Month: August 2020 (Page 1 of 2)

L.A. County Lifer: Semipalmated Sandpiper

Semipalmated Sandpiper Ballona Creek

Semipalmated Sandpiper stretching its wings

Semipalmated Sandpiper on Ballona Creek

Every spring and fall for the past 4 years, I’ve scanned the small groups of sandpipers on Ballona Creek east of Centinela Ave. My goal: turn one of the regular Western Sandpipers into a rare Semipalmated Sandpiper. For reasons I can’t explain, the creek doesn’t get many migrating shorebirds. Maybe it’s the smaller size of the creek (compared to the L.A. River). Maybe it’s the lack of vegetation (this part of the creek gets essentially vacuumed at least twice a year, and the bushes that grow alongside it are cut down). Or maybe the creek runs too much east-west instead of north-south. Whatever it is, the peep flocks never get much bigger than 20-30 birds. But I was convinced that careful, patient eyes could eventually find a Semipalmated Sandpiper some day. And after years of hunting, my search is over. 

Semipalmated Sandpipers breed on the Arctic tundra. They travel through the United States on their way to wintering grounds on the South American coasts. Some of the eastern-most birds are thought to make a non-stop flight from New England to South America over the ocean. One tagged (less-than-two-ounce) bird made a 3,000 mile non-stop flight. They are regular migrants on the east coast of the United States. On the west coast, they are fewer and farther between. They apparently prefer to migrant a bit inland, rather than along the coast. They get reported on the L.A. River every year, but had never been seen in my 5MR on Ballona Creek. 

Semipalmated Sandpiper Ballona Creek

There were very few birds on the creek today, which is pretty usual. As the creek turned north just past the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook, I spotted about a dozen peeps (an unusual spot for them). Dutifully, I looked through the group. Most were Least Sandpipers. Two were obvious Western Sandpipers. A final bird was short-billed, dark-legged, and showed no rufous in the scapulars. I studied it for 10 minutes. Usually, these birds morph into Westerns the longer I look at them. The bill lengthens and droops. A hint of rufous appears on the back. But this one stayed the same. I took some fuzzy photos with my pocket zoom. I posted them to LACO Birds, and received several replies that agreed with the ID of a Semipalmated Sandpiper.

Sandpiper Trifecta Ballona Creek

Sandpiper Trifecta on Ballona Creek: Least, Western, Semipalmated

Semipalmated Sandpiper is a new L.A. County lifer, and even better a new bird for my 5MR. Other than a 2010 bird at Malibu Lagoon, it’s also the first eBird report west of the L.A. River for L.A. County. I’m sure this isn’t the first that’s ever stopped on the creek, but it’s nice to have finally picked one out.

Dead Birds

Dead Rock PIgeon

Rock Pigeon, Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, CA

Dead Birds are Hard to Find

According to one estimate, over 13 million birds die every DAY in the United States.  That adds up to 5 billion dead birds a year in the United States. Or, by another measure, it is as many dead birds in two minutes as there have been tweets by Donald Trump while he has been President. Given those numbers, it’s hard to believe that I only occasionally come across a dead bird. 

Dead Barn Owl

Barn Owl, Kenneth Hahn Park, Los Angeles, CA


Dead American Coot

American Coot, Ballona Freshwater Marsh, Los Angeles, CA

Where do all these millions of dead birds go? My guess is that a big number are eaten by cats or dogs or coyotes or hawks. If they’re killed by predation, then it’s no surprise we don’t find them. Take the House Finch in this Cooper’s Hawk’s talons – if I’d walked by 10 minutes later, there’d likely have been no dead bird to find. 

Coopers Hawk with House Finch

House Finch, Ballona Freshwater Marsh, Los Angeles, CA

It also seems likely that most birds don’t die on roads, sidewalks, or hiking trails, where we’re likely to see them. Instead, they die in the brush, off the path, or in lakes and rivers. And scavengers and insects probably make quick work of the bodies, further reducing the chance that we stumble upon a carcass.

Dead Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl, Highway 24, Sevier County, Utah


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