Winter birding in the Los Angeles area

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Crystal Cove State Beach

As somebody who lives in Alaska, I find it kind of weird to apply the word winter to Los Angeles but technically it is. And I saw at least one person wearing a puffy down jacket zipped up over her mouth, sitting in an enclosed car on a 60+ degree day in Capistrano, so I guess it’s all relative. At any rate, birding in the greater LA area is terrific this time of year since so many migrants winter there and for those of us unaccustomed to the higher temps, 60s and 70s are indeed livable, unlike the summer heat. Also since the locals consider it cold, the beaches aren’t quite as crowded as they would be other times of year. They’d actually had rain to the point of flooding the week before I got there, so I needed waterproof hiking boots for some of the unpaved trails and the wetlands were productive!

Alaska Airlines frequently puts LA on sale for round trips in January so the good news is that I can usually get there pretty cheap. (Staying there can be a different story, but oh, well.) And it’s a nice break from Anchorage weather in January, so I booked myself for a 4 day long weekend and off I went. I’ve wandered different sections of the greater Los Angeles area and surrounding regions, but this year I went a little more south and west: primarily the Newport Beach area (Orange County). I went with Introduction to Birds of the Southern California Coast in tow for advice on places to visit, but if you do that, beware that some of the instructions/directions/locations are outdated so do a websearch on any of the sites it mentions before you head to one to make sure you have current information.

Places I visited and spent several hours include: El Capitan State Beach (my one northward site: north of Santa Barbara on the 101), Back Bay Road along the estuary at Newport Beach, the San Joaquin Nature Preserve just catty-corner from UC-Irvine, Crystal Cove State Beach, Bolsa Chica Wildlife Preserve (between Newport Beach and Long Beach on PCH 1), and Ballona Wetlands in Playa Del Rey which is about a 5 minute drive from LAX. Ballona/PDR is a great place to hang out if you need to get to the airport around rush hour times and don’t really want to deal with traffic delays: just go early and hang out there for a few hours. You can also take a bridge/trail from Playa Del Rey to Marina Del Rey if you want to wander that area too.

In four days I spent an average of 3 hours/day birding. And I identified a total of 79 bird species (clapper rail by ear, never saw it) of which 8 of those were life list for me. The lifers were blue-grey gnatcatcher, Allen’s hummingbird, nutmeg mannikin, clapper rail (heard only), Virginia rail, sora, blue-winged teal, and common tern. Honestly, if I were better at this (and had a scope) I probably could have added at least 20 more species to the list given all the gulls, terns, shorebirds, and LBJs that I never did figure out.

If you’re going to be in the Newport Beach area and have a few hours, I absolutely recommend the Back Bay Road and San Joaquin Nature Preserve. Just amazing riparian habitat. 16114657_10154336495607817_148318191304396464_n Back Bay Road is about 3 miles long and is one-way traffic for cars, along with pedestrian and bicycling lanes. If you’re up for the walk, best to park at one end or the other and just walk the whole thing. There’s a few pull-offs for cars, but not many, and some of the blind corners can be a little scary with oncoming bicyclists. It’s relatively flat so it’s not a strenuous walk. There’s also port-a-potties at the Big Canyon parking lot if you’re in need. I was the only person I saw in my two visits there (one for about 3 hours, one for about 1/2 hour) who had binoculars. A few photographers with some high end lenses, but no birders per se.

One of the fun views there was watching an osprey catch a fish and land on a platform out in the water. Just about the time it really got into eating, a red-shouldered hawk muscled it out of the way and took over its dinner. So the osprey went off and caught another fish and landed on the ground a little ways off to eat that. The redshouldered hawk finished its leftovers and promptly took off for where the osprey now was to try and steal that too. I’m not very good at identifying birds of prey–other than osprey–so it was nice to have a good long time to observe the hawk–both posed and flying–to figure out what it was. Back Bay was also where I heard the clapper rail, even though I never got to see it.

San Joaquin Nature Preserve is pretty incredible too. Sea and Sage Audubon Society have a great presence there including a staffed store (my only non-food shopping on the trip!). The trails are very walkable though some of them were a little muddy because of the heavy rains the week before. A few were closed down for construction, but the views were so good on the rest that it didn’t really matter. Lots of waterfowl and shorebirds. Anything you might have heard about black crowned night herons being secretive? Not so much there. One pond had a lineup of them–including several juveniles–in full view of the main trail.

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Juvenile black crowned night heron, napping.

They were all napping. That’s also where I got a great view of a sora (unfortunately a not-so-great photo, so I won’t be sharing it with you). All in all, I picked up four of my lifers there: the sora, the blue-grey gnat catcher, nutmeg mannikin, and blue-winged teal. Not bad for 3 hours of wandering on a calm morning. The place wasn’t crowded at all and most of the people I saw were birders, including a trio of women who were doing a population survey of black phoebes and common yellowthroats (yes, I saw both.) Since I hadn’t been seriously birding in a few months and since my memory is kind of bad, it was really helpful to have so many good birders around and who were so kind to share their knowledge with me.

A little further north up Pacific Coast Highway by Huntington Beach is Bolsa Chica Wetlands. The State Beach is on the ocean side but just after the light (just after the light) on the northbound lanes of PCH1 is a right hand turn into the south parking area for the Nature Preserve. If you miss it since the sign is right at the drive and not really visible beforehand, there’s a u-turn opportunity a little way up the road but this is the coast highway, so you might be sitting there for a while. This parking area for the nature preserve is a small lot and when I got there about 9 am on Tuesday it was half-full, but when I left at about 10 pm it was almost completely full. There were a few porta-potties there, too but luckily I’d purchased a California State Parks pass so I could use the very nice facilities at the State Beach across the road (once I managed to do yet another u-turn on the PCH to get there). Bolsa Chica is pretty amazing too. This is where I regretted not having a scope because I’m sure I would have added a bunch of terns and skimmers to my life list.

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Virginia rail working on its lunch.

As it was, I was able to watch a Virginia rail feed and bathe for about 10 minutes alongside the boardwalk. (Who said they’re secretive?) Lots of shorebirds, mergansers, ducks, brants, and at least one juvenile great blue heron that was one of the most awkward-moving creatures I’ve ever had the chance to watch. He was just leaping and bumbling all over the place. Weirdly enough, because I was facing into the sun to watch him, my photos of him came out looking rather pretty rather than reflecting his clumsiness.

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Juvenile great blue heron in silhouette.

I guess I should have pulled out the phone and videotaped him too, to give a more accurate representation of his goofy charm. I didn’t spend as much time here as I would have liked and I probably should have gone to the interpretive center at the north end of the preserve too, but it’s absolutely on my list for a visit next time, along with a longer stay at the beach there too.

I’ll admit to not being thrilled at all to go home. Not because I don’t enjoy living in AK, most of the time I do. Unfortunately while I was gone we got a big snowfall (6-10 inches) and then the temperature plummeted. So I got back in the middle of the night to about -20 degree temps. Thankfully I’d taken a taxi to the airport so I was able to get into a warm cab to get home and I could put off cleaning the near-foot of snow on the car for a while.

And those Alaska Airlines fare sales were pretty good last fall so next up is a trip to Albuquerque in February for another long weekend. This time I suspect I’ll be doing a lot less birding and a lot more archeological/cultural sites, but since I’ve never been to New Mexico and the friend that’s going with me is pretty tolerant, I suspect I’ll see some new birds there too. I’ll be sure to report!


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