Birding Lower Ballona Creek: Pacific Avenue to Lincoln Boulevard
This section of my guide to birding Ballona Creek covers the last mile-and-a-half of the creek before it reaches the jetties and breakwater, from Lincoln Blvd. to the Pacific Avenue bridge. There’s a single eBird hotspot for this section–Ballona Creek: Lower–where 223 species have been reported over the years. The creek is tidal for this whole section, and tides can shift as much as 6 feet from high to low. At the lowest tides, there’s exposed mud in the middle of the creek where Culver Blvd. and Lincoln Blvd. cross it. For the rest of the creek in this section, low tide just exposes a little more rock along the edge of the creek. The bike path (in red in the map above) runs along the north side of the creek. A path along the south side, with a view of the salt pan, is not legally accessible.
This portion of the creek is pretty good for water birds and shorebirds. The water birds (ducks, loons, and grebes mainly) can be found any time of day, moving up and down the creek. Numbers are highest in the winter. Buffleheads dominate, with a smaller number of American Wigeon (who prefer the lagoon to the creek), Lesser Scaup, and Green-winged Teal (more likely the further up the creek you go) usually present all winter, too. Pacific, Common, and Red-throated Loons will sometimes, usually singly, swim up and down the creek. Eared and Horned Grebes tend to stay downstream of the Pacific Avenue bridge. The Surf Scoters that mass in big numbers off Dockweiler Beach during winter will sometimes wander up the creek a bit. Brant are rare. Most winters a Common Goldeneye or two makes an appearance. Less frequently a Long-tailed Duck shows up. A few Red-necked Phalaropes are seen in fall migration (they prefer the section of the creek near Centinela Ave.), and a breeding-plumaged Red Phalarope hung out for a couple of days one May. Mallards and Gadwall hang around all-year long.
The best time for shorebirds in this section of the creek is either the morning, or low tide. At high tide, especially if it’s a higher high tide, there aren’t that many roosting spots, and many birds head to the beach or, if there’s water, the salt pan. There are a few spots where the shorebirds are more likely to be found. One is about 50 yards west of the UCLA boat ramp, on the north side of the creek. This is a great spot for viewing because you’ve got point blank views of the birds, all huddled together. Their close proximity helps to make the rarities stick out more obviously. Another spot is just west of the bike path fork. There’s bigger bushes here, which often obscures the view. The best time of the year for shorebirds is during spring/fall migration, when the variety is highest, followed by winter. From May to June, the creek is mainly a ghost town.
Black-bellied Plovers and Willets roost in numbers, with often more than 100 of each. Marbled Godwit can be found year-round as well. Whimbrel pass through for migration, with a few staying all winter. A Pacific Golden-Plover has been present for 4 winters running, and I hope it comes back in Fall 2022 for a 5th. While not reliably found on any given trip to the creek, each winter, Dunlin and Red Knot can often be found on the lower creek,
Of course, a bunch of birds fly up and down the creek, as well, occasionally dive bombing to feed for fish. Osprey (August through April), Brown Pelicans (all year), and Elegant and Caspian Terns (summer) are frequent flyers. The tiny Least Terns are around from May to July, but some days you’ll see them, and others not.
Flatlands surrounding the creek
There are some big flat fields on both the north and south side of the creek. The field north of the creek is known as Area A. It had been completely fenced off for years, but recently a short (and pretty unexciting) walking path was opened up in the western-most portion. You can enter from a parking lot along Fiji Way (across from Whiskey Red’s), or off the bike path. I’ve seen it called the Ballona Wetlands Trail or the Fiji Trail. It’s supposed open Wednesday-Saturday from 8am – 1pm. The path is a short square walk, and gives you some better views of the field.
If you’re on the bike path, you can often see birds along the fenceline. It’s rarely exciting stuff – house finches, song sparrows, savannah sparrows, and white-crowned sparrow mainly. Spring migration often brings a few Lazuli Buntings and a Blue Grosbeak or two. Out in the field, you’ll see Red-tailed Hawks all-year long. Last winter, a Harlan’s (Red-tailed) Hawk hung around for a month from December to January. Once a separate species, it’s now considered a subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk. In the Lower 48, they’re usually in the Great Plains in winter. Other birds of prey working the fields include White-tailed Kite, Northern Harrier, Loggerhead Shrike (a carnivorous songbird, is that a bird of prey?), American Kestrel, and Barn Owls at night. Swallows work the field frequently, and you can occasionally see Bell’s Vireo, California Thrasher, and Western Meadowlark out there. The only two warblers you’re likely to see if this mostly tree-less area are Yellow-rumped Warbler in winter, and Common Yellowthroat.
South of the creek is a flatland sometimes called the Salt Pan. Back when it used to rain in the these parts, there would be shallow pools out there for weeks. But now, thanks to the megadrouhgt, it’s mostly dry. When there’s water, the Black-bellied Plovers will hang out there, alongside Killdeer. It’s harder to get access to this area. Pre-pandemic, there were monthly service events in the area, to clear invasive plants like iceplant. Those are just getting started up again. Without access, it’s hard to spot the Burrowing Owl that often winter in this area. The path along the south side of the creek isn’t legally accessible. You can get distant, lawful views from the high ground at the end of 63rd Avenue in Playa del Rey behind the Del Rey Lagoon, or, more uncomfortably, by pulling off Culver Blvd. I don’t know who manages the sluice gates, but I’d love to know why the area isn’t managed to allow intrusion of water more regularly. I imagine the migrating birds would love the stopover point.
Birding Glory: A Bar-tailed Godwit
This section of the creek is the site of my greatest ever birding find: a Bar-tailed Godwit in September 2017. On a bike ride one day, I stopped at a group of shorebirds along the north side of the creek between the UCLA boat ramp and the Pacific Avenue bridge. In the fall, the group is typically a mix of Black-bellied Plover, Willet, and Marbled Godwit. On this day, one of the 5 godwits in the group caught my attention. It had a very prominent white eyebrow that extended behind the eye. I watched it for a couple of minutes, and snapped some pictures (thank goodness). After a few minutes, it flew with the other godwits. The birds flew directly away from me, headed toward the ocean. I noticed that the mystery godwit’s rump patch appeared whiter, or at least contrasted a bit more with the back and end of tail, than the rump of the Marbled Godwits it flew away with. At the time, I didn’t know what it was. When I got home, I downloaded my pictures, and posted a message to the LA County birds listserv about a “Maybe Unusual Godwit” on the creek with my observations and a link to my photos. The experts quickly identified it as a Bar-tailed Godwit.
Bar-tailed Godwits have an astounding migration. In the spring, they leave their wintering grounds in New Zealand and western Australia and fly north to the Yellow Sea in China, and from there disperse anywhere from Russia all the way to western Alaska. For those that head to Alaska, the return trip is unbelievable. These Bar-tailed Godwits double their weight in 2 weeks time, shrink their digestive organs, and enlarge their pectoral muscles, heart, and lungs. Then, they lift off for a 7,000 mile non-stop flight from western Alaska to New Zealand. The path takes them west of Hawai’i, so a Bar-tailed Godwit on the ground in Los Angeles is incredibly far off course. The journey takes eight or nine days, and is the longest known nonstop migration of any animal on earth. It truly boggles the mind that a 1.5 pound creature can make this insane trip, much less do it every fall its entire life.
Despite lots of nerds looking that afternoon and the next day, the bird wasn’t seen again. Amazingly, of the 445,000+ eBird checklists ever submitted in L.A. County, only two report a Bar-tailed Godwit. There’s mine, and there’s one from 1976 (also in the lower Ballona Creek) from Kimball Garrett, the Michael Jordan of L.A. county birding (he’s seen 528 species in L.A. county alone!), together with a trio of similarly obscure birders named Jon Dunn, Guy McCaskie, and Van Remsen (an LSU ornithologist who was an author of the paper that reported seeing an Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Arkansas in 2004).
While most days birding on the lower Ballona Creek are unlikely to produce a Bar-tailed Godwit, this is a great spot to get close-up views of a variety of species.
The future of this section of the creek is hotly contested right now. There are plans afoot to “restore” the lower creek to something that more resembles the original wetlands than the concrete bowling alley that the creek is today. Heal the Bay supports the plan depicted above. Environmental Impact Reports have been certified. Whatever shape it eventually takes (maybe 10-15 years from now), I hope there is more attention paid to providing attractive habitat for birds than there is now. This truly could be an amazing urban stopover site for migrating birds of all kinds, and breeding area for lost L.A. County breeders like Burrowing Owl and White-tailed Kite. A few extra walking paths would be nice as well, as long as they don’t come with large paved parking lots.
My wife and I saw a burrowing owl near the end of the creek. My wife got a good picture of it.