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Birding Ballona Creek #4 – The East End

A Guide to the East End of Ballona Creek

This post in my Guide to Birding Ballona Creek covers the portion of the creek east of Inglewood Blvd., all the way to Syd Kronenthal Park (3.6 miles). Despite its length, this section of the creek has few birds. The creek is no longer tidal, and there’s very little vegetation in the concrete creek bed. But there are a couple of sections that regularly produce some birds, and a rarity can turn up anywhere. This section of the creek has produced a Sandhill Crane, Sabine’s Gull, Semipalmated Sandpiper, White-throated Sparrow, Tropical Kingbird, and Solitary Sandpiper.

 

 

Two eBird hotspots cover this section of Ballona Creek: one is called Ballona Creek–east of Centinela Ave., and the other is called Upper Ballona Creek Bike Path, Culver City.  It’s not clear where the “East of Centinela Ave.” hotspot ends and the “Upper Ballona Creek Bike Path” hotspot begins. To add to the confusion, the “East of Centinela Ave.” hotspot overlaps with the “Ballona Creek–Centinela Ave. to Inglewood Blvd.” hotspot (a short section of the creek east of Centinela Ave.). It really should be renamed “Ballona Creek–East of Inglewood Blvd.” (in large part because the creek, and the bird life, noticeably changes at Inglewood Blvd.) Anyhoodle, I use Duquesne Avenue as my dividing line between these two hotspots for the eastern half of the creek bike path. 

Semipalmated Sandpiper Ballona Creek

A Semipalmated Sandpiper stretches its wings

I’ll cover this section of the creek starting from the far east end, and make my way toward the ocean. We start where the bike path ends, at Syd Kronenthal Park. Syd Kronenthal worked for Culver City Parks and Rec for 52 years, and was the driving force behind many of the city’s parks. This is a nice park with a bunch of trees, and a big soccer/baseball field. I haven’t spent a lot of time birding this park, but it’s got some big trees, so there’s always a chance something cool is there. I did find this Merlin one January, perched in trees overlooking the creek.

Merlin Culver City California

This Merlin had its eyes on some Least Sandpipers in the creek

From Syd Kronenthal Park, you descend a slope to hop on the Ballona Creek bike path. The first section runs north/south, and goes under a tall bridge (see picture below). There is almost always some vegetation growing at the water’s edge here, unless the city’s vegetation destruction crew has been dispatched. Black-necked Stilts breed in this section of the creek. They build their nests on raised cement areas in the middle of the creek. Black-necked Stilts are territorial and protective, and will loudly call if you pause to watch them and eggs are in the nest or chicks are around. There are usually some sandpipers here, from fall to spring, but it’s hit and miss. Mostly, they are Least Sandpipers, with a smaller number of Western Sandpipers. I did find a Semipalmated Sandpiper in this section in August 2020, a rare sighting away from the L.A. River for that species. 

ballona creek

An environmental destruction crew scours the creek of any and all vegetation

After a half mile, the creek turns southwest, and goes past the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook and its famous steep staircase (I used the 282 stairs as sea-level training for hiking the Inka Trail – note the nearest creek access is Duquesne Avenue). There are more Black-necked Stilts here (watch for nests and newborns), and rock pigeons on the wires over the creek. In March, Northern Rough-winged Swallows arrive. They often perch on the guardrails along the bike path, and will disappear into the holes in the concrete sides of the creek bed. 

The creek widens just south of Duquesne  Avenue, where a small tributary appears from beneath the houses east of the creek and adds water flow. This wide, shallow section is a good spot for sandpipers. If they are small, they are Least and Western Sandpipers, but I’ve had Solitary Sandpipers in this area (in late August and early September). After Jackson Avenue (where a pipeline bridge crosses the creek), birdlife mostly vanishes until Overland Avenue . Mallards and Killdeer are about all the action you can expect, though Walter Lamb improbably found a Sandhill Crane in this section of the creek one day.

Solitary Sandpiper Ballona Creek

This Solitary Sandpiper hung around for a couple of weeks in Aug-Sept 2018

As the bike path continues toward the ocean, it passed by Culver City High school fields (a Whimbrel is my most surprising sighting here) and native garden along the fence (a White-throated Sparrow popped out of the bushes one December).

After crossing under the 405 freeway, the bike path passes Slauson Park, which has a small collection of tall trees. Despite its proximity to my house, I haven’t explored it enough (for migrants, or a wintering songbird). From Mar Vista Gardens to Inglewood Blvd, you can often find a gull flock of shifting size. I lack Andy Birch’s obsession with scanning gull flocks for rarities, but some careful attention here could probably pull our something good during the winter.  I did find a juvenile Sabine’s Gull here in October 2016 that stuck around for 4 days. You’ll likely hear the shrieks of exotic pet birds like a cockatiel or budgerigar coming from Mar Vista Gardens as you pass by. They’ve always been in cages, but maybe one will break out someday and become a non-countable escapee. 

Set your expectations low for this 3-mile section of creek. The birds aren’t numerous, and the species counts won’t be big. Given its length, it is best covered by bike rather than on foot. But like anywhere else, surprises await.

Access Points to the Bike Path in this section (starting at east end):

  • Syd Kronenthal Park
  • Duquesne Ave. (access to Culver City Park)
  • Overland Ave.
  • Westwood Blvd. bridge (for a quick detour to Lindberg Park)
  • Sepulveda Blvd.
  • Purdue Avenue (just south of Sawtelle Blvd)
  • Slauson Park. 
  • Inglewood Blvd.

Birding Ballona Creek #1: Jetties and Breakwater

Ballona Creek: Jetties and Breakwater

This post in my guide to birding Ballona Creek covers the area of Ballona Creek where it spills into the Pacific Ocean (that is, the portion west of the Pacific Avenue bridge). The creek channel here is straight as an arrow, thanks to a 1930s channelization project. It is lined by big rock jetties on each side. For convenience, I’ve numbered the unnamed jetties in the map above. Folks sometimes refer to #2 as the middle or long jetty, and #3 as the short jetty (or the southern jetty). They’re the jetties most birders explore, since they’re easy to access from parking at or around Del Rey Lagoon. Jetty #2 and Jetty #3 have flat sidewalk surfaces you can stroll down, though the last 100 yards of #2 is uneven rock. There are far fewer reports from the northern-most jetty (#1). I rarely visit jetty #1 because the bike path doesn’t go past it, and it’s more than twice as far to drive to that side of the creek from my house as it is to drive to Del Rey Lagoon. The bike path is in red, and continues for miles south along the coast.

This section of the creek has a dedicated eBird hotspot: Ballona Creek–Creek mouth, jetties, and breakwater. A hotspot for the Pacific Avenue bridge and another for the general “Playa del Rey/Ballona area” confound things a bit. I’ve never entered a checklist for either of those two spots. If you’re on the jetties, I suggest you use the creek mouth/jetty/breakwater hotspot. 

This is one of my favorite places to visit in my entire 5-mile radius. For starters, it’s got great birds. All year long (except maybe the doldrums of June), the jetties and breakwater offer excellent birding and the potential for rarities. In addition to great birds, I’ve seen green sea turtles and sea lions and whales from the jetties (a gray whale was swimming 10 feet off jetty #3 one day!). And there’s always multiple kinds of watercraft about–from fishing boats and pleasure yachts to jet skis and college rowing crews. The jetties have their share of regular fishermen, and get more casual foot traffic on the weekends. The fisherman don’t seem to bother the birds all that much, but too many strollers tends to scare the birds off.

Another advantage of the jetties is that this isn’t a birding spot that requires getting up at the crack of dawn to see the birds. The tide plays more of a role for seeing birds here than the time of day (that, and how many people are about). If you’re all alone on the jetties at dawn at a high tide, there will be fewer birds on the rocks than if you come mid-day when the tide is falling. That said, there are usually more people around after 10am, especially on weekends.

While I can’t discern anything special about the rocks on one side of a particular jetty or the other, in my experience, the jetty birds prefer the rocks along the creek (that is, the north side of jetty #3 and south side of jetty #2). Between the two, the longer middle jetty gets more birds, and most of them are on the west end of the jetty, after the flat walking surface ends. The sunlight (such as it as) is better in the mornings, when it’ll be at your back (but it’s usually obscured by the marine layer). Visibility in the afternoon, especially during the summer months, is tough with the setting sun behind the breakwater.

On the Rocks

Generally, the further out you get on the jetties, especially jetty #2, the more birds you’ll see. There are a good number of usual jetty suspects feeding on the rocks: Willets, Turnstones (Ruddy and Black), Surfbirds, Sandpipers (Least are more numerous than Western), and Sanderlings are all present year-round, except for a vanishing act they play during June. Black Oystercatchers are resident in small numbers all year, either on jetty #2 or the breakwater. Wandering Tattlers are uncommon but possible any month, except for late April and early May when migrants move through, and June, when they vanish like the others. A small number of Belding’s Savannah Sparrow, an endangered subspecies of Savannah Sparrow that breeds in salt marsh, can occasionally be spotted (almost always alone, and on jetty #2). From time to time, a Black Phoebe will hang out on the jetties. American Oystercatchers get reported, though I’m convinced most of them are Black xAmerican hybrid birds. Despite all the good rocks, only rarely does someone report a Rock Wren. And it’s been almost a decade since a Burrowing Owl spent a couple of weeks on jetty #2.

The approximately 2,000 foot wide breakwater is close enough to the jetties to ID birds with binoculars. It’s often dominated by cormorants. The majority are Brandt’s Cormorants, with some Double-crested and Pelagic mixed in. If there isn’t a feeding frenzy going on nearby,  you might see up to 5,000 cormorants standing on the breakwater. If the wind is blowing the surf onto the breakwater, the cormorants move en masse onto the jetties, and a slow approach will allow for some excellent close-ups. Brown pelicans, gulls, pigeons, and Snowy Egret make up the rest of the birds you’re likely to spot on the breakwater. With patience and luck, you can sometimes pick some rarities out on the breakwater. In September 2013, Blue-footed Boobies showed up. As many a 9 were reported, and the last one stayed until December. In February 2020, a Masked Booby made the breakwater home for 2 weeks. A Common Murre was seen out there during the 2016 L.A. CBC.

In the Air

Despite all the action on the rocks, you’ve got to keep your eyes on the skies, too, as there’s usually plenty of action. Gulls are most numerous, and mob the fishing boats as they return to harbor. Western Gulls are present in the biggest numbers, all year round. The beautiful Heerman’s Gulls (both white-headed adults and chocolate juveniles) are here nearly year-round, but in sporadic numbers. Ring-billed Gulls dwindle in the summer, but are common in the winter. Bonaparte’s Gulls, Short-billed Gulls, Herring Gulls, Iceland Gull, and Glaucous-winged Gulls are strictly winter birds. Only two reports (1975 and 2009) of Glaucous Gull suggest they don’t prefer the area. There aren’t any reports yet of Lesser Black-backed Gull here, but their rising numbers in L.A. County suggest that one will soon be found here. Careful observers can knock themselves out trying to ID the hybrid gulls as well.

The screeching of terns is constant background noise around the jetties. Look for Royal Tern in the winter, Elegant, Caspian, and Least Tern in the summer, and Forster’s by happenstance anytime (another species I think is overreported). Standing on the end of jetty #2 and looking out past the breakwater, you’ll sometimes see Parasitic Jaegers chasing after terns. Osprey like to perch on the breakwater towers, and Peregrine Falcons occasionally make runs along the creek in winter. Belted Kingfisher sometimes move from the lagoon to the bridge, but rarely venture out to the jetties.

On the Water 

There are plenty of birds on the water, as well. Moving about between the jetties and the breakwater you can see a bunch of stuff. Loons can be found from November to May (Pacific, Common, and Red-throated, with Pacific being the least common in my experience). Eared Grebe’s typically outnumber Horned Grebes, and Western Grebes far outnumber Clark’s. Pied-billed Grebes tend to stay upstream of the bridge. A Red-necked Grebe is possible inside the breakwater, but quite rare. Surf Scoters often mass along Dockweiler Beach, and small groups can be found feeding between the breakwater and the jetties. Bufflehead in winter are the most numerous duck, with Lesser Scaup and Red-breasted Merganser common in smaller numbers, and Long-tailed Ducks a winter rarity. The rest of the ducks tend to stay in the lagoon or up the creek.

Over the years, this has been the spot of a few rarity sightings for me. A one-day wonder Red-necked Grebe flew past me in December 2020. A couple of Yellow-crowned Night Herons took up residence on the breakwater in Fall 2021, and there’s a couple more back again right now at the lagoon north of jetty #1. A Vesper Sparrow was on jetty #2 the same glorious September day in 2017 that I spotted a Bar-tailed Godwit further up the creek. Every four years, an Ancient Murrelet or three will show up, the last time in 2018. A Black-legged Kittiwake was on the beach next to jetty #3 one day. In Winter 2014/15, as many as 8 Ancient Murrelets showed up in Santa Monica Bay and several wandered their way into the creek and the marina. Another Ancient Murrelet was spotted at the jetties in February 2018 for a few days.

Whenever you come here–morning, midday, or afternoon; winter, summer, spring, or fall (with the exception of June, when it’s pretty quiet); jetty #1, 2, or 3–you should be able to rack up a pretty good list of West Coast birds.

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