Magnificent Frigatebird in Los Angeles
There’s been an historic outbreak of Magnificent Frigatebird sightings in Los Angeles in the past week. The birds live in the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and along the Pacific coast of Mexico, including Baja California well south of San Diego. Rarely, often coinciding with storms, they wander north across the border into California waters. The recent outbreak started on Sunday, September 4th, when word went out that two frigatebirds had been spotted together along the coast in Torrance, California. I happened to be lounging on a sailboat in Santa Monica Bay at the time I saw the alert. It was too far, and too long into our ride, to give chase. The birds didn’t fly our way. A few lucky folks gave chase and saw them before they disappeared and weren’t seen again.
If these were normal times, that would’ve been it. Before that day, the last eBird sightings of Magnificent Frigatebirds in L.A. County were 1979, 2012, and 2018. Each of those were one-day wonders. When they’re here, Magnificent Frigatebirds are moving through, not lounging around. Yet, just a few days later, Tropical Storm Kay was set to move up the coast from Baja California. The storm was promising high winds. And high winds blowing from the south promised to push birds that normally live in Baja north of the border. In a land where we have little exciting weather, and hardly ever any storms, this was exciting. Depending on the wind direction, stray birds can end up off and along the coast or on lakes far inland. It was like January 1st in the middle of September as birders plotted their tropical storm strategy for the weekend.
The outer wind bands arrived Friday afternoon. I had in-laws coming to visit, and was feeling a little sick, so I wasn’t going out Friday night. The winds weren’t that high, and they were mainly blowing offshore, so expectations started to dwindle. Still, Magnificent Frigatebirds were spotted in San Diego and Orange County Friday evening, but nothing in Los Angeles. Saturday morning, I decided to bird the beach in my 5MR and hope something rare was lounging at the beach or flying off shore. The beach trip turned out to be mostly a bust. Winds were calm, the bay looked empty. I did spot a Pigeon Guillemot that’s been off Dockweiler Beach for a couple of weeks for a 5MR lifer.
Later Saturday afternoon, frigatebirds were spotted again. And again, it was a pocket cove in Palos Verdes near Torrance where they were seen. I considered a drive down there, but these simply aren’t chaseable birds, and I figured they’d be on their way south by the time I arrived. But I checked the reports, and two frigatebirds were seen as late as 7:00pm. Optimistic that they had roosted in the area for the night, I decided to head down there early Sunday morning to see if I could spy one. I figured a bunch of other birders would be doing the same.
But when I arrived at the spot where they’d been seen the day before, no one was around. I stayed for half an hour, and decided to move to Point Vicente to combine frigatebird watching with better views out to see, hoping for some storm-petrels. When I arrived at Point Vicente, a birding friend was there with a scope. We scanned the ocean for 45 minutes. Besides the thousands (and may tens of thousands) of Black-vented Shearwaters streaming south well off shore, there wasn’t much to see. And all the frigatebird sightings had been in the afternoon, so maybe we were in the wrong spot at the wrong time.
My friend decided it was time to move on. As we turned around to walk away from the ocean and back to the parking lot, I saw in the space between some trees a big black bird that looked like it had been stretched out both lengthwise and wingspan wise flying over a hill directly in front of us. “Frigatebird!” My friend dropped his scope and ran to get a clear view. I zoomed in with my camera and fired off some shots. After almost an hour of staring out to sea, we finally saw our target just as we turned around to leave. And it could easily have snuck by us had it not, by chance, been visible between a couple of trees as I happened to look ahead. We sent out word of the sighting, and noted the direction the bird was flying. But no one saw a frigatebird again that day from land (a couple were spotted way off shore near San Clemente Island).
I’d seen Magnificent Frigatebirds in Mexico before, but this was a United States, California, and LA County lifer. Even better, the crazy experience was shared with another birder who appreciated the absurdity and serendipity as much as I.