The Schoolyard as eBird Hotspot

By Brad Rumble

Use Google’s satellite map to look at Esperanza Elementary School from a bird’s eye view and you’ll start to understand how it could be that since September of 2014 47 species of birds have been reported at Esperanza on eBird. In the midst of the concrete and asphalt of Westlake, here is a patch of habitat for resident and migratory species.


The school opened in 1992. The trees planted then have matured into a verdant and welcoming canopy. Within the branches of jacarandas, a pair of floss silk and one enormous coral tree we have observed Willow, Pacific‐slope and Ash‐throated Flycatchers, Warbling Vireos and a Burrowing Owl. Hermit and Swainson’s Thrushes have rested among the original shrubs during their migration.

Through a comprehensive partnership with Los Angeles Audubon Society, more than 4,500 square feet of asphalt on the southwest corner of campus was converted to native habitat in the fall of 2016. Sages, wildflowers and native grasses have attracted hummingbirds, finches and flycatchers— including a male Vermilion who stopped by in December of 2017. The most recent species to be recorded here on eBird is the Cassin’s Kingbird, no doubt drawn to the palm nearest the habitat by the rich pollinator population below. In fact, this school year student naturalists will collaborate with scientists from the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum to create a field guide of the campus’ pollinators.

Seizing on the opportunity presented by a narrow strip of unused sloping land along the campus’ north edge on Wilshire Boulevard, the school augmented the available planting space by removing 12 by 122 feet of asphalt and planted palo verde trees, California buckwheat, California sagebrush, and native sages and grasses. Elsewhere on campus nine Coast Live Oaks were planted, along with a variety of native shrubs. Six palo verde trees and a coast live oak now thrive within seven once empty tree wells on the campus’ sidewalk perimeter.


Burrowing Owl

The students shared their campus with a Burrowing Owl for every school day of December, 2016. The students' respect for the bird reflects a schoolwide appreciation for all living things. This photo was taken on December 9, 2017–the second of two days when the species was again reported on eBird at Esperanza.

A team of students carefully scooped up Burrowing Owl pellets so they could be examined at the Natural History Museum. December 8, 2017

A team of students carefully scooped up Burrowing Owl pellets so they could be examined at the Natural History Museum. December 8, 2017

Los Angeles Audubon intern leads students 2017

Los Angeles Audubon intern leads students 2017

A bustling schoolyard nestled between the skyscrapers of downtown just to the east and another eBird hotspot, MacArthur Park, only three blocks to the west is yielding some interesting data, starting with the 47 species of birds recorded here since September 14, 2014. Our collected data provides evidence of breeding Black Phoebes, Northern Mockingbirds, House Finches and Mourning Doves. We know that the Yellow-rumped Warbler has arrived as early as the first week of October and has remained on campus as late as the first week of April. We know the Say’s Phoebe still occurs in Westlake in autumn and winter. We know that Red-tailed Hawks are more prevalent here in winter. Our observations support existing research which indicates the presence of migratory species such as the Common Poorwill, Burrowing Owl and Warbling Vireo on even the most densely populated portions of the coastal plain.

During their recess, young birders of Esperanza Elementary respected the Common Poorwill which shared the playground with them on the day of their Halloween Parade in 2015.

During their recess, young birders of Esperanza Elementary respected the Common Poorwill which shared the playground with them on the day of their Halloween Parade in 2015.

“We” are the community scientists who gather each day at Esperanza Elementary. While the reporting of observations on eBird has largely been my work, the collection of evidence extends from students to staff members to parents. Without fail I hear from students on Monday about what they have observed during the weekend. On more than one occasion I have encountered a pair of students taking a time-out from kickball to playfully argue over the shape of a corvid’s tail flying overhead. Sometimes students will pull me out of my office to see a kettle of hawks or a new species they can’t figure out. Last year we replaced the opaque windows in many of our upstairs classrooms with tinted transparent glass. This has helped students witness firsthand the diet of the Cooper’s Hawk and how newly hatched Northern Mockingbirds beg for food.

Our designation as an eBird Hotspot provides a wealth of readily available tools. The printable checklist can be used by classes and parent groups during organized walks or as a study guide. Through the online bar chart we can draw conclusions about our resident species and migrating visitors. Many observations include photographs which help birders of all ages.

Other tools aid our contribution to the body of knowledge on eBird. An investment in a pair of field guides for every upper-grade classroom was not costly; these books are dog-eared now. Sets of binoculars bring the birds closer to us. A Davis weather station in the Main Office can be used by all to collect weather information; this opens an entirely new line of inquiry for the enthusiastic students. A simple “Observing Our Natural His tory” bulletin board with pocket charts for sentence strips enables all stakeholders to share their sightings of all living things. Interestingly, as the school year progresses these observations tend to become more descriptive and detailed.

There are many parts of Los Angeles without eBird data. In South Los Angeles, for example, we do not know enough about the occurrence of birds. In every neighborhood currently without data, there is a schoolyard with students who are fascinated by their campus’ natural history. With guidance from adults, these students can contribute to our understanding of bird life in our neighborhoods. The adults who mentor these students do not need to be expert birders. They can learn alongside the children. The example of Esperanza Elementary School in downtown Los Angeles is replicable on any campus.