Tag: Long-tailed Duck (Page 1 of 2)

I almost struck out in Rochester

Red-bellied Woodpecker, Abraham Lincoln Park

Last Day Lifers in Rochester

We spent Thanksgiving week this year in Rochester, New York. It’s was a great trip – good weather and good family times. Birding-wise, there isn’t a lot to see in Rochester in late November, unless it’s an irruption year for boreal species like Snowy Owl and Common Redpoll. It either wasn’t one of those years, or it was too early. Still, birders had been reporting a Bohemian Waxwing and a trio of Pine Grosbeaks at a place called Webster Park, both of which would’ve been lifers. I dutifully headed there the first morning I was in town. As often often happens when you’re birding out of town, I wasn’t exactly sure where to go. The eBird hotspot was “Webster Park–campground area.” There was a quarter-mile long road that turned left into a campground area, so I basically walked around the area. I saw a few birds, but no Pine Grosbeaks or any waxwings. It wasn’t until the end of my stay that I ran into some local birders, who told me which loop trail with the crabapple trees the Pine Grosbeaks had been favoring.

I came back the next morning and, despite the additional presence of a half-dozen other birders, didn’t find any Pine Grosbeaks and couldn’t pick a Bohemian Waxwing out of a flock of two dozen Cedar Waxwings. Each day, the Pine Grosbeaks were reported either before I arrived or in the afternoon after I left. I stayed home on Thanksgiving, but was out again on Friday morning. The wind was gusty. There was occasional light drizzle. And I didn’t see any grosbeaks or waxwings. Saturday was the last day of our trip, and thus my last chance. I showed up at 8am, apparently 15 minutes after the Pine Grosbeaks had made a brief stop at the crabapple trees. After an hour of half of stalking the same quarter-mile of trail, my patience was finally rewarded. I heard the Pine Grosbeaks before I saw them.  Conveniently, they then flew atop a pine tree for clear views. They’re big finches with some delicate plumage. 

Another lifer target for the trip was Eastern Screech-Owl. There were scattered reports of these tiny creatures across town. But given their excellent camouflage, I either needed to get incredibly luck or some local intel. I ended up scoring the intel. Thanks to my multiple trips to Webster Park failing to find the Pine Grosbeaks, I crossed paths with local birders who gave me suggestions. One woman directed me to two specific trees where I might find an Eastern Screech-Owl. I checked them both one day, and struck out. But on the morning of our last day in Rochester, before I went to Webster Park for my 4th try at Pine Grosbeak, I found the little dude pictured below in a tree cavity in Abraham Lincoln Park. These little owls aren’t much bigger than your hand. And despite their name, they don’t screech.

Eastern Screech Owl

While I was failing to find lifers, I did manage to see some good birds that don’t call Los Angeles home. During my travels, I saw Long-tailed Ducks lounging and feeding just off shore on Lake Ontario. A lone Tundra Swan was calling in flight during a hike, and then stood on a frozen pond bellowing for companionship. A crow mob at Webster Park distracted us from the lack of Pine Grosbeaks and led me to a Barred Owl. Among the many woodpeckers I saw, I found a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker working a leafless tree at Mendon Ponds. And I finally got a (distant) photo of an American Black Duck.

Long-tailed Duck, Lake Ontario

You fully appreciate the species diversity of Los Angeles when you travel to somewhere like Rochester in late fall. For the month of November, birders have reported seeing 142 species in eBird in Monroe County, New York, compared to 299 species in Los Angeles County. Granted, LA County is much bigger than Monroe County. but consider this: for the entire state of New York, eBirders have only reported 263 species in November. I didn’t have a single checklist in Rochester with more than 18 species, whereas counts in the 20s and 30s are common when birding Los Angeles. In Rochester, if you’re walking parks or forest, it’s Black-capped Chickadees, American Robins, Northern Cardinals, Downy Woodpeckers, and Blue Jays on every list. After that, it’s a scattering of a few others species. I was surprised by the almost total absence of sparrows and other ground birds.

Our last adventure during the trip was to a place called Wild Wings Birds of Prey Facility. It’s located at Mendon Ponds, and is a non-profit educational organization. They care for injured birds of prey that cannot be re-released into the wild. You can walk around the cages where they keep many of the birds, and get point blank views at all kinds of hawks and owls. Visiting on Thanksgiving weekend is a treat, because they’ve got many of the animals out of the cages with handlers. While we were there, we got to see Peregrine Falcon, Eastern Screech-Owl, Short-eared Owl, Gyrfalcon, Swainson’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk all on a handler’s arm. Inside the cages they had a Northern Saw-whet Owl, two Snowy Owls, Long-eared Owl, Great-Horned Owl, Bald Eagles, Barn Owls, Barred Owls, and a Pileated Woodpecker. I can’t describe how much of a treat it was to get arms-length views of all of these birds. 

On top of that, another amazing thing about visiting the Wild Wings Nature Center is the chance to hand-feed some wild birds. They sell birdseed at the nature center, and over the years enough humans have walked the trails in the area with their hands full of birdseed that the Tufted Titmice and Black-capped Chickadees have grown accustomed to feeding out of your hand.



Birding Ballona Creek #2 – Lower Ballona Creek

Birding Lower Ballona Creek: Pacific Avenue to Lincoln Boulevard

This section of my guide to birding Ballona Creek covers the last mile-and-a-half of the creek before it reaches the jetties and breakwater, from Lincoln Blvd. to the Pacific Avenue bridge. There’s a single eBird hotspot for this section–Ballona Creek: Lower–where 223 species have been reported over the years.  The creek is tidal for this whole section, and tides can shift as much as 6 feet from high to low. At the lowest tides, there’s exposed mud in the middle of the creek where Culver Blvd. and Lincoln Blvd. cross it. For the rest of the creek in this section, low tide just exposes a little more rock along the edge of the creek. The bike path (in red in the map above) runs along the north side of the creek. A path along the south side, with a view of the salt pan, is not legally accessible.

This portion of the creek is pretty good for water birds and shorebirds. The water birds (ducks, loons, and grebes mainly) can be found any time of day, moving up and down the creek. Numbers are highest in the winter. Buffleheads dominate, with a smaller number of American Wigeon (who prefer the lagoon to the creek), Lesser Scaup, and Green-winged Teal (more likely the further up the creek you go) usually present all winter, too.  Pacific, Common, and Red-throated Loons will sometimes, usually singly, swim up and down the creek. Eared and Horned Grebes tend to stay downstream of the Pacific Avenue bridge. The Surf Scoters that mass in big numbers off Dockweiler Beach during winter will sometimes wander up the creek a bit. Brant are rare. Most winters a Common Goldeneye or two makes an appearance. Less frequently a Long-tailed Duck shows up. A few Red-necked Phalaropes are seen in fall migration (they prefer the section of the creek near Centinela Ave.), and a breeding-plumaged Red Phalarope hung out for a couple of days one May. Mallards and Gadwall hang around all-year long.

The best time for shorebirds in this section of the creek is either the morning, or low tide.  At high tide, especially if it’s a higher high tide, there aren’t that many roosting spots, and many birds head to the beach or, if there’s water, the salt pan. There are a few spots where the shorebirds are more likely to be found. One is about 50 yards west of the UCLA boat ramp, on the north side of the creek. This is a great spot for viewing because you’ve got point blank views of the birds, all huddled together. Their close proximity helps to make the rarities stick out more obviously. Another spot is just west of the bike path fork. There’s bigger bushes here, which often obscures the view. The best time of the year for shorebirds is during spring/fall migration, when the variety is highest, followed by winter. From May to June, the creek is mainly a ghost town.

Black-bellied Plovers and Willets roost in numbers, with often more than 100 of each. Marbled Godwit can be found year-round as well. Whimbrel pass through for migration, with a few staying all winter.  A Pacific Golden-Plover has been present for 4 winters running, and I hope it comes back in Fall 2022 for a 5th. While not reliably found on any given trip to the creek, each winter, Dunlin and Red Knot can often be found on the lower creek, 

Of course, a bunch of birds fly up and down the creek, as well, occasionally dive bombing to feed for fish. Osprey (August through April), Brown Pelicans (all year), and Elegant and Caspian Terns (summer) are frequent flyers. The tiny Least Terns are around from May to July, but some days you’ll see them, and others not. 

Flatlands surrounding the creek

There are some big flat fields on both the north and south side of the creek. The field north of the creek is known as Area A. It had been completely fenced off for years, but recently a short (and pretty unexciting) walking path was opened up in the western-most portion. You can enter from a parking lot along Fiji Way (across from Whiskey Red’s), or off the bike path. I’ve seen it called the Ballona Wetlands Trail or the Fiji Trail. It’s supposed open Wednesday-Saturday from 8am – 1pm. The path is a short square walk, and gives you some better views of  the field.

Ballona Area A carpeted with yellow flowers in May

If you’re on the bike path, you can often see birds along the fenceline. It’s rarely exciting stuff – house finches, song sparrows, savannah sparrows, and white-crowned sparrow mainly. Spring migration often brings a few Lazuli Buntings and a Blue Grosbeak or two. Out in the field, you’ll see Red-tailed Hawks all-year long. Last winter, a Harlan’s (Red-tailed) Hawk hung around for a month from December to January.  Once a separate species, it’s now considered a subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk. In the Lower 48, they’re usually in the Great Plains in winter. Other birds of prey working the fields include White-tailed Kite, Northern Harrier, Loggerhead Shrike (a carnivorous songbird, is that a bird of prey?), American Kestrel, and Barn Owls at night. Swallows work the field frequently, and you can occasionally see Bell’s Vireo, California Thrasher, and Western Meadowlark out there. The only two warblers you’re likely to see if this mostly tree-less area are Yellow-rumped Warbler in winter, and Common Yellowthroat. 

Harlan's Hawk Ballona Creek

Harlan’s (Red-tailed) Hawk

South of the creek is a flatland sometimes called the Salt Pan. Back when it used to rain in the these parts, there would be shallow pools out there for weeks. But now, thanks to the megadrouhgt, it’s mostly dry. When there’s water, the Black-bellied Plovers will hang out there, alongside Killdeer. It’s harder to get access to this area. Pre-pandemic, there were monthly service events in the area, to clear invasive plants like iceplant. Those are just getting started up again. Without access, it’s hard to spot the Burrowing Owl that often winter in this area. The path along the south side of the creek isn’t legally accessible. You can get distant, lawful views from the high ground at the end of 63rd Avenue in Playa del Rey behind the Del Rey Lagoon, or, more uncomfortably, by pulling off Culver Blvd.  I don’t know who manages the sluice gates, but I’d love to know why the area isn’t managed to allow intrusion of water more regularly. I imagine the migrating birds would love the stopover point. 

White-tailed Kite

Birding Glory: A Bar-tailed Godwit

This section of the creek is the site of my greatest ever birding find: a Bar-tailed Godwit in September 2017. On a bike ride one day, I stopped at a group of shorebirds along the north side of the creek between the UCLA boat ramp and the Pacific Avenue bridge. In the fall, the group is typically a mix of Black-bellied Plover, Willet, and Marbled Godwit. On this day, one of the 5 godwits in the group caught my attention. It had a very prominent white eyebrow that extended behind the eye. I watched it for a couple of minutes, and snapped some pictures (thank goodness). After a few minutes, it flew with the other godwits. The birds flew directly away from me, headed toward the ocean. I noticed that the mystery godwit’s rump patch appeared whiter, or at least contrasted a bit more with the back and end of tail, than the rump of the Marbled Godwits it flew away with. At the time, I didn’t know what it was. When I got home, I downloaded my pictures, and posted a message to the LA County birds listserv about a “Maybe Unusual Godwit” on the creek with my observations and a link to my photos. The experts quickly identified it as a Bar-tailed Godwit.

Bar-tailed Godwit Ballona Creek

A Bar-tailed Godwit very far off its migration course

Bar-tailed Godwits have an astounding migration. In the spring, they leave their wintering grounds in New Zealand and western Australia and fly north to the Yellow Sea in China, and from there disperse anywhere from Russia all the way to western Alaska. For those that head to Alaska, the return trip is unbelievable. These Bar-tailed Godwits double their weight in 2 weeks time, shrink their digestive organs, and enlarge their pectoral muscles, heart, and lungs. Then, they lift off for a 7,000 mile non-stop flight from western Alaska to New Zealand. The path takes them west of Hawai’i, so a Bar-tailed Godwit on the ground in Los Angeles is incredibly far off course. The journey takes eight or nine days, and is the longest known nonstop migration of any animal on earth.  It truly boggles the mind that a 1.5 pound creature can make this insane trip, much less do it every fall its entire life.

Despite lots of nerds looking that afternoon and the next day, the bird wasn’t seen again. Amazingly, of the 445,000+ eBird checklists ever submitted in L.A. County, only two report a Bar-tailed Godwit. There’s mine, and there’s one from 1976 (also in the lower Ballona Creek) from Kimball Garrett, the Michael Jordan of L.A. county birding (he’s seen 528 species in L.A. county alone!), together with a trio of similarly obscure birders named Jon Dunn, Guy McCaskie, and Van Remsen (an LSU ornithologist who was an author of the paper that reported seeing an Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Arkansas in 2004). 

While most days birding on the lower Ballona Creek are unlikely to produce a Bar-tailed Godwit, this is a great spot to get close-up views of a variety of species. 

One vision for the lower Ballona Creek

The future of this section of the creek is hotly contested right now. There are plans afoot to “restore” the lower creek to something that more resembles the original wetlands than the concrete bowling alley that the creek is today. Heal the Bay supports the plan depicted above. Environmental Impact Reports have been certified. Whatever shape it eventually takes (maybe 10-15 years from now), I hope there is more attention paid to providing attractive habitat for birds than there is now. This truly could be an amazing urban stopover site for migrating birds of all kinds, and breeding area for lost L.A. County breeders like Burrowing Owl and White-tailed Kite. A few extra walking paths would be nice as well, as long as they don’t come with large paved parking lots.


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