5MR: 2023 Recap and 2024 Targets

Great Crested Flycatcher on LMU’s campus, Sept. 23, 2023

2023: In a Year of Travel, the 5MR Still Delivers

For the first time since COVID appeared in spring 2020, I traveled a bunch last year. Trips to Spain, Puerto Rico, Italy, and Baja California highlighted my birding for the year. Nevertheless, I spent most of my time at home, and most of my birding close to home. I don’t think I’ll ever quit prioritizing my 5MR. All told, I ended up seeing 216 species in my 5MR in 2023. That’s an average year for my circle. 

With each passing year, it gets a little harder to add new birds to my 5MR list. This year I only managed to add three. And only one was a bird I found by myself. The new additions to the list are:

  1. Townsend’s Solitaire – This is a higher elevation thrush that rarely strays to the LA basin. Between the Santa Monica mountains and Palos Verdes, and the coast and downtown LA, there are only a half dozen reports in eBird. The day we left for our spring break trip to Spain, word went out that a Townsend’s Solitaire was found on LMU’s campus. Luckily for me, it decided to stay around for a couple of weeks. I was able to see it when we returned. As I mentioned in my post about the find, the bird is named after John Kirk Townsend, a 19th century naturalist and phrenologist who dug up Native American burial sites to bring skulls back to his racist skull-studying friends. Maybe “buff-winged solitaire” is a better option for a name?
  2. Great Crested Flycatcher- This new 5MR lifer was found at LMU as well. Funny story – I had been at LMU that morning, and stood in the spot the Great Crested Flycatcher was later found, for 20 minutes. If it was there at the time, I didn’t see it. But 5MR birding played a role in its find. I’d seen a Summer Tanager that morning in the NE corner of LMU’s campus and reported it. A young birder saw the report and came to add Summer Tanager to his 5MR list. While he was there, he saw the Great Crested Flycatcher. It’s a familiar story of how one bird find leads to another.
  3. Brown Creeper – Brown Creeper is one of the birds I put on my 2023 Targets list. And I predicted that it’d likely be one of 2 locations in my 5MR. Sure enough, in November, while birding Cheviot Hills Park, I finally stumbled upon a Brown Creeper in my 5MR. I had just discovered a Painted Redstart at the park and was following it through the trees when I saw the creeper working its way up a trunk. The only photo I got almost missed the bird. I love watching these birds work the trees. They start near the bottom of the trunk, and head up, hunting for insects along the way. Then, they fly to another tree, and start the process again.
2024 5MR Targets

I’m keeping most of my target list from last year for this year, because I think most of the birds are findable if I’m in the right place at the right time. But I’ve added a couple that aren’t likely, but would be awesome to see so close to home.

  1. Rose-breasted Grosbeak A regular enough vagrant in L.A. County that a park in my 5MR is bound to host one.
  2. Lesser Black-backed Gull – Increasingly spotted in L.A. County, but only once along the coast (2014). It’s past time for me to find one.
  3. Horned Lark –  I feel like they should be regular in the Ballona flatlands. But they don’t get reported. Maybe they don’t like the coast. My best bet may be ID’ing a fly-by, but I don’t know the flight call well enough to do that.
  4. Chimney Swift – This one is all about ID skills. Each spring, the Vaux Swifts move through, and amongst them is surely a Chimney Swift or two. Do I have the patience to bird every bird and pick out the rarity? That’s the premise of this whole exercise, isn’t it?
  5. Northern Waterthrush – There are several warblers I’d like to add to my 5MR list. My target is a Northern Waterthrush in the Playa Vista Riparian Corridor or at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh. The habitat is potentially good, especially in a wet year.
  6. Little Blue Heron / Reddish Egret – There are so many egrets and herons in the Ballona area that one of these two species is bound to show up some time. If we’d get more rain, or “they” would manage the wetlands so that there were more shallow pools for birds like these to feed in, the chances would go up.
  7. Crested Caracara – One of these desert raptors was spotted at the Ballona Freshwater Marsh in June 2023 while I was birding in Puerto Rico. (There was a Laughing Gull present at the same time, which would have also been a new bird for my 5MR. The double-miss was , admittedly, a little painful.). It was a one-day wonder, and I may have missed my chance. But this would be a cool addition to the list.
  8. Painted Bunting – The habitat is right in a couple of spots. Finding one of the colorful male birds would be awesome.
  9. Eastern Phoebe – The eastern complement to our Black Phoebe. These birds seem to show up every year somewhere in LA County, and the Playa Vista Riparian Corridor seems like a great spot for one to spend the winter.
  10. Magnificent Frigatebird – The last couple of big storms to come up from Baja have blown frigatebirds into L.A. County. They didn’t seem to make it past Palos Verdes, but I’m optimistic that it won’t be that long before one of the long-winged flyers soars along Dockweiler Beach.





New Year, New LA County Lifers

A Winter Wren in the right season, but on the wrong coast

Two New LA County Lifers in the New Year

The New Year is an exciting time for birders because their precious year lists revert to zero. Every species, including the commonest of resident birds, is a new tick again. On top of that, it’s the season of Christmas Bird Counts – the annual ritual of counting all the birds in a designated 15-mile diameter circle. In addition to yearly snapshots of bird populations, Christmas Bird Counts have a tendency to produce good rarities. With so many birders covering not just the frequent haunts but places that folks don’t often check, all kinds of surprises turn up.

As the calendar turned to 2024, a couple of birds were in LA County that I’d never seen here before. One was a Hepatic Tanager. These birds range from the southwestern U.S. down to South America, but rarely make it to the west coast. This one had been found on November 20th in Griffith Park. It was found near a gold course by an out-of-town birder who didn’t ID and report the finding until 9 days later.  It was refound in the same area the next day and a couple of days later. And then reports quit. A few days before Christmas, Andy Birch found it again. It was still in the same area. I made one stop on January 4 during a lunch break, but couldn’t find it. A couple of days later I went in the morning and was lucky enough to spot it. While I’d seen one before in SE Arizona and Mexico, it was a lifer for several birders around me. 

The other good bird in the county was a Winter Wren. It’s part of a duo of tiny brown, short-tailed wrens with a dazzlingly long song that used to be just one species. But in 2010, the Winter Wren and Pacific Wren were split. West of the Rocky Mountains is the Pacific Wren. East of the Rocky Mountains is the Winter Wren. I’ve seen each before – the Pacific Wren a couple times in LA County and once up in Seattle. The Winter Wren is a resident in Maine that I see each summer when we visit. But I’d never seen a Winter Wren in LA County before. In fact, this was only the second county record for Winter Wren.

The Winter Wren was found on December 31st at Castaic Lagoon (which, I guess, technically, is a lagoon). I went up there the next day, the morning of January 1st, to see if I could find it. As I arrived at the spot at 7:30am, a couple of workers were 50 yards away running a chain saw. Despite this inauspicious start, I spotted a juvenile Bald Eagle soaring overhead. And then I quickly found the Winter Wren. After about 5 minutes, the chain-saw stopped. Ten seconds later, the Winter Wren popped up in the bushes in front of me and starting calling. It didn’t seem bothered by my close presence, and called away for 5 minutes before disappearing into the brush. I then walked the shore of the lagoon and spotted the Red-necked Grebe that’s been around. I was far from my 5MR, but it was a nice way to start the year.

Later on January 1st, LA-birding guru Kimball Garrett sent out a new year message on the LA County birding listserv, As he has done previously, he urged birders to take a break from county year-listing. Instead, he encouraged focus on a “birds found” list. That is, rather than chasing birds found by others, he hoped birders would prioritize finding birds themselves. The next day, I decided to chime in. As the original champion of 5MR birding in L.A., I felt this was a good chance to shout-out again for birders to focus on birding near home. As i said in my message, it’s a win for science, a win for the Earth, and a win for other birders because of the birds I find that otherwise would go undetected.

Unable to resist the temptation to take a shot at the perpetual county big-year listers, I called that approach to birding “gross.” Which it is. This meant I was openly criticizing a dozen or so of LA County’s long-time and well-known birders (and year-after-year-after-year eBird Top 100 list toppers). Maybe I went too far, or chose my words poorly. But I don’t regret it. As I said to the birder who complained about my characterization, there are downsides to year-list-driven long-distance car birding that we must acknowledge.

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