not far outside the county, but rarely recorded within its borders.

Cedar Waxwings typically linger late in spring and appear early in fall, but a single bird at Hahamongna Watershed Park in Pasadena on July 23 was outside the expected range of dates (Darren Dowell).

An Ovenbird at Madrona Marsh in Torrance from July 28-30 was present at an odd date and may have summered or at least attempted to (David Moody).  Its skulky behavior made detection a challenge, even once it was known to be present.

Another out of season vagrant was a Tennessee Warbler at the LA County Natural History Museum Nature Gardens from July 26-27 (Kimball Garrett).

Very rare was an unexpectedly late spring Cape May Warbler found at Wilson Cove on San Clemente Island on June 21 (Nicole DesNoyers, Justyn Stahl).  This prized eastern warbler is detected less than annually in the county.

Far less rare, Summer Tanagers were at Apollo Park on June 14 and at Eaton Canyon in Pasadena on August 7 (both Chris Dean).

There’s been little of the way of seedeaters to report thus far, but a few Indigo Buntings were recorded.  Birds were on the San Gabriel River in South El Monte on August 6 (Larry Schmahl), at Peck Road Water Conservation Park in Arcadia on August 9 (Javier Vasquez, Grace Wong) and at the Sepulveda Basin in Van Nuys on August 11 (Daniel Tinoco).

Yellow-headed Blackbirds, typically occurring as spring and fall migrants on the coastal slope, were at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh on June 30 (Lisa Fimiani) and on the lower LA River in Long Beach on July 4 (Becky Turkey) and August 1 (Richard Barth).

As we head into September, shorebird migration will continue and passerines will only increase in numbers.  Though lesser in magnitude than spring migration, fall is nevertheless still very productive and loaded with potential. 

Weedy areas in flood basins and river channels should be checked for sparrows, buntings and other seed-eating birds.  Any wetland can turn up shorebirds and the mountains are worth birding through the fall.  High desert spots can be great in fall as they are in spring.  In short, almost any locale generally produces at least a few migrants.

In addition to all our regular species, September and October has the potential for vagrants from Siberia, eastern North America and Mexico.  Among birders there is always a degree of anticipation for what rarities may turn up.

The latter half of September will see the arrival of the first of hordes of Yellow-rumped Warblers and White-crowned Sparrows as well as other wintering birds.  To me their appearance signals the true beginning of autumn, a new set of birds and cooler temperatures. 

As we experience migration, it’s worth considering the obvious fact that most of these birds spend at least half the year to the south of us.  As long as they keep returning in spring we may not give their wintering grounds that much thought.  Yet their return each spring- at least in the long term- is in jeopardy.  Songbirds and others face many threats and habitat loss remains the greatest challenge.  It’s with no small degree of concern that we contemplate the state of our avifauna in fifty or a hundred years.

Nevertheless, there are still a lot of birds out there and we’re entering the peak of autumn migration.  The most common problem, aside from fighting LA traffic, is finding enough time to get to all the places we want to.