Red Phalarope

Red Phalarope, Ballona Creek, May 2020

I’ve said it elsewhere, and I’ll say it again – 5MR birding is awesome. Indeed, the idea of focusing birding efforts within a few miles of my living room couch got me out of a bit of birding doldrums at the beginning of 2018. I had, by then, built up a big enough county list that new L.A. county lifers weren’t readily available. When they did show up, the birds were often far away – Los Angeles County is 4,751 square miles, and from my house it is 68 miles to the county’s NW corner in Gorman, 95 miles to the NE corner,  and depending on traffic can take almost an hour to get to parts that are much closer. Perhaps it was a sign of my maturing, but I simply didn’t care enough about my county list to drive 75 minutes to the Antelope Valley to get a bird like the Scott’s Oriole that I’ve already seen somewhere else.  I also felt guilty spending time and burning fossil fuel chasing birds, especially birds I had seen in LA before (say it with me: NO ONE CARES that you saw Mountain Plover or American Oystercatcher once again this year in L.A.). 

That’s when I stumbled upon Jen Sanford’s idea of the 5-mile radius. It was exactly what I needed – a birding challenge that would compel me to get out birding, while completely erasing any reason to go very far. It was a way to do what I enjoy with all sorts of time, environmental, conservation, and scientific benefits. And I would presumably learn a ton about birdlife in my little circle. I got so gung-ho that I made a contest out of it, recruiting some other birders in a 5MR Challenge for 2018.  Ten folks officially signed-up. By years end, six had found more than 200 bird species within 5 miles of their house.

Since then, besides a couple of trips outside the country, my 5MR has been the focus of my birding. Usually, I’m not chasing. Instead, I just pick a spot close to home and go check it out. But I do keep my eye on eBird. There isn’t a system in eBird enabling 5MR alerts the way there is for birds you haven’t ever seen in a state or county. As an imperfect alternative, I use the “Needs Alert” function to check recent sightings for birds I haven’t yet seen in L.A. County this year. Since I do most of my birding in my 5MR, this works alright. And occasionally, a report shows up for a bird in my 5MR that I haven’t ever seen in my 5MR.

That’s what happened last week, when Ballona warrior Walter Lamb reported a Red Phalarope on Ballona Creek. I live a block from the creek, and a bike path runs from my house 3 miles along the creek to the ocean, and another 3 miles inland. I’m on it all the time (exercise + birding = efficient healthy nerd). The report was from 7:30am, and precise as to location. I took off at 1:30pm and found the bird still in the same spot – feeding along the edge of the concrete creek about a mile from the coast.

Red Phalarope on Ballona Creek

Behold the redness

Summer Red Phalarope sightings are pretty rare around here, especially non-pelagic sightings. I had certainly never seen a red Red Phalarope before – all the others were winter plumaged birds without a single red feather on them, and most of those were birds flying away from the boat I was on. So I was very happy to have leisurely and close looks at the reddest Red Phalarope I will probably ever see. I biked the path 2 days later, and didn’t see it, and haven’t seen it since.