Semipalmated Sandpiper on Ballona Creek
Every spring and fall for the past 4 years, I’ve scanned the small groups of sandpipers on Ballona Creek east of Centinela Ave. My goal: turn one of the regular Western Sandpipers into a rare Semipalmated Sandpiper. For reasons I can’t explain, the creek doesn’t get many migrating shorebirds. Maybe it’s the smaller size of the creek (compared to the L.A. River). Maybe it’s the lack of vegetation (this part of the creek gets essentially vacuumed at least twice a year, and the bushes that grow alongside it are cut down). Or maybe the creek runs too much east-west instead of north-south. Whatever it is, the peep flocks never get much bigger than 20-30 birds. But I was convinced that careful, patient eyes could eventually find a Semipalmated Sandpiper some day. And after years of hunting, my search is over.
Semipalmated Sandpipers breed on the Arctic tundra. They travel through the United States on their way to wintering grounds on the South American coasts. Some of the eastern-most birds are thought to make a non-stop flight from New England to South America over the ocean. One tagged (less-than-two-ounce) bird made a 3,000 mile non-stop flight. They are regular migrants on the east coast of the United States. On the west coast, they are fewer and farther between. They apparently prefer to migrant a bit inland, rather than along the coast. They get reported on the L.A. River every year, but had never been seen in my 5MR on Ballona Creek.
There were very few birds on the creek today, which is pretty usual. As the creek turned north just past the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook, I spotted about a dozen peeps (an unusual spot for them). Dutifully, I looked through the group. Most were Least Sandpipers. Two were obvious Western Sandpipers. A final bird was short-billed, dark-legged, and showed no rufous in the scapulars. I studied it for 10 minutes. Usually, these birds morph into Westerns the longer I look at them. The bill lengthens and droops. A hint of rufous appears on the back. But this one stayed the same. I took some fuzzy photos with my pocket zoom. I posted them to LACO Birds, and received several replies that agreed with the ID of a Semipalmated Sandpiper.
Semipalmated Sandpiper is a new L.A. County lifer, and even better a new bird for my 5MR. Other than a 2010 bird at Malibu Lagoon, it’s also the first eBird report west of the L.A. River for L.A. County. I’m sure this isn’t the first that’s ever stopped on the creek, but it’s nice to have finally picked one out.