By Jon Fisher
March and April in southern California encompass a great deal of change in the avian world. Passerine migration transforms from a trickle to a flood, wintering birds are leaving on their various schedules and breeding activity is pervasive.
From the first early arriving passerines to the waves of birds encountered in April and May, spring migration is a remarkable event to witness. While the quality and quantity of birds can vary from day to day—often due to factors we’ve yet to understand—this is a fantastic time to take to the field.
Shorebirds can briefly be seen in their breeding colors. Loons and scoters are streaming northward along the coast. The weather is generally pleasant and the landscape is lush. It could well be argued that this time of year offers more for birders than any other.
As usual, given the diversity of habitats in Los Angeles County, the variety of birds present in March and April was substantial. Wintering vagrants gradually began to disappear as spring progressed, and there were a few new discoveries to keep things interesting. Typically for this time of year, reports of new vagrants were comparatively scarce.
The wintering “Eurasian” Green-winged Teal continued at the San Gabriel Coastal Basin Spreading Grounds in Pico Rivera through March 1.
A White-winged Scoter was off Dockweiler State Beach in El Segundo from February 23, with four present on March 14 and two still there on April 2 (Richard Barth). Another continued at on Westlake Lake in Westlake Village through March 15. Four Black Scoters were off Dockweiler State Beach on March 1, with one seen there on April 14 (Richard Barth).
Two Inca Doves were at the small community of Lake Los Angeles in the east Antelope Valley from March 17-29 (Mark & Janet Scheel). A tiny population of these birds has persisted here for many years.
American Oystercatcher sightings in the county are on the rise, although the various reports may involve the same one or two individuals. The bird at Royal Palms Beach continued through March 23. Others were at Leo Carrillo State Beach on March 18 (Chris Dean), at Cabrillo Beach Pier on March 27 (Jonathan Nakai) and at Malibu Lagoon from March 27-April 13 (Frank Gilliland).
Though numbers have declined in recent years, a handful of Mountain Plovers were in the east Antelope Valley this past winter, with the most recent report being ten on February 24 (John Garrett).
Two Black Turnstones, rare inland, were at the Lancaster Water Treatment Ponds on April 16 (Becky Turley).
A Black-legged Kittiwake, rare even on the immediate coast, was at Malibu Lagoon on April 14 (Curtis Marantz).
Still quite scarce, but increasing in county waters was a Brown Booby at San Clemente Island on February 26 (Cody Lane).
A Neotropic Cormorant continued at Echo Park Lake through March 3. Another- or perhaps the same bird—was at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas from March 24–April 15 (Rod Higbie, Ken Burgdorff). Though vastly outnumbered by the ubiquitous Double-crested Cormorant, birders should be on the lookout for Neotropics. It’s almost certain that additional records will follow.
Unusual inland were nine Brown Pelicans over Brown’s Canyon Road near Porter Ranch on February 23 (Ryan Spiro).
Two California Condors were near Whittaker Peak on March 9 (Kris Ohlenkamp) and the Zone-tailed Hawk in Monrovia continued near Grand Park through April 14.
A Burrowing Owl was at Cal State Dominguez Hills on February 22 (John Thomlinson). Of note was a small group of Burrowing Owls discovered at the LAX Dunes Preserve in El Segundo. Once an upscale residential community, airport noise and eminent domain eventually led to its demise. The site now been restored to a relatively natural state. Though the airport noise continues, that doesn’t seem to bother the owls. Up to ten have been observed here. No breeding has been documented to date, though that would definitely seem possible.
The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker continued at the Sepulveda Basin in Van Nuys through March 25. Others were at Huntington Park Civic Park from February 28–March 29 (Albert Linowski) and at Pearblossom Park in Pearblossom on March 15 (Kimball Garrett).
Northern “Yellow-shafted” Flickers were at Hahamongna Watershed Park in Pasadena on March 1 (Javier Vasquez), at Ken Malloy Harbor Regional Park in Harbor City through March 31, at Augustus Hawkins Natural Park in Los Angeles on March 30 (Richard Barth) and at Madrona Marsh in Torrance from March 30–31 (Dinuk Magammana).
Merlin subspecies other than the columbarius subspecies are rare in the county. A “Black” Merlin was on San Clemente Island on February 28 (Alex Wilson) and another continued at the Bette Davis Picnic Area in Glendale through March 8. A pale “Prairie” Merlin was at the LADWP property in Los Angeles on March 8 (Brad Rumble). Scarce on the coastal slope was a Prairie Falcon in Big Tujunga Wash on February 24 (Brad Rumble).
The wintering Ash-throated Flycatcher at Madrona Marsh was reported through March 20.
Wintering Tropical Kingbirds continued at Entradero Park in Torrance through April 18- with two there as late as April 2, at Colorado Lagoon in Long Beach through April 4, at Ken Malloy Harbor Regional Park in Harbor City through April 7 and at El Dorado Park in Long Beach through April 2.
Hammond’s Flycatchers continued at Madrona Marsh in Torrance through March 26, at Vina Vieja Park in Pasadena through March 8 and at the Gardena Willows through March 10. Another was at El Dorado Park in Long Beach from February 28–March 27 (Brian Daniels). A Pacific-slope Flycatcher at Wardlow Park through February 27 was the only one reported.
The Eastern Phoebe at Apollo Park in Lancaster was reported through March 25.
Previously overlooked wintering Cassin’s Vireos were found at Northridge Recreation Center on February 27 (Richard Barth) and at Blaisdell Park in Claremont on March 3 (Naresh Satyan).
Scarce in the lowlands was a Brown Creeper at North Hollywood Park on March 21 (Rebecca Marschall).
After a lengthy stay, the remarkable Red-flanked Bluetail at Clark Library in Los Angeles was last reported on March 22. It continued to draw good numbers of birders throughout its visit.
A Green-tailed Towhee was at the West San Gabriel River Parkway Nature Trail in Lakewood on February 22 (Jim Zenor).
A Clay-colored Sparrow remained at Madrona Marsh in Torrance through March 26 and a “Red” Fox Sparrow was at La Mirada Park in La Mirada on March 19 (Albert Linkowski).
Two Swamp Sparrows continued at Bonelli Regional Park through February 26, with one reported through March 20. Another continued at Los Angeles Valley College in Sherman Oaks through February 24.
Fewer in number than last year, about a half dozen White-throated Sparrows were either newly discovered or continued in the county.
The Harris’s Sparrow at Hahamongna Watershed Park in Pasadena continued through April 17. Another was at College Park in Claremont from March 5-30 (Dan Stoebel).
Dark-eyed “Gray-headed” Juncos continued at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas through March 4 and at Hahamongna Watershed Park in Pasadena through April 2. Others were in Glendora on March 2 (Michael Peralez) and one at College Park in Claremont on March 5 (Dan Stoebel). A Dark-eyed “Pink-sided” Junco was at Rancho Sierra Golf Course in the Antelope Valley on March 17 (David Bell).
Very rare in winter was a Yellow-breasted Chat at the Natural History Museum Nature Gardens in Los Angeles from February 25–March 12 (Kimball Garrett).
An Orchard Oriole was spotted in Cheviot Hills on March 30 (Chloe Cheng). A Baltimore Oriole was at La Mirada Park in La Mirada from March 15–17 (Jim Zenor) and another continued through March 27 at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas. Unusual on the coastal slope was a Scott’s Oriole was at Haines Creek in Big Tujunga Wash on March 24 (David Bell).
The wintering Blue-winged Warbler continued at El Dorado Park in Long Beach through March 26 and was seen by many.
Seven Black-and-white Warblers either continued or were found over the period.
A Lucy’s Warbler back for its second winter continued at North Weddington Park in North Hollywood through March 23. Rare in winter, Nashville Warblers were at the Natural History Museum’s Nature Gardens on Los Angeles on February 27 (Julio Gallardo) and at the Playa Vista Riparian Corridor on February 27 (Don Sterba) and at Marine Park in Santa Monica on March 7 (Larry Schmahl).
A half dozen Palm Warblers were recorded over the period. The Pine Warbler at Long Beach Recreation Park continued through February 24 and a Grace’s Warbler did likewise through March 31.
It’s never too late to find rare wintering birds, as evidenced by the Black-throated Green Warbler found at Alondra Park on March 24 and present at least through April 1 (Mark & Janet Scheel).
The Painted Redstart that spent the winter at Brookside Park in Pasadena was reported through March 22.
A Summer Tanager was at Orcutt Ranch Horticultural Center Park in West Hills from February 24-March 28 (David Weeshoff). Others continued at Veteran’s Park in Sylmar through April 7 and at the Village Green Condominiums in Los Angeles through February 23. One was also at the Japanese Garden at Cal State Long Beach on April 9 (Tracy Drake)
More than half of spring migration has been completed, but there is still plenty to come. Many of our western songbirds, Willow Flycatchers, Western Wood-Pewees, Yellow and Wilson’s Warblers and Western Tanagers are passing through the deserts in numbers even into late May. As migration winds down, we’ll see what off course passerines turn up late in the season.
May and June will offer plenty of opportunities to look for breeding birds throughout the county. Even overpopulated and heavily birded Los Angeles County has many under-explored areas, such as the long north slope of the San Gabriels. Gray Flycatcher, Plumbeous Vireo and Gray Vireo are a few of the possible breeding species here.
The higher mountains too are largely under-explored, with just a handful of well-known spots receiving significant coverage. In the rugged San Gabriel Mountains access can present a challenge, but for the interested and ambitious birder, opportunities abound.
As the past few months have shown, every park and green patch can be worth checking for the rare and regular. And speaking of regular, it’s not all about the rare stuff. Our common western species are incredibly diverse, ranging from plain to spectacular, and all are very watchable in their own way.
By the time of the next column in two months, southbound shorebirds will have begun to appear. The other migration— autumn— will be underway, right in the middle of summer.
Originally Published in The Western Tanager, Vol. 85 No. 5, May-June 2019