Common Tern Dockweiler Beach Los Angeles California

A reminder to check flocks more than once, and bird every bird

Common Tern at Dockweiler Beach: LA County lifer!

If you aren’t traveling, July can be tough for a birder. The birding action around my house is suuuuuuuuuuuper slow during July. Yes, by the end of the month, shorebirds have started to arrive along the creek and at the beach. But it’s pretty small numbers, and mostly Willets. Songbirds aren’t moving through yet. At times, it feels like it’s all Mallards and House Finches out there. (The best action these days is probably off-shore, where those with access to boats are seeing birds like Black Storm Petrel and Guadalupe Murrelet and Craveri’s Murrelet that would all be lifers for me).

So as Saturday approached, I wasn’t sure where to go birding. Some stray migrants had already been showing up at the LA River near Long Beach, with Solitary and Pectoral Sandpipers and Wilson’s Phalarope’s seen recently. A budgerigar is also hanging out in the same area. But I have had all those birds in my 5MR (even a budgie!). LA Birders had organized a hike to Throop’s Peak, a beautiful hike at 9,000 feet in the San Gabriel Mountains that promised a long-elusive Golden Eagle for my LA County list. But I didn’t really want to drive 90 minutes to get there, or be on that hike with a big group. It’s a beautiful hike, and I treasure it for the solitude. (They saw a Golden Eagle). So, a little reluctantly I decided to check out the coast in my 5MR to see what was happening at the beach.

Artist’s rendering of a trash interceptor

First, I went to the creek mouth and jetties. There’s some construction happening on the long middle jetty, so you can’t walk out there. They’re constructing a “trash interceptor” that will skim the surface of the creek and capture the garbage that flows down it into the ocean. It’s a real mess after storms, and this aims to vacuum it up. It’s supposedly the first ever such trash interceptor to be installed in the United States. Sounds great, though I wonder how much it will disrupt the birds that swim up the lower channel from the breakwater. I guess we’ll see in September, when it’s supposed to be done. There wasn’t much going on at the jetty or lagoon, so I decided to see if there was free parking at Vista del Mar Park so I could check out Dockweiler Beach (I’m too cheap to pay $8+ for parking).

There was a parking spot open. First, I checked out the Snowy Plover enclosure, but there were people on the beach in front of it, and no birds. Then, I walked south. Not too far, I ran into a big flock of gulls and a big flock of terns. The gulls were mostly Western and Heermann’s, with a sprinkling of California Gulls about. The tern flock was big and noisy. I couple scans of it showed all Elegant Terns except for two big Caspian Terns on the periphery. The flock was constantly getting flushed by walkers and joggers and kids and dogs and lifeguard pickup trucks. They’d find a spot, settle in for 2-4 minutes, and then all erupt in flight before settling again. I watched this happen five times. After each, I scanned the flock, hoping to find a Forster’s Tern hidden in the crowd.  

Common Tern Dockweiler Beach Los Angeles California

Finally, I spotted a smaller tern in the group, with a smaller black bill and a dark shoulder bar. I first though Forster’s Tern based on size, but it didn’t look right. There was too much black on the back of the head, and I didn’t remember seeing black on the shoulder of Forster’s Terns before. I snapped a couple of photos. The flock flushed, and settled, and I found it again and took a couple more shots. Then I pulled up my bird guide app, and checked Forster’s Tern. Nope – this was something different. Under “Common Tern”, the guide said “juveniles and fall adults have black should bar.” This was exciting. Common Terns are rare on the West Coast. In LA, they’re most often spotted in Malibu Lagoon and Long Beach, usually alone or in pairs. A couple have been reported at the Ballona Creek mouth, but none at Dockweiler Beach. I snapped a photo from the back of my phone, shared it on the LA birders WhatsApp chat, and got confirmation that it was a Common Tern. This is an LA County lifer for me! It’s especially fun to find those in my 5MR.

Halibut Point State Park, Rockport, Massachusetts

Common Terns are long distance migrants. Our North America Common Terns breed in Canada, and winter in coastal South America (some go all the way to southern Argentina). European and Asian Common Terns breed from England to Siberia, and winter along the coast in Africa or the northern Indian Ocean (including Australia). Despite their rarity around Los Angeles (we have more Forster’s), they are the most numerous tern in the United States. They eat mainly fish. After their populations recovered from 19th century plumage hunters, their numbers are dropping again. Some blame gulls, though habitat loss can’t be helping.

Salter Grover, Pawtuxet Village, Rhode Island

I’ve seen Common Tern a few times before, typically when we visit the northeast. I also spotted a couple of them in Beijing during a trip there in 2017. But I never expected to see one in Los Angeles, especially not on a July walk along the beach in my 5MR. It goes to show – bird every bird. Even when it looks like a big uniform flock of some expected species, make sure to give it a careful look. And not just one look. I didn’t see the Common Tern until the 6th or 7th time that I scanned the flock of terns.