Sunday, November 24, 2013

A North Carolinean Birds Los Angeles

I spent a long weekend visiting my brother, who recently immigrated to the Golden State.  This was my first trip to the west coast in more than 10 years, so with the opportunity to see lots of new birds, I fit in as much birding as possibly.  Luckily Natalia was able to come along, and with her superior west coast birding experience was able to pick out most of the lifers for me.

In this post I'm going to give an overview of the sites we visited with the plan to write a couple follow-ups: one about western woodpeckers, and another about western subspecies.

Playa del Rey

Our base was Venice, which turned out to be very conveniently situated for beating the infamous LA traffic.  In fact our first bird outing was done via bicycle. A bike path took us down through the Playa del Rey Marina to the mouth of Ballona Creek.

Heerman's Gull
This was my first experience with western North American gulls: Western Gull, California Gull, Heerman's Gull, which littered the marina, levees and beach.  Eared, Western and Clark's Grebes were shockingly abundant and I also got my first views of a couple of west coast 'rockpipers'--Black Turnstone and Surfbird.

Surfbird at Ballona Creek, Los Angeles
Of course there were also plenty of familiar cosmopolitan east coast species, such as Herring and Ring-billed Gulls, Willet and this Surf Scoter.

Surf Scoter, at Ballona Creek, Los Angeles

City Parks

I developed mixed feelings about birding Los Angeles during my visit.  On the one hand, it is among the most over suburbanized, desolate landscapes in the country, an unending neighborhood-scape, somewhat poorly vascularized by 12-lane super freeways that often resemble parking lots, set in an already-harsh desert prior to human intervention.  But at the same time, Los Angeles County holds the title for 'birdiest county in America,' with a list 504 species long.  That huge list is largely the product of a large population of dedicated local birders, and like Central Park in New York, it's fragments of green space--parks, islands, rehabilitated wetlands--are oases that concentrate resident and vargant birds.

So we ended up doing quite a bit of unglamorous park birding while jaunting around this concrete desert. 

Allen's Hummingbirds were consistent companions and I kept thinking about the time Mark K. and I drove a couple hours for a glimpse of North Carolina's second record at a feeder.
immature male Allen's Hummingbird, Griffith Park, Los Angeles
 Other somewhat 'trashy' park birds that were rather exciting for a North Carolinean were:

Bushtit at El Dorado Park, Los Angeles
Western Scrub-Jay, common in parks and neighborhoods
Black Phoebe, common anywhere near water
City parks yielded many other beautiful and less common birds, such as:

Townsend's Warbler at El Dorado Park, Los Angeles

Wrentit at Griffith Park, Los Angeles

Ross's Goose at Apollo Park, Lancaster, California

Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve

One of Los Angeles' best bird oases is Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, a restored wetland sandwiched between beach and city.  It was one of the few birding spots that made me wish for a spotting scope and several extra hours to explore and take photos.  The place was loaded with shorebirds, ducks and waders including some locally rare gems, such as Reddish Egret.  Check out this quick sampling of birds all captured in the space of an hour:

Black-crowned Night-Heron at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve
American White Pelican at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve

Greater Scaup at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve

Lesser Scaup at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve
American Wigeon at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve

Mind you these are all taken with my cheap point-and-shoot...I would put this place easily on the same level with Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina and Viera Wetland in Florida as one of the top locations in the country for easily getting 'hella-face-melting,' as SoCalifornians might put it, photographs of wetland birds. 

Snowy Egret at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve
Long-billed Curlew at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve
I didn't realize they ate mussels whole!

Santa Cruz Island

The most important place for birding in the Los Angeles area is Santa Cruz Island, home to one of California's two endemics, the Island Scrub-Jay.  Birding Santa Cruz Island has been well-covered in the blogosphere, such as in this post by self-anointed 'greatest living birder,' Felonious Jive.

I actually found birding the island pretty ho-hum.  Where were all of the Rock Wrens and Rufous-crowned Sparrows?  We found a steady monotony of Hermit Thrushes and Ruby-crowned Kinglets...ho-hum indeed. This may have been the inevitable result of joining the guided hike into Nature Conservancy property.  It sounded like a good idea when we signed up, but the knowledgeable guide was obligated to keep the group moving at a swift pace and lecture the entire hike--not the kind of jaunt conducive to bird observation.

Beyond the endemic jays, I found the mammal-like and tame Ravens to be most interesting.  They seemed to have no fear of people and would croak at us from a few feet away hoping to earn a free meal.  On the Island they are renowned for their skill at burglury and all supplies must be stored in Raven-proof containers.

Common Raven, Santa Cruz Island

The birding on Santa Cruz Island was so mediocre I'm just going to show you this cute endemic fox:

Santa Cruz Island Fox
The birding from the ferry to and from the island, however, did not disappoint!  We came across feeding frenzies and racked up four alcid species, three shearwaters, fulmars, jaegers, and three cormants, plus huge pods of Common Dolphins, prides of sea lions and two humbpack whales! 

There was so much to look at I didn't want to put down my binoculars, plus this was a ferry, not a pelagic trip, so the photographic opportunities were few.

Antelope Valley

We met up with one local psychotic birder, Dan, who somehow convinced us to join him on a trip up to the Antelope Valley, a dusty trash-strewn wasteland with a couple of charmless Anywhere, America towns that were blended together by strips of big box stores and fast 'food' purveyors.  It's the perfect setting for the Lockheed Martin complex and Andrew's Airbase.  The scenery is almost enough to make one appreciate the potential moral and aesthetic merits of dropping bombs from jet planes.
Ferruginous Hawk, Antelope Valley

I had a fun time seeing Ferruginous Hawks, Mountain Bluebirds and the recently split, Bell's Sparrow as we cruised up and down the endless square-grid streets, but we missed the rare-bird targets that Dan needed for his California big year: Mountain Plover and LeConte's Thrasher.

San Gabriel Mountains

Up above this dessicated blah-scape jut the rugged, but unspoilt San Gabriel Mountains.  We birded the Angeles Crest Highway from lower elevation chaparral up to through its higher coniferous forests around 6500 feet, picking up a nice diversity of birds along the way.

Golden-crowned Sparrow, San Gabriel Mountains
 Even though it wasn't particularly cold, the mountain was all but deserted (it was a Monday) and other than some power line work crews, we pretty much had the massif to ourselves.  The views were breath-taking, the air fresh and smog free, and we cleaned up nearly all the winter resident species of birds.
Townsend's Solitaire, San Gabriel Mountains

There were too many to name them all, but a few highlights were: Canyon Wren, Townsend's Solitaire, Steller's Jay and some neat woodpeckers (more on them later).  I'll have to return sometime for breeding season.


Ebird says I observed 157 species on this trip and ticked 49 lifers, a pretty decent haul!  The lifer total would have been greater had I not crossed paths with some vagrant western species in North Carolina over the past few years, and it may increase over the years as the taxonomic changes are made that split out some of the subspecies (more that later).

What was the best bird of the trip?  Well, that depends on the criteria...

In terms of spatio-temporal rarity, it would have to be Blue-footed Booby, which occurs very rarely within the US. Several happen to be loafing around coastal southern California this year.
Blue-footed Booby among cormorants at Playa Del Rey breakwater, Los Angeles
In terms of Absolute rarity, the best bird was Island Scrub-Jay, with it's population estimated at just 2300 individuals.

Fine, here's my terrible photo of the endemic jay everybody wants to see, Santa Cruz Island
I still can't decide which bird was my favorite...I just saw too many new ones that were so fascinating in too many different ways.  In fact it's a tie between my favorite family of this trip between Corvids and Woodpeckers.

Stay tuned for more to come on the western woodpecker front and on western subspecies.