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By Jon Fisher

Though the 2016-2017 rainy season broke a prolonged drought, the price paid for our wet winter were the ten extremely dry months that followed.  From February through Christmas we’ll have had no significant precipitation.  Even in a doubtful best case scenario- a wet January through March- there’s already a major amount of catching up to do. 

That wet winter also left behind a vast amount of very combustible fuel.  When early December brought strong Santa Ana winds, they were the perfect catalyst for triggering fires.  Though Los Angeles County has been spared the worst this season, the multiple fires vividly illustrate the situation we’re in.  Fourteen of the twenty largest California fires have occurred since the turn of the century. 

The drying of southern California will likely not only persist but probably worsen, altering habitat and increasing the frequency and severity of fires.  It’s cause for concern on many levels.  There will be changes not only the lifestyle we’re accustomed to, but there will be substantial impacts on plant and animal communities.  eBird will continue to be a valuable tool for recording changes in our avifauna.

Dire climate predictions aside, it was clear that there were a good many birds around of both the expected and rare variety.  Following a crackerjack early fall for good birds, good numbers of vagrants continued to appear through the end of October and into November and December, though at a slower pace than previously.  Increasing birder coverage is clearly playing a role in the number of vagrants found, but this was an above average period regardless. 

A handful of late and lingering regular migrants were also noted on the coastal slope.  With the more intense coverage of count circles generated by the first of the Christmas Bird Counts, there was another spike in reports of notable birds. 

Cackling Geese are scarce but regular, though twenty-five on San Clemente Island on October 19 was a notable count with twenty still there on October 26 (Nicole Desnoyers).

“Eurasian” Green-winged Teal were along the LA River in Glendale from November 11-December 2 (Ed Stonick) and continuing at the San Gabriel Coastal Basin Spreading Grounds through December 15.

Unusual inland was a Surf Scoter at the Piute Ponds on Edwards AFB on October 26 (Jon Feenstra).  Along the coast, up to three Black Scoters were off Dockweiler State Beach in El Segundo from November 1-December 7 (Richard Barth, Martin Meyers) and a White-winged Scoter was there from November 6-24 (Richard Barth).

A Red-necked Grebe continued at Ken Malloy Harbor Regional Park in Harbor City through October 23.  Others were found on the lower LA River in Long Beach on November 4 (Tracy Drake) and at Castaic Lagoon from November 19-December 18 (David Bell, Luke Tiller).

A solitary Ridgway’s Rail continued at Legacy Park in Malibu through October 29.

A Pacific Golden-Plover at Dockweiler State Beach in El Segundo from November 11-26 attracted many observers (Kevin Lapp).

Late were a Pectoral Sandpiper on November 12 (Richard Barth) and a Baird’s Sandpiper on the lower LA River on October 18 (David Bell).

Pelagic species close to shore are always a good draw.  Such was an Ancient Murrelet in San Pedro from November 18-December 3 (Tom Benson).

A presumably returning Lesser Black-backed Gull was at the San Gabriel Coastal Basin Spreading Grounds in Pico Rivera from October 31-December 4 (Mike Huang).  Likewise was a Glaucous Gull there from December 1-10 (Mike Huang).

A Red-throated Loon- the least expected species inland- was at Castaic Lagoon from November 25-December 2 (Marc Better).

An American Bittern on San Clemente Island from October 18-November 6 (Brian Flick) was just the second record there.  The island also produced a Little Blue Heron from November 24-26 (Nicole Desnoyers, Justyn Stahl) and a continuing Yellow-crowned Night-Heron remained through November 4. 

Other Yellow-crowned Night-Herons were at El Dorado Park in Long Beach on November 10 (John & Lindsey Fitch) and continuing at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh on December 5 (Tom Miko).

Quite rare in the county was a Zone-tailed Hawk observed over Rolling Hills Estates on October 20 (Randy Harward). 

Late Swainson’s Hawks included one at the San Gabriel Coastal Basin Spreading Grounds in Pico Rivera on November 4 (Larry Schmahl), one near Llano on November 8 (Ruth Gravance), four over Arcadia on November 12 (Javier Vasquez, Mark Hunter), one in the east Antelope Valley on November 19 (Mark Scheel) and one in Griffith Park in Los Angeles on December 14 (Dan Cooper).

Also quite rare for us were “Harlan’s” Red-tailed Hawks over the LA River in Wilmington on November 10 (Merryl Edelstein) and continuing in the east Antelope valley through November 11.

A Long-eared Owl was on SCI on October 30 (Brian Flick) and a Short-eared Owl was found there on November 10 (Cody Wooden).

Irruptive species were in short supply, though good numbers of Lewis’s Woodpeckers were present in the San Gabriels.  About two dozen were at Chilao Flat and a few others were scattered through the San Gabriel Mountains during the period.

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers included birds at Blaisdell Park in Claremont from October 29-30 (Dan Stoebel), at Sepulveda Basin near Van Nuys on November 24 (Mike Stensvold, at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles on November 29 (Kimball Garrett) and at Legg Lake in South El Monte from December 9-12 (Rick Fisher, Mark & Janet Scheel).  The most recent report was of one in Topanga on December 17 on the Malibu CBC (Dick Norton).

Northern “Yellow-shafted” Flickers were at Apollo Park in Lancaster on November 10 (Kathy Duret, Karen Waltermire), at Hahamongna Watershed Park in Pasadena on November 26 (Darren Dowell) and at Ernest E. Debs Park in Los Angeles on December 16 (Dan Cooper).

A Merlin of the scarce pale richardsonii subspecies was at Hollywood Forever Cemetery on December 17 (Brad Rumble).  Rare on the coastal slope was a Prairie Falcon at Brackett Field on November 26 (Rod Higbie).

The Greater Pewee first found on October 12 in Pacific Palisades was reported through October 29.

Late Empidonax included Pacific-slope Flycatchers at Hopkins Wilderness Park in Redondo Beach on November 27 (anon), at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas on December 9 (Michael San Miguel) and at the South Coast Botanic Gardens on December 10 (Ed Griffin).  Returning for another winter was a Hammond’s Flycatcher at Valley Plaza Park in North Hollywood as of December 9 (Richard Barth).  At least a half dozen Gray Flycatchers were also recorded during the period.

Eastern Phoebes were at Madrona Marsh in Torrance from November 10-December 16 (Tracy Drake) and at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas from November 26-December 4 (Rod Higbie, Ken Burgdorff).

Dusky-capped Flycatchers were at Ladera Park in Ladera Heights from December 1-18 (Richard Barth), returning to Creek Park in La Mirada for the tenth consecutive winter as of December 6 (Jonathan Rowley) and at Runnymede Park in Canoga Park on December 16 (Richard Norton).  A presumably wintering Ash-throated Flycatcher lingered through December 16 at Madrona Marsh in Torrance (Tracy Drake).

Tropical Kingbirds included one continuing at El Dorado Park in Long Beach through December 16, one at Legacy Park in Malibu on October 28 (Tom Benson), one at Harbor Regional Park in Harbor City through November 25 and one at Colorado Lagoon in Long Beach on November 20 (Merryl Edelstein, Kim Moore).

Rare in winter was a Western Kingbird at Madrona Marsh in Torrance on December 14 (Bernardo Alps).

Pacific Wrens included one in Big Tujunga Wash on October 22 (Bas van Schooten), first one then two in Big Santa Anita Canyon above Acadia from November 8-December 3 (Javier Vasquez, Naresh Satyan, Elwood Hain), one at the Piute Ponds on November 12 (Jon Feenstra) and one in Topanaga on November 17 (Kolle Kahle Riggs).  The most recent report was of one along the Winter Creek Trail above Arcadia on December 16 (Naresh Satyan).

Lapland Longspurs were on San Clemente Island from October 24-November 8 (Nicole Desnoyers) and at Hansen Dam in Lake View Terrace on November 24 (Kimball Garrett).  A Chestnut-collared Longspur was in the east Antelope Valley on November 19 (Mark Scheel).

Green-tailed Towhees were on San Clemente Island on October 31 (Brian Flick), at the Huntington Gardens in San Marino from November 13-December 16 (Will & Lois Fulmer), at the LA County Arboretum in Arcadia on December 5 (Mickey Long) and in Altadena from December 14-16 (Lance Benner).

Very rare for us, and especially unexpected in fall, was a Cassin’s Sparrow in Pacific Palisades on October 21-22 (Desi Sieburth).  Typically this species expands its range into California and elsewhere following wet winters, but this bird was an off course fall migrant.  Remarkably it was found at the same spot as the aforementioned Greater Pewee.

A Clay-colored Sparrow continued at Madrona Marsh in Torrance through December 5, while others were at Legacy Park in Malibu on October 28 (Tom Benson) and at Santa Fe Dam through November 24.

Continuing through December 1 at Agua Amarga Canyon in Palos Verdes Estates was a Lark Bunting.  Another was spotted on San Clemente Island on October 30 (Justyn Stahl).

Scarce in the county were “Red” Fox Sparrows at Hahamongna Watershed Park in Pasadena from November 19-December 16 (Darren Dowell) and at Rancho Sierra Golf Course in the east Antelope Valley on November 26 (David Bell, Luke Tiller).

“Large-billed” Savannah Sparrows were at Dockweiler State Beach in El Segundo on November 15 (John Sterling) and at Cabrillo Beach on December 12 (Chris Dean).

A late Grasshopper Sparrow was at Madrona Marsh in Torrance from November 13-20 (Tracy Drake).

Swamp Sparrows were along the San Gabriel River in Duarte on November 11 (Brian Daniels) and farther downstream in South El Monte on December 16 (Jon Feenstra).

About a dozen White-throated Sparrows were recorded during the period.

Dark-eyed “Gray-headed” Juncos were on San Clemente Island from October 22-24 (Nicole Desnoyers) and in San Gabriel Canyon by the West Fork junction on October 31 (Scott Marnoy).  Dark-eyed “Pink-sided” Juncos were at St. Andrews Priory near Valyermo from November 4-11 (Becky Kitto, Yvonne Burch-Hartley), at Rancho Sierra Golf Course in the east Antelope Valley from November 12- (Kimball Garrett).

A Bobolink remained at Peck Road WCP in Arcadia through October 18.

A late and injured Hooded Oriole was at Lincoln Park in Lincoln Heights on December 10 (David Bell, Luke Tiller).  Another was at the Huntington Gardens in San Marino on December 16 where one or two are regular in winter (Sarah Ngo, Jon Fisher) and one was at the Sepulveda Basin in Van Nuys on December 16 on the San Fernando CBC (Kris Ohlenkamp).

Rusty Blackbirds were at Almansor Park in Alhambra from December 10-18 (David Bell) and in the Starbucks parking lot near the mouth of Trancas Canyon in Malibu on December 17 (Kimball Garrett).  So how many other might there be wandering through parking lots, on lawns and golf courses?  It’s always an interesting question, but we can only know for certain what we actually observe.

About ten Black-and-white Warblers- best considered a rare migrant rather than a true vagrant- were present between mid-October and mid-December.

A Lucy’s Warbler was on San Clemente Island on October 24 (Justyn Stahl, Nicole Denoyers) for just the fifth island record.  Another was at the South Pasadena Nature Park on November 18 (Candice Byers) and a late Nashville Warbler was in Exposition Park in Los Angeles on December 1 (Kimball Garrett).

Extremely rare was a MacGillivray’s Warbler at a residence in Burbank on December 18 (Alexander deBarros).  Though common as a migrant, this species is- unlike many other warblers that occasionally winter locally- quite unexpected at this time of year.

American Redstarts were at Madrona Marsh in Torrance from November 2-3 and at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas from December 16-18 (Michael San Miguel). 

A Northern Parula was also at Bonelli Park in San Dimas from December 16-18 (Michael San Miguel) and another Northern Parula was at Peck Road Park in Arcadia on December 17 (Darren Dowell).

A Chestnut-sided Warbler was on San Clemente Island from October 30-November 2 (Justyn Stahl) and Black-throated Blue Warblers were in Sherman Oaks from November 1-30 (David Barton) and at El Dorado Park in Long Beach from November 2-7 (Jeff Boyd).

Four Palm Warblers included birds on San Clemente Island from October 19-November 6 (Nicole Desnoyers), at Biola University in La Mirada on October 31 (Jonathan Rowley), at Hollydale Park in South Gate on November 3 (Richard Barth) at Ken Malloy Harbor Regional Park in Harbor City from November 5-29 (Manuel Duran, Alejandra Cedillo) and at DeForest Park in Long Beach on December 16 (Kim Moore). 

Far less common was a Pine Warbler at Creek Park in La Mirada on October 31 (Jonathan Rowley).

A Painted Redstart was at the Village Green Condominiums in Los Angeles on October 23 (Richard Barth) and another continued at Culver City Park through December 2.

Five Summer Tanagers found during the period was an average number, this species being a regular late summer through winter visitor to the county.

An Evening Grosbeak at Chilao Flat in the San Gabriel Mountains from October 22-November 1 (Lou Orr) was the only one of its kind noted this fall.

Wrapping up the list of late fall birds were a Black-headed Grosbeak lingering in Sierra Madre from November 26-December 11 (Michelle Kwan) and a Blue Grosbeak still at Sand Dune Park in Manhattan Beach through November 25 (Jun, Bin).

As we head into the New Year, we can at least hope for a change in the weather.  In the meantime- dry or not- there are plenty of birding opportunities.  The Antelope Valley offers a variety of otherwise hard to find LA County species.  Quail Lake, Pyramid Lake and Castaic Lagoon often attract unusual loons, grebes and diving ducks.  River channels, spreading basins and coastal areas can offer numerous gulls for study.  Of course there are no doubt yet undetected vagrant songbirds in local parks, green patches and back yards. 

As this column appears, Christmas Bird Counts will have been completed.  With the start of a new bird year, the first spring migrants- Turkey Vultures and Rufous Hummingbirds- will be appearing in a couple of weeks.  In February, northbound swallows will begin passing through the region and waterfowl will have begun leaving their wintering grounds.  In southern California, there are only brief periods when birds are largely static and for birders that tends to be a very good thing.