Birding Los Angeles


While Alaska Air often puts their ANC-LAX roundtrip direct on sale for January for about $300, being AKAir, it’s an overnighter. You leave Anchorage at close to midnight, get into LAX at close to 6 am. Thankfully I can usually sleep on planes (given shoulder/arm room, that’s about all that’s possible now anyhow) so I’d gotten a few hours sleep before I picked up the rental car and headed south.

I know, you’re thinking Los Angeles. Who goes birding in Los Angeles? Urban sprawl, nightmarish freeways, people everywhere. I’m here to tell you you’re wrong. Okay, lots of sprawl, lots of traffic, lots of people, but also some jewels of habitat for birds. Plus in the depths of winter it’s still mostly tolerable temperature wise, especially to somebody from Alaska, and you have the added joy of mocking all the Californians who pull out the puffy down parkas for the coffee run when it’s 50F. As you’re wandering around in a tank dress and basking in the sun. Okay, maybe that last bit is just me.

Also thankfully, I had the presence of mind to schedule my arrival at LAX for a Sunday morning so the roads were empty. [Clarifying note: I actually prefer a high-traffic day on LA’s freeways to a normal traffic day on any other freeways, but I realize I’m in a minority on this. You don’t deserve my long rant about non-LA drivers here, so just take my word for it: when I say that Sunday mornings are a great time to be out and about on LA’s road system, that’s for the rest of you, not for me. I like ‘em fine most any time.] It took me under an hour to get to Bolsa Chica Ecological Preserve just south of Long Beach—even with a slight detour. I was there by about 7:30.

The Pacific Coast Highway (Rte 1) runs between the Preserve and the State Beach (which you have to pay to get into but the restrooms might just be worth it) and there’s two sets of parking spots for the Preserve. One is at the north end with the trailer that serves as the Preserve’s office space and one is at the south end almost directly across from the entrance to the State Beach. The south end one is where I parked but you’ll want to get there early because it fills up fast: birders, wildlife watchers, walkers, runners, joggers, photographers all like going here and that is one thing about going on a weekend morning: aim for the early. Also a quick FYI: if you’re approaching the preserve from the north, you can’t actually turn into the southern parking lot—you have to pull into the State Beach entrance, pull a u-turn there. There’s a light at the beach entrance so that’s good for dealing with PCH1 traffic. Take a left back onto the PCH and an almost immediate right into the Preserve parking lot. If you’re approaching from the south—you need to be watching for the entrance just after you pass the light at the Beach entrance. Trust me. Pulling a u-turn further up the PCH because you missed that quick right is doable, but a pain.

Bolsa Chica, as I understand it, used to be something of an industrial wasteland but things have changed. Not enough—I was seeing a lot of dumped garbage in the waterways, but I suppose not everything can be perfect all at once. At any rate, I spent about 3 and a half hours walking on the trails here (till the need for caffeine and food and a decent restroom finally drove me out) and in that space of time, saw 49 species. List below. I’m told that in the summer this is THE place in the greater Los Angeles area to see terns and skimmers, all I can tell you was on a sunny morning in late January, I didn’t see any of either. But 49 species in 3-4 hours for me? When solo birding? That’s got to be some sort of a record. I’m just not that good of a birder. I didn’t even walk all the way through the preserve: I just did the south end.

What struck me as completely odd about my visit to Bolsa Chica was that there just didn’t seem to be birders there. I spotted any number of photographers with ginormous camera lenses presumably taking photos of birds, tons of runners/walkers using the trails, but in the end, past dozens and dozens of people, I saw only one other person carrying a pair of binoculars until the very end of my visit when I walked by a rep of the Friends group leading a tour. And even most of those people weren’t carrying binocs. No scopes, either. Weird. So when you think there’s no birding in LA, apparently you’re not the only person who thinks that. All I can tell you is that if you’re a birder with some time to spare on the southwest side of LA, don’t miss Bolsa Chica. And get there early in the morning.

I’ll spare you the lengthy details on the rest of the day which included a visit to the Bolsa Chica State Beach where I desperately tried to convince myself a small group of sanderlings were snowy plovers, a drive along the Newport Beach Back Bay mixed-use trail/road since I didn’t add much to the counts of species there (lots of species, I’d just seen most at Bolsa Chica already) and a visit to the Noguchi Zen sculpture garden in Costa Mesa followed by a very early night in my hotel room because I was completely unable to keep my eyes open past 6:30 pm courtesy of the flight the night before.

A lovely start to my trip. Bolsa Chica. Seriously. Don’t miss it. Besides, you’ll get to see great blue herons roosting/nesting in palm trees, and that’s always good for a laugh.

No life listers here for me, I don’t think, but plenty of things I don’t see in AK and don’t see very often, so it’s all wonderful. A great start to a new birding year!

Brant, Canada goose, American wigeon, mallard, blue-winged teal, northern pintail, green-winged teal, redhead, surf scoter, bufflehead, greater scaup, redbreasted merganser, ruddy duck, western grebe, eared grebe, doublecrested cormorant, American white pelican, brown pelican, great blue heron, great egret, snowy egret, white-faced ibis, osprey, redtailed hawk, Virginia rail, killdeer, American avocet, willet, whimbrel, long-billed curlew, marbled godwit, least sandpiper, western sandpiper, ring-billed gull, western gull, rock pigeon, mourning dove, Anna’s hummingbird, Allen’s hummingbird, belted kingfisher, black phoebe, American crow, horned lark, common yellowthroat, California towhee, Savannah sparrow (Belding’s), Lincoln’s sparrow, white-crowned sparrow, fox sparrow

Below is a smattering of the photos I took. I just discovered that with this view, if you click on one of the photos you’ll pull up a slideshow that will allow you to read my captions. Just in case you were wondering what those things in the photo were.


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