Birds of the Season

In southern California, June and July tend to be viewed as slow months for birding. But that fact shouldn’t be linked to the idea that there are no good birds around; quite the contrary. Naturally there weren’t the same numbers of vagrants that we’re accustomed to in September and October, but quality was certainly not lacking.

Slow is also a relative term. In the mountains, birds are still busy wrapping up their breeding activities and migrants are already passing through. July marks the start of prime time for southbound shore-birds. Migrant songbirds–their breeding duties completed–are much in evidence in the lowlands by the second half of August.

Though this summer we’ve been spared, it’s not hyperbole to state that the San Gabriel Mountains have been ravaged by fires over the last decade. While the 2009 Station Fire was the largest and most infamous blaze (obliterating 250 square miles of habitat), a number of smaller events have marked the mountains like a checkerboard. Many thousands of acres of habitat will be recovering for years if not decades.

Our changing climate means that fires are becoming more frequent and more intense and fire season lasts longer. Long time California residents are acutely aware of the changes. Birds naturally are affected by this. Some resident species are able to shift breeding earlier or move to higher elevations to breed, others are better able to adapt to changing climate and habitats, though there are limits. For migrants though, coming from hundreds or thousands of miles to the south, the challenges of adjusting their timing may be difficult to negotiate.

Despite these changes however, the bird year proceeds in much as it always has. Here’s a look at what was found from late June through August.

Very rare in the county–and the first discovered since a 2006–was a Fulvous Whistling-Duck at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh near Playa Vista on July 11 (Don Sterba, Nesya Frechette). It remained there through July 19 and was seen by many satisfied birders.

Presumably continuing was a summering Common Merganser in and near the LA River in Glendale through August 19.

White-winged Doves were at Madrona Marsh in Torrance on August 22 (Richard Crossley) and along the lower LA River in Long Beach on August 23 (Richard Barth, Jeff Boyd). Just one Inca Dove at Col. Leon H. Washington Park in Los Angeles on July 6 was per-haps all that remains of the small colony known to have existed there for several years.

Very scarce on the coastal slope in summer, but even less expected in the interior, was a Chimney Swift south of Palmdale on July 4 (Kimball Garrett).

A Pacific Golden-Plover was on ever productive San Clemente Island on August 19 (Justyn Stahl).

At the Piute Ponds, an early Whimbrel was found on June 26 (John Birsner) and an early Pectoral Sandpiper was in the Sepulveda Basin from July 12–17, while two Baird’s Sandpipers on the LA River in Cudahy on August 20 were the first of the fall (Richard Barth).

Semipalmated Sandpipers were at the Piute Ponds on July 9 (Ryan Terrill) and on July 25 (Chris Dean, John Birsner) and on the LA River in Long Beach from July 11–14 (Richard Barth). Two were along the Rio Hondo in Rosemead on August 4, with at least one continuing the following day (Darren Dowell), one was on the LA River in Cudahy on August 5 (Richard Barth) and again on August 18 (Mark & Janet Scheel).

The first of a small number of Solitary Sandpipers was along the LA River in Glendale on July 10 (Andrew Birch).

Alcids close to shore included a Guadalupe Murrelet at Shoreline Aquatic Park in Long Beach on July 4 (Frank Gilliland) and a Craveri’s Murrelet at Leo Carrillo State Beach on August 7 (Chris Dean).

A rare inland Least Tern was at the Piute Ponds on Edwards AFB on June 30 (Jim Moore, Judy Matsuoka) and a Black Tern was at Lake Balboa in the San Fernando Valley on August 12 (Mike Stensvold).

Quite unusual were away from the immediate coast, Black Skimmers at Lake Balboa in the San Fernando Valley on June 25 (Mike Stensvold) and at Peck Road Water Conservation Park in Arcadia from June 24–27 (Judy Hwa).

Magnificent Frigatebirds were observed from Pt. Dume on July 10 (Cynthia Schotte) and at Malibu Lagoon on August 10 (Grace Murayama, Larry Loeher).

Nazca Booby sightings included one south of Long Beach on July 19 (Karen Suarez) and one at Leo Carrillo State Beach on August 7 (Chris Dean). Masked/Nazca Boobies were at Angel’s Gate at the entrance of the Los Angeles Harbor on August 19 (Tom Benson), off Pt. Fermin on August 22 (Naresh Satyan) and at Cabrillo Beach on August 23 (Andrew Howe). Given the dates and locations, some of these sightings probably involved the same individual.

It wasn’t long ago that any booby occurring in LA County waters was a pretty rare event. Brown Booby records have increased and Blue-footed Boobies staged a major invasion in 2013. For Masked/Nazca Boobies, good breeding success this over the last couple of years–resulting in a larger number of birds with the potential to wander– and food shortages coupled with unusual oceanographic conditions which instigate movements seem to be behind the in-creased numbers being found in California waters recently.

The Neotropic Cormorant appearing sporadically at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas was seen again on August 1. Interesting was a new bird found along the LA River in Atwater Village from August 10–12 (Kimball Garrett). Double-crested Cormorants were once the only species expected away from the immediate coast, but that is no longer the case.

Unusual away from the coast were up to four Brown Pelicans at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas from August 11–19 (Michael San Miguel, Ira Blitz).

Tough to find in the county was a Reddish Egret seen briefly at the Ballona Creek mouth on July 28 (Mark Scheel, Ron Cyger).

Two Yellow-crowned Night-Herons continued in the Ballona area, last reported at the Ballona Fresh-water Marsh on August 19.

A half dozen California Condors were observed along the old Ridge Route Road west of Castaic Lake on July 16 (Luke Tiller).

Vermilion Flycatchers included three continuing at the Castaic Sports Complex through June 28, up to eight at Oakdale Memorial Park in Glendora through July 23, one at the Wildlife Reserve in the Sepulveda Basin on July 17 (Mike Stensvold). Castaic Lake through August 5 and one along the LA River on August 19 (Dick Norton).

An early fall vagrant and nice find was a Yellow-throated Vireo at Ken Malloy Harbor Regional Park in Harbor City on August 13 (Philip Carnehl).

Black-throated Sparrows, rare but regular in fall on the coastal slope, were at Hansen Dam on July 26 (Kimball Garrett), at Eaton Canyon in Pasadena on August 17 (Tom Wurster) and in Big Tujunga Wash on August 22 (Brad Rumble).

A Yellow-headed Blackbird was at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh on July 14 (Merryl Edelstein). August 12 was an unusual date for an Orchard Oriole that was spotted in Westchester (Kristen Covino).

A Black-and-white Warbler was found at Madrona Marsh in Torrance on August 21.

A Grace’s Warbler, the third found in the county this year, was at Chilao Flat in the San Gabriel Mountains from July 15–28 (Trey McCuen, Rob Pendergast).

Summer Tanagers were at Charlton Flat from July 6–15 (Dan Cooper), at Oak Park Cemetery in Claremont on July 22 (Tom Miko) and at Little Jimmy Spring in the San Gabriel Mountains on August 6 (Scott Logan). Much less expected was a Scarlet Tanager on Santa Cruz Island on August 18 (Larry Schmahl).

A Rose-breasted Grosbeak was at a residence in Topanga on July 30 (Kelton Wright). Indigo Buntings were at Ken Malloy Harbor Regional Park in Harbor City on June 27 (Chris Dean) and in the lower Arroyo Seco in Pasadena from August 16–20 (Darren Dowell). A female Painted Bunting–almost certainly a genuine vagrant rather than a potential escapee, given the location and sex of the bird–was on San Clemente Island on August 13 (Justyn Stahl, Steven Munoz).

While shorebirds have been the focus for many birders over the summer, that is already changing. Passerine migrants have been moving south since the first part of August and their numbers continue to increase. If the fall of 2018 is anything like last year, this will be a fantastic time for birders to be in the field. But if there’s one thing experience has taught, it’s that no two years are the same.

There is much to keep us busy during September and October. It’s arguably the most productive and exciting time to bird in southern California. Both expected and remarkable vagrants can occur, the mountains host resident species and migrants. Irruptive species such as–should they occur–will make their presence known over the next couple of months. A variety of shorebirds can be found an almost any wetland habitat and waterfowl have already begun to appear.