Millenium Birding in Los Angeles
By Martin Byhower
If you only have a limited time to spend in Los Angeles, either on a business stop-over or perhaps a short family vacation, Martin reveals a great local park that can yield many southern California specialties. Martin leads privately guided tours and his contact information is at the bottom of this article.
When I first started birding, nearly 2 decades ago, it was exciting but frustrating. Every bird was a potential "lifer", but I hadn’t acquired the skills or knowledge to trust myself with my ID’s, or even figure out to which page I should turn in my Field Guides: the first edition National Geographic, the old hardcover Peterson and the old Golden Guide (does that date me or WHAT?) I would investigate every song or call, not realizing how many times I was chasing YET ANOTHER yellow-rumped warbler or house finch. Being a stubborn male, I figured I had to figure it out on my own.
Then I met the likes of the local pro’s, guys like Jess Morton, Eric Brooks, Mark Kincheloe, Mitch Heindel, Dave Moody. I started religiously attending the walks at the South Coast Botanic Garden and went on Mark and Eric’s trips. I discovered that there was a whole world of habitats, all within a few hours of the South Bay, each with its own unique assemblage of species.
For ten years, I explored Southern California, gradually expanding my range to hot spots like Southeast Arizona, Texas, Florida. Then I started leading my own group trips, first locally, then out of State, and then to the tropics.
And now I have come full circle. Give me a free morning to pick where I want to bird, and it will be Bolsa Chica in Orange County or Ken Malloy/Harbor Regional Park in Harbor City/Wilmington. KMHRP is now one of the first stops when I do a privately guided tour for folks from out of state or abroad.
Why KMHRP? Well, Mitch Heindel’s exhaustively researched bird list for the park now exceeds 340 species. Have you tried to spot 340 species in CA? You have to work at it! And all in an area of about a half square mile!
Granted, that is a list which includes many records from a period in which Harbor Park contained more and better-preserved habitat. But it still has a willow/riparian forest and freshwater lake that are regionally unique, as well as a seasonal freshwater wetland and some remnant sage-scrub and exotic/ornamental sections, each of which attracts a unique assemblage of birds. The park always was and remains a magnet for exciting vagrant species as well as resident and wintering birds. It is possible to see 100 species in a day, if you are working the Christmas count at the Park, for example. Typically, 4500 individual birds are counted at the park on that day.
Serious birders from out of state love the Park, because I can show them everything from the common southern California specialties, like Anna’s and Allen’s hummingbirds, Spotted doves, California towhees, Townsend’s warblers and the island subspecies of orange-crowned warbler, to the species that are becoming endangered regionally, like Tricolored blackbirds and Least Bitterns. KMHRP is still the best place in the county to see the latter. At least 12 reed-nesting species produce at least 1000 young each year along the lake margin. Endangered Least Terns bring their young to teach their young to fish in the early summer.
In winter, the park hosts a good variety of ducks, egrets, and other wintering and resident water birds. It is a fairly reliable spot for tough to find species like Thayer’s, glaucous-winged and mew gulls. Flocks of sparrows and wintering warblers, vireos, tanagers, and orioles, who normally migrate out of the area, often turn up as interesting surprises. Right now there are Snow, Ross’s and Canada geese (all non-feral, ie, legitimately "countable", at the Park.) A Wood Duck showed up last week, and there is a hooded merganser in the Wilmington drain. Grebes (Clark’s western and pied-billed), belted kingfishers, terns, raptors (Peregrine falcons, Merlins, White-tailed Kites, Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks) are all pretty regular visitors. A bald eagle flew over the park in November.
In the spring and fall the park attracts a good assortment of migrants. The good news is that, with the exciting restoration projects that are planned and ongoing at the park, things will only get better. Due to the efforts of this Audubon Chapter and the KMHRP Citizen Advisory Board, a new cooperative spirit is developing between the City of LA Rec. and Parks, Audubon, Harbor College, local elected officials, and other influential agencies, local schools, and the community at large. KMHRP is now on the map, and although breeding Clapper Rails and Yellow-billed Cuckoos may be a thing of the past, the new millennium offers truly exciting birding opportunities at the park.
I have been leading the free, PV/South Bay Audubon second-Sunday walks at the park for several years now. Participants and I have made many delightful new acquaintances with fellow birders. There is always something interesting to see, whether it is a treed raccoon, great egrets nearly dueling to the death, a once-in-a-lifetime vagrant or a newly restored bluff with coastal sage scrub flourishing on it.
There is something tremendously rewarding about witnessing an ecosystem in the process of healing and recovery. The return of birds and other wildlife species is one of the best indicators of success in that process. I invite you to come join me and enjoy watching nature in the process of recovery. Meet at 8 AM at the lot near Anaheim and Vermont in Harbor City. And remember, as Mitch Heindel says it best, "Think globally, bird locally."
Martin Byhower, 2309 W. 247th St. Lomita, CA 90717-1505
Instructor, Chadwick School
Habitat Restoration Specialist
Director, BIRDING SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA private guide service