The East End
East of Inglewood Blvd., the birds aren’t as numerous. It’s mostly a narrow, shallow stream with little vegetation, best covered on bike rather than on foot.
Inglewood Blvd. to Lincoln Blvd.
The creek is tidal all the way to Inglewood Blvd. Look for shorebirds, gulls, and terns at lower tides, and sandpipers and phalaropes the shallow, cement-bottomed section.
Lower Ballona Creek (Lincoln Blvd. to Pacific Ave. Bridge)
Besides shorebirds and ducks in the creek, the open space on each side of the creek is home to raptors (including Burrowing Owl and White-tailed Kite) and a winter spot for Loggerhead Shrike.
Jetties and Breakwater
From Kingfishers to Kittiwakes, Scoters to Surfbirds, Boobies to Bufflehead, Gulls to Grebes, Tattlers to Terns, and Mergansers to Murrelets, this is a great place to rack up a big list.
The Ballona Creek is my most-frequented spot for birding. When I first moved to L.A. in 2012, we lived on Duquesne Avenue in Culver City, about 3 blocks from the creek. Now I live a single block off the creek at Centinela Avenue. At least a couple of times a week I take bike rides or walk on the path (shown above in red) that runs nearly 7 miles alongside the creek. The entire length of the creek is within my 5-mile radius, and everyone knows how obsessed I am with my 5MR. It’s also the site of my greatest birding find ever: a Bar-tailed Godwit on the lower section of the Ballona Creek in September 2017. Simply put, I’m a regular fixture on the creek. And it’s a great spot to see a variety of birds.
Since I often get questions from birders about the best times, best tides, and best places to check for certain birds along the creek, I figured it was long past time for me to create a guide to birding Ballona Creek. So here it is. Because of the creek’s length, I’ve divided it up into sections. To see the guides to different sections of the creek, click on the links above.
History of the creek and Ballona valley
Some 5,000 years ago, the Tongva people arrived in the area. They hunted and gathered and fished and established small villages. Around 1820, a Spanish rancher named Augustin Machado showed up, a land grant from the Mexican government in hand (this wasn’t California, or the United States, yet). He called the place Rancho La Ballona (the name may refer to Baiona, Spain, where Machado traced his roots). The creek originally meandered into and around a vast marshy wetland before it reached the ocean. As the area slowly developed, a street car line was built that connected present-day Playa del Rey with downtown Los Angeles.
The creek was channelized in concrete in the 1930s for flood control. This straightened it out, and reduced tidal flow and spillover into the wetlands, which began to dry up. In the 1960s, the vast “wetlands” were dredged and became a parking lot for boats called Marina del Rey. By then, the remaining wetlands were 10% of their original size. Today, most of the lower creek is part of the Ballona Wetlands State Ecological Reserve. The upper section of the creek runs through suburban Culver City. The creek’s watershed is about 130 square miles that stretches from the Skirball Center to the Griffith Observatory in the Santa Monica Mountains, to the Silver Lake Reservoir and the intersection of the 110 and the 10, to Inglewood Park Cemetery and the edge of Westchester.
Despite its channelization and the degradation of the surrounding wetlands, the Ballona Creek is a crucial part of some important bird habitat. The combination of creek and adjacent salt pan and flood plains make it host to a variety of bird species (alongside snakes and rabbits and coyotes and all kinds of other creatures). It is only fitting that the Ballona area has been labeled an “Important Bird Area” by Audubon.
I’ve divided the guide into 4 different posts. Starting at the ocean, the first post covers the creek mouth, jetties, and breakwater at Playa del Rey. The second post covers the lower Ballona Creek, from the Pacific Avenue bridge up to Lincoln Blvd. The third post provides information and tips about the productive area of the creek between Lincoln Blvd. and Inglewood Blvd. The last post covers the entire eastern half of the creek (from Inglewood Avenue inland), which is much less birdy than the other sections.
Those who wish to support conservation in and around the Ballona Creek can check out Friends of Ballona Wetlands, the Ballona Wetlands Land Trust, Heal the Bay, and Ballona Creek Renaissance. At each website, you’ll find information about ways you can get involved in habitat restoration, cleanup, and more. You’ll also find information there about the controversial restoration project planned for the creek and surrounding wetlands area. The final EIR was approved in 2020. The groups identified above differ in their views on the approved project. The Los Angeles Audubon Society appears not to support the approved plan.
I hope the guide is helpful.