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By Jon Fisher

Considering what capable fliers they are, it’s remarkable how predictable birds can be. Their habitats, nest sites, behavior, migration routes and timing are well known and- for the most part- consistent. But there is also an element of unpredictability.

Only about twenty percent of the birds species recorded in California can be considered non-migratory. The vast majority exhibit noticeable seasonal movements, and the pattern and timing of these are varied and complex.

For example, all of our Empidonax flycatchers are migratory, with most spending the winter to the south. But each has its own unique status and distribution. Even within the same genus differences can be great. Hermit Thrushes are migrants and common winter visitors, with just a few breeding in the higher San Gabriel Mountains. Swainson’s Thrushes are late spring migrants and uncommon breeders in low elevation riparian habitats, but they are entirely absent in winter; nearly the same pattern in reverse.

California’s vagrants also exhibit complexity in their origins and patterns. Pyrrhuloxias are residents of the Arizona deserts and never get as far west as Los Angeles County; except when they do. There are two county records to date. Eurasian Wrynecks are an Asian species that have occurred in extreme western Alaska only twice, except when they accidentally end up on San Clemente Island, as one did last fall. These patterns of occurrence are endlessly fascinating and they are one of the most intriguing aspects of ornithology and birding.

Seasonal movements are not the only reason the county’s avifauna is continually changing. As profoundly detrimental as man’s activities have been to bird populations, some have been beneficial. This past winter demonstrated as clearly as ever that the non-native plantings and well-watered landscapes of the county’s coastal slope are very attractive to Neotropic migrants. Our mild winters don’t hurt either. While some of these birds are off-course vagrants, others are regular migrants that have elected to stay for the winter.

Also mitigated by man’s handiwork are some of the challenges migrants face when passing through California’s deserts. Ranches, towns and parks provide food, shelter and water for tired migrants.

As expected, a remarkable variety of regular and unusual birds were found in the period from mid-February through mid-April.

A continuing Tundra Swan remained at the Piute Ponds on Edwards AFB through March 14.

Dabbling ducks included an Eurasian Wigeon briefly at Hansen Dam on April 4 (Joachim Bertrands) and a “Eurasian” Green-winged Teal continuing on the Los Angeles River in Glendale through February 24.

Rare anywhere away from the immediate coast was a Surf Scoter at Ken Malloy Harbor Regional Park in Harbor City from March 25-April 6 (Mark & Janet Scheel). The waters off Dockweiler State Beach in El Segundo continued to be good for scoters, with a high count of two Black Scoters and six White-winged Scoters there on March 27.

Several Common Ground-Doves persisted along the San Gabriel River in the Bellflower area through March 4, while a lone Inca Dove stuck it out at Col. Leon H. Washington Park in Los Angeles through March 21.

A handful of Calliope Hummingbirds were recorded on the coastal slope away from the foothills where they are more expected in spring.

A Ridgway’s Rail was again at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh from April 7-9 (Don Sterba).

The only Red-necked Grebe this winter was one continuing at Castaic Lagoon through March 28.

Dockweiler State Beach in El Segundo hosted a wintering Pacific Golden-Plover through February 25.

A Solitary Sandpiper was on San Clemente Island on April 2 (Justyn Stahl).

A nice spring find was a Stilt Sandpiper at the Piute Ponds on Edwards AFB on April 5 (John Birsner). It was joined by a second bird from April 6-7 (Dwight Peake).

A distressed Black-legged Kittiwake found at Dockweiler State Beach in El Segundo on March 3 unfortunately expired later that day (Tim Avery), but a second bird was present later in the day (Turley). Other gulls of note were a Franklin’s Gull at the Ballona Creek mouth in Playa del Rey on March 12 (James Fox) and a Sabine’s Gull at the Piute Ponds on Edwards AFB from March 23-24.

Still rare but becoming less so was a presumably continuing Lesser Black-backed Gull at the San Gabriel Coastal Basin Spreading Grounds in Pico Rivera on March 15 (Jon Feenstra).

Rather rare inland was a Red-throated Loon at Castaic Lagoon from April 1-4 (John Garrett).

A Neotropic Cormorant lingered at Bonelli Regional Park through March 31. This species should be on the radar of birders as this species continues to expand its range.

Also slowly increasing in the county, Yellow-crowned Night-Herons continued at Topanga Lagoon through April 4 and at the Ballona Wetlands from April 7-9.

An injured Long-eared Owl, rare on the coastal slope, was found at the El Dorado Park Nature Center area in Long Beach on March 9 (Kim Moore).

Lewis’s Woodpeckers were scarce in the lowlands this year with just one report for the period; a continuing bird at Rose Hills in Whittier through April 3. But in the San Gabriel Mountains up to fifteen remained at Chilao Flat through April 4.

A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker continued at DeForest Park in Long Beach through March 9 and Yellow-shafted Flickers were at Rosedale Cemetery through March 13- two there on that date- and continuing at Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena through March 16.

Rare in the county was a pale “Prairie” Merlins of the richardsoni subspecies at Rancho Sierra Golf Course in Lancaster on April 8 (David Bell).

Wintering Hammond’s Flycatchers were at the Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve on February 24 (Brooke Keeney, Gabriel Gartner) and at Whaley Park in Long Beach on March 14 (Richard Barth). One at Pan American Park in Long Beach from March 23-24 may have been an early spring migrant (John Fitch).

Other wintering empidonax on the coastal slope included the expected half dozen or so Gray Flycatchers and a continuing Pacific-slope Flycatcher at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas reported through February 20.

The Eastern Phoebe at Madrona Marsh in Torrance was reported through March 20 and over a dozen Vermilion Flycatchers were recorded on or near the coastal slope over the period.

Four Dusky-capped Flycatchers were all continuing birds. They were at North Weddington Recreation Park through March 25, at La Mirada’s Creek Park through March 8, at Runnymeade Park in Winnetka through March 16 and at Ladera Park in Ladera Heights through April 3.

Wintering Ash-throated Flycatchers were at Dennis the Menace Park in Downey on March 8 (Richard Barth), at the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Area through March 10 and at Madrona March in Torrance through March 30.

Also wintering were Tropical Kingbirds continuing at Madrona Marsh in Torrance through February 17, at Entradero Park through April 11 and at Ken Malloy Harbor Regional Park in Harbor City through March 19.

In addition to a dozen Plumbeous Vireos, a Cassin’s Vireo continued at the Village Green Condominiums in Los Angeles through March 4 and another was at Del Valley Park in Lakewood on March 14 (John Fitch).

Very rare was a possible Blue-headed Vireo- yet to be accepted by the CBRC- that continued along the LA River in Atwater Village through March 27.

Purple Martins included one on San Clemente Island on March 17 (Tawni Gotbaum), three at El Dorado Park in Long Beach on March 24 (Manuel Duran) and one at Charlton Flat in the San Gabriel Mountains on April 6 (John Garrett).

Scarce away from the deserts was a Bank Swallow at Pyramid Lake on March 25 (David Bell).

A Pacific Wren continued in Santa Anita Canyon above Arcadia through March 10 and another was found in the Kewen Canyon area of Pasadena on March 16 (John Garrett).

Though present for the past couple of years, a male Black-tailed Gnatcatcher carrying nesting material on Edwards AFB just inside the county line on March 29 marks the first documented breeding in the county (John Garrett).

Adding to the list of coastal slope Sage Thrashers this spring was one at Abalone Cove in Rancho Palos Verdes on February 24 (Andy Kleinhesselink) and another at Trump National Golf Club on March 17 (Mike Miller).

Green-tailed Towhees continued at the Huntington Gardens in San Marino through February 25, at the LA County Arboretum in Arcadia through March 28 and in Downey (Cat and Robert Waters). Others were discovered at Magic Mountain in Valencia on March 12 (Luke Tiller) and at Ballona Discovery Park in Playa del Rey on March 31 (Jesse Ross).

The Clay-colored Sparrow at Westchester Park continued through March 19.

A Lark Bunting at Garvey Ranch Park in Monterey Park on April 5 was a nice surprise (Richard Barth). After a long lapse in reports, the Lark Bunting at Agua Amarga Canyon in Palos Verdes Estates was reported again from April 7-11.

The Swamp Sparrow at Bonelli Regional Park in San Dimas continued to be reported through March 3.

The usual handful of White-throated Sparrows were present through the winter, but a much more interesting- and far more rare- find was a Harris’s Sparrow at Hansen Dam discovered on April 7 (Stavros Christodoulides). It remained for days and was eventually seen by quite a few satisfied birders. It’s possible this bird was a spring migrant that spent the winter to our south; more likely it spent the winter here undetected.

A Dark-eyedPink-sided” Junco continued at St. Andrew’s Priory near Valyermo through March 31.

The Rusty Blackbird wintering at Almansor Park in Alhambra was last reported on March 24.

Quite rare in winter were two Orchard Orioles at Loyola Marymount University in Westchester on February 24 and seen through March 3 (Russel Stone, Mark Scheel).

A Hooded Oriole was at Sand Dune Park in Manhattan Beach on February 18 (Jun Cao & Bin Wu).

A Baltimore Oriole continued at the Veteran’s Administration in Westwood through February 18 and one was on San Clemente Island on April 4, a rather odd date for a migrant (Tawni Gotbaum).

Rare in winter was a Scott’s Oriole at San Ramon Preserve in Rancho Palos Verdes on February 17 (Dan Cooper).

Following a long gap in sightings, the wintering Ovenbird at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont was reported again on April 9.

Black-and-white Warblers continued at the LA County Arboretum in Arcadia through April 4, at Madrona Marsh through April 11, at El Segundo Recreation Park through March 27 and at DeForest Park in Long Beach through April 7.

A Lucy’s Warbler continued at North Weddington Recreation Park in North Hollywood through April 1 and a rare in winter Nashville Warbler was at Huntington Park Municipal Park on February 25 (Dessi Sieburth). Along Encino Creek in the Sepulveda Basin a Virginia’s Warbler was found on February 19 (Rebecca Marschall).

Extremely rare in winter was a MacGillivray’s Warbler at Harbor Regional Park in Harbor City on March 5 (Philip Carnehl). Given the date, this bird certainly wintered locally.

American Redstarts included one continuing at El Dorado Park in Long Beach through April 11, one at Vernon Hemingway Park in Carson from February 26-March 7 (Richard Barth) and another continuing in Long Beach through March 4.

The Chestnut-sided Warbler near Wheeler Park in Claremont was reported through March 10. Palm Warblers included one continuing at DeForest Park in Long Beach through March 3, one at Columbia Park in Torrance on March 11 (Brooke Keeney) and two others continuing at Entradero Park in Torrance through April 7 and in Long Beach through March 25.

The Pine Warbler at Runnymeade Park in Winnetka continued through March 19. Another at Van Nuys-Sherman Oaks War Memorial Park was not reported again after February 19.

A great find was a Grace’s Warbler at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont from April 7-8 (David Rankin). As this species typically appears in California in late spring and summer and as fall and winter vagrant, a bird on this date undoubtedly spent the winter locally.

The Culver City Park Painted Redstart remained through March 24.

About average were the half dozen Summer Tanagers present during the period.

Black-headed Grosbeaks, rare in winter, continued at the Veteran’s Administration in Westwood through February 18, in Sierra Madre through March 19 and at Malaga Dunes on the Palos Verdes Peninsula through March 4.

As a birding neophyte, my perception was that migration took place in April and May and again in September and October. While those are the prime times for the passage of songbirds, I couldn’t have been much more wrong. No matter what the month, at least some birds are on the move in southern California. It’s truly a year round event.

As this column is published, there will still be over a month of spring migration ahead. Though numbers will be decreasing, plenty of birds are still moving through the area, and May and early June are normally the best time for vagrant songbirds. But even before those possibilities have ended, the earliest of southbound shorebirds- Wilson’s Phalaropes- will be arriving.

Aside from all the obvious and popular places to go birding, there are many areas in the county that are lacking coverage. Exploring these spots, especially during the breeding season, is a great way to fill in the gaps in our knowledge. The deserts and mountains especially are full of many often neglected places. While these may not be the best areas to search for rarities, you never know what you may discover.

One of the most appealing aspects of birding is the discovery of things new and unknown. As much fun as it is chasing vagrants, making our own discoveries can be even more rewarding. Even in a county as populated with birders as ours is, there is a great deal of potential out there.