December through February is that slow time of the bird year when nothing much of interest turns up, right? In some years that statement may ring true, but it was hardly accurate this winter. Some truly unexpected birds were found along with many lesser vagrants. As usual plenty of continuing rarities were regularly reported at their respective locations.
Irruptive species were essentially absent this winter, hardly a surprise given there was little evidence of any such trends last fall. By February breeding activity was much in evidence for many resident species. Great Horned Owls, Anna’s Hummingbirds, Mourning Doves and others start even earlier.
Spring migration was underway as well. Turkey Vultures were on the move early and swallows had apeared by the latter half of February.
Though long range forecasters were reluctant to commit to what sort of winter we were going to get, precipitation was plentiful and above average. Rain brings its own problems in a county that is dry for eight months of the year and prone to wildfires, but on balance it is most welcome. Years like this produce plenty of food, a boon to birds either passing through or raising hungry broods.
As always the list of noteworthy birds was diverse. Vagrants are found throughout the county, but their distribution is far from uniform. Neotropic migrants- with few exceptions- are concentrated closer to the coast where milder temperatures and an abundance of well-watered plantings ensure a steady supply of insect food. Fewer and hardier birds are found on the colder deserts.
Three Tundra Swans were at the Piute Ponds on Edwards AFB from December 29-January 8 (Mark & Janet Scheel).
Single “Eurasian” Green-winged Teal continued at the San Gabriel Coastal Basin Spreading Grounds in Pico Rivera through January 27 and along the LA River in Glendale through January 18.
Diving ducks included a rare inland White-winged Scoter at Westlake Lake in Westlake Village from January 27-February 19 (Dan Cooper) and two off Santa Monica Beach on January 9 (Happy Chambers). A Black Scoter was off Dockweiler State Beach in El Segundo from January1-February 10 (Richard Barth, Martin Meyers). One was at Del Rey Lagoon in Playa del Rey on January 26 (Matt Cahill) and two were on the lower LA River in Long Beach in early January (Jeff Boyd) with one remaining through January 13.
The Red-necked Grebe on Lake Palmdale remained through January 27 and was the only one found during the period.
A White-winged Dove was along the LA River in Long Beach from January 10-29 (Kurt Mize, Jim Rowoth). Spotted Doves, greatly reduced in numbers since their heyday, are still hanging on locally, with up to four in Compton from January 14-17 (Kathy Miller, Alex Lamoreaux, Usha Tatini).
Scarce in winter was a lone Vaux’s Swift in San Dimas on December 24 (John King), while up to seven birds along the LA River in the Los Feliz area through February 14 (Brad Rumble, Chris Dean).
A Black-footed Albatross was near San Clemente Island on February 8 (Alex Wilson).
A Neotropic Cormorant- presumably the same bird sighted at several other nearby locales- was at Echo Park in Los Angeles from January 2-February 19. What was surely the same bird was at MacArthur Park on January 13.
An American Oystercatcher continued at Royal Palms Beach in San Pedro through February 18. Another was at the Ballona Creek mouth on January 5 (Graham Hamby) and again on January 21 and one was at Topanga State Beach from January 13-20 (Naresh Satyan). These records may have involved fewer than three separate birds.
The wintering Pacific Golden-Plover along lower Ballona Creek was present through February 18. A handful of Mountain Plovers- with a high count of forty-five- continued in the east Antelope Valley through February 12.
A Lesser Black-backed Gull, either a new or continuing bird- was at the San Gabriel Coastal Basin Spreading Grounds in Pico Rivera on January 8 (John Garrett, Ryan Terrill). Two were at the Rio Hondo Spreading Basins on January 20 with one still there on January 22 (Darren Dowell).
A rare winter visitor was a Rough-legged Hawk at the Piute Ponds on Edwards AFB from December 29-January 19 (Mark & Janet Scheel). Likewise unusual was a Zone-tailed Hawk at Grand Ave. Park in Monrovia on January 12 (Karen Suarez). It continued to be seen in the area through February 1.
Fairly common as a spring migrant but very rare in winter was a Swainson’s Hawk also near Grand Ave. Park on January 19 (Lauren Harter, David Van der Pluym, Dessi Sieburth).
Short-eared Owls were at the Piute Ponds on Edwards AFB on January 29 (Joe Lepisto, Becky Kitto) and at Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale on January 18 (Chris Dean). A Burrowing Owl was at the Rio Hondo Spreading Basins in Pico Rivera on January 13 (Larry Schmahl).
A low elevation Williamson’s Sapsucker was in Sierra Madre on January 16 (Holly Coates, Emmet Iverson), while Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers included a continuing bird at the Sepulveda Basin through February 19 and a new bird was at El Cariso Park in Sylmar on February 11 (Richard Norton).
A White-headed Woodpecker and two Hairy Woodpeckers at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Gardens in Claremont on January 26 were away from expected areas (Cathy McFadden, Paul Clarke).
Pure Northern “Yellow-shafted” Flickers were at Veteran’s Park in Sylmar from January 16-31 (Scott Logan), at North Weddington Park in North Hollywood on January 2 (David Barton), at Hahamongna Watershed Park in Pasadena on January 23 (Darren Dowell) and at Ken Malloy Harbor Regional Park in Harbor City on February 9 (Bobby Trusela).
“Black” Merlins- subspecies suckleyi- were represented by continuing bird at the Bette Davis Picnic Area in Glendale through December 24 and a newly found bird along Barley Flats Road in the San Gabriel Mountains on January 30 (Brad Rumble). A pale “Prairie” Merlin- ssp. richardsonii- was at South Gate Park on January 8 (Richard Barth).
The wintering Ash-throated Flycatcher continued at Madrona Marsh in Torrance through February 16.
Seven Tropical Kingbirds were present on the coastal slope during the period. As a side note, such birds are all presumed to be Tropicals, though if no vocalizations are heard, Couch’s can’t be ruled out. Based on past records of birds that have vocalized, we know that Couch’s is an extreme rarity in California whereas Tropical is a rare but regular fall and winter bird. Another kingbird- a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher- continued along the LA River in Long Beach through January 26.
Hammond’s Flycatchers included a continuing bird at Madrona Marsh in Torrance through February 19, one at Vina Vieja Park in Pasadena from January 5-February 18 (Kimball Garrett) and one at the South Coast Botanic Garden in Rolling Hills Estates on February 16 (Alejandra Decillo, Manuel Duran). At least five Pacific-slope Flycatchers were also detected during the period.
An Eastern Phoebe found at Apollo Park near Lancaster on January 1 was reported there through January 19 (Naresh Satyan).
Two very early Bank Swallows were at Lake Balboa in the San Fernando Valley on February 7 (Mike Stensvold).
Cassin’s Vireos were at Ken Malloy Harbor Regional Park in Harbor City from December 23-January 22 (Robert Trusela), at the Village Green Condominiums in Los Angeles on January 27 (Don Sterba) and at the South Coast Botanic Garden in Rolling Hills Estates on February 16 (Alejandra Decillo, Manuel Duran).
Exceptionally rare on the coastal slope was a Verdin at Willow Springs Park in Long Beach on January 2 (Jan Wilson). There have now been four such records over the past six years, which may be a result of increased observer coverage.
A Pacific Wren along the Winter Creek Trail off Big Santa Anita Canyon on February 1 was the only one reported (Darren Dowell).
Now we come to the bird of the year, if not the decade. A suspected Red-flanked Bluetail was confirmed on January 7 at the Clark Library in Los Angeles (Rebecca Marschall). This often furtive bird was present at least since December 21 before its identity could be established and it was reported there through February 19. Prior to this, only two had ever been found in California, both in fall and both on offshore islands where they were one day birds and access was impossible. This Old World flycatcher is extremely rare anywhere in North America and a wintering bird on the California mainland was unprecedented. Needless to say, the attention this vagrant received from the birding community was beyond extraordinary. The only bird in recent memory that might top it is the one day wonder Eurasian Wryneck on San Clemente Island in September of 2017. But as far as a bird that the community at large could pursue and view, the bluetail takes the prize.
The wintering Clay-colored Sparrow Madrona Marsh continued through January 20 and was the only one reported. Two “Red” Fox Sparrows were at Occidental College on January 30 (Ryan Terrill, James Maley, Whitney Tsai) and one was in Bailey Canyon in Sierra Madre on February 5 (John Garrett).
Two Swamp Sparrows continued at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas with at least one reported through January 14. New birds were found along the LA River in Atwater Village on December 30 (Andrew Birch), at the Dominguez Gap Wetlands in Long Beach on January 2 (Kim Moore, Becky Turley) and at Ken Malloy Harbor Regional Park from January 22-23 (Bobby Trusela).
At least a half dozen White-throated Sparrows were reported over the period. Also of note was a dark-lored White-crowned Sparrow at Castaic Lagoon on December 29 (John Garrett).
A rare winter visitor to the county was a Harris’s Sparrow at Hahamongna Watershed Park in Pasadena from January 16-February 18 (Darren Dowell).
A Dark-eyed “Pink-sided” Junco continued at St. Andrew’s Priory near Valyermo through December 22 and five Dark-eyed “Gray-headed” Juncos present during the period.
The wintering adult male Orchard Oriole at Loyola Marymount University in Westchester was seen through February 16. Hooded Orioles included one at North Hollywood Park on January 3 (Rebecca Marschall), one continuing at the Huntington Gardens in San Marino through January 26 and another in Silver Lake on February 7.
Rusty Blackbirds included a continuing bird at Lake Balboa in the San Fernando Valley through February 7 and one at Jesse Owens Park in Los Angeles from January 7-February 4 (Richard Barth).
El Dorado Park in Long Beach produced another great find this winter. A Blue-winged Warbler was seen by many there from February 16-20 (Brian Daniels). This bird would have been the find of the winter were it not for the aforementioned Red-flanked Bluetail. Regardless, this species is extremely rare at this time, with only a couple of previous winter records for the entire state and less than a half dozen ever for Los Angeles County.
Substantially more common, Black-and-white Warblers were at Banning Park in Wilmington from December 23-January 1 (Kim Moore, Vincent Lloyd), at Ken Malloy Harbor Regional Park from December 23-January 3 (Don Sterba), at Madrona Marsh in Torrance through February 19, at Hemingway Park in Carson on from January 6-February 16 (Dessi Sieburth) and continuing at El Dorado Park in Long Beach on January 13
A Tennessee Warbler was at a residence in South Pasadena from January 4-6 (Debbie C.) and a returning wintering Lucy’s Warbler was at North Weddington Park in North Hollywood from February 4-15 (Rebecca Marschall).
Nashville Warblers, common as migrants but rare in winter, were at Holmby Park in Los Angeles (Kimball Garrett) and at Penmar Recreation Center in Venice, both on January 2 (Bob Packard).
American Redstarts included a continuing bird at Hemingway Park in Carson through February 11. Others were at El Segundo Library Park on December 31 (Richard Barth), and at Holmby Park in Los Angeles on January 2 (Kimball Garrett) and at Marsh Street Nature Park in Glassell Park from January 30-February 7 (Andrew Birch).
Two Palm Warblers continued in Long Beach into February and one remained at Entradero Park in Torrance through February 1, while single birds were at Columbia Park in Torrance on January 3 (Bobby Trusela) and on San Clemente Island on February 7 (Vincent Weber).
Other good warbler finds were a Pine Warbler and a Grace’s Warbler at Recreation Park in Long Beach from January 24-February 19 (Jeff Boyd). The Painted Redstart at Brookside Park in Pasadena remained reliable there through February 17.
Summer Tanagers included one at the LA County Arboretum in Arcadia on December 31-February 3 (Darren Dowell). This bird was probably present there since at least late November. Other Summer Tanagers continued at Veteran’s Park in Sylmar through January 23, in Altadena through January 10 and at the Village Green Condominiums in Los Angeles through January 19.
Wrapping up the impressive list of rarities for the winter was a Rose-breasted Grosbeak in Long Beach on December 24 (Tracy Drake).
As we head into March a greater variety of migrant passerines will begin to appear. Within an all too short couple of months we’ll hit the peak of spring migration. Of course it’s not just songbirds that are passing through. Loons, Brant and others are flying northward along the coast, shorebirds can be found at almost any wetland habitat and hummingbirds are attracted to flowering plants and feeders.
Spring is a great time not only to enjoy migrating birds, but to watch for and document breeding activity in eBird. The topography and mix of habitats in Los Angeles County is quite complex. This makes for an equally complex pattern of distribution for many residents and summer visitors. Interested and inquisitive birders are in a position to contribute new information about our local avifauna. There is much yet to be learned and no shortage of places to explore.