Believe it or not, this is a color photograph of a Pigeon Guillemot
A trio of new birds for the 5MR life list
It’s been a crazy year for vagrants in Los Angeles County this year. Most of them are birds I’ve already seen in the county, so I don’t chase after them. Instead, I stay faithful to my 5MR circle. And while it gets harder and harder to add new birds to my 5MR life list each year, vagrants are always out there waiting to be found. Thus, while many birders slavishly continued their never-ending LA County big years, chasing birds they see every year, I was able to add 3 new species to my 5MR list.
The first of the fall trio is (you’ll have to trust me) pictured above. That black dot just below the center of the photograph is a Pigeon Guillemot lounging off Dockweiler Beach. This bird had probably been around for about a month when I saw it. But I’ve become increasingly uncertain about my bike’s ability to hold itself together, so I haven’t been taken long rides to the beach that often. In the wake of a close encounter with Tropical Storm Kay in Septemebr, I decided to check out Dockweiler Beach and see if anything unusual was around. Happily, the Pigeon Guillemot was offshore. It was closest when I first arrived. Once I put the binoculars down and got the camera out, it was further offshore. The result is the sorry documentation photo posted above. But, you know what? For all its shortcomings, that picture is actually one of my favorite shots from the whole year. There’s something about its monochromatic fuzziness that demands you give it a close, careful look.
The second of my trio was one I’d been hoping to find. In my 2021 5MR recap post, I identified Grasshopper Sparrow as my #1 target for my 5MR life list. In that post, I wrote that “these secretive sparrows are undoubtedly present in my 5MR, probably every year.” In early November, I proved myself right. And the one I found was just where I thought it would be – the Ballona flatlands. Much of the Ballona ecological reserve, which is full of great habitat, is fenced off. Since you can’t walk through it, hoping to flush a Grasshopper Sparrow, you’ve got to walk its edges. One such edge is along the very beginnings of the 90 “Freeway” where it crosses Culver Boulevard. I say “freeway” because, at 3 miles long, it can be driven from end to end quicker than you can read this blog post. Anyhoo, you can walk along the northwest edge of Area C of the Ballona Ecological Reserve right where the 90 freeway starts. I’ve done it a few times, getting looks at Loggerhead Shrike and White-tailed Kite, but never a Grasshopper Sparrow. Until I did. Amongst a group of White-crowned Sparrows, I noticed a skulkier sparrow with more brownish coloring. I pished, and a Grasshopper Sparrow popped up into view, first in a bush and then along the fence. According to eBird, it was only the third Grasshopper Sparrow found in West LA Basin. the first was 2012, then 2017. With mine in 2022, it may mean the next one won’t be found until 2027.
The third of the trio was found in one of my favorite parks to bird in my 5MR – Ladera Park. It’s a rectangular shaped collection of tall trees just south of Kenneth Hahn Park and the Inglewood Oil Field. Thanks to the tall trees, it’s a good spot for songbirds. In the past, it’s hosted Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Prothontary Warbler, Varied Thrush, and is maybe the best spot in my circle for wintering Plumbeous Vireo. I was not expecting any kind of oriole at Ladera Park when I visited in mid-November (orioles clear out by the end of September around here), much less a Baltimore Oriole. But I was definitely looking at an oriole high up in the sycamores. I first thought an odd, late Hooded Oriole. But that ID wasn’t adding up as I watched this bird deliberately move through the upper canopy. The top of the tail was orange, not black, and there was a patch of black on the birds lower neck that was not in the right place for Hooded. I next thought Bullock’s Oriole, but they usually show a lot more white on the lower belly and a stronger eyeline.
That left Baltimore Oriole. But I struggled to get good, unobstructed looks. The bird was surprisingly elusive despite its orange color and deliberate pace. As a result, I wasn’t sure until I got home and took a closer look at my photos. Some streaking on the head and a scaly upper back (together with the black growing in on the head) sealed the ID. Pretty cool, given that these birds are supposed to winter in Central and South America.
So it’s been a nice fall in the 5MR. We’ll see if December brings another addition to the list.