Birding for Locals – Los Angeles – August

5 08 2020

Lazuli Bunting – Luke Tiller

August is when I start to get excited to bird my local patch again. Vina Vieja is something of an bird wasteland in birding summer (June and July), but as we enter August post breeding wanderers (like White-breasted Nuthatch and Downy Woodpecker)  and migrants start to reappear in force with diversity increasing as we head through the month.

Family Focus – Cardinalidae

If I was focusing on a family to look at this month it might be cardinalidae. Essentially cardinals and their allies. Interestingly this now includes the genus Piranga. Confusingly these birds have the common name tanager (Western, Summer, Scarlet etc) even though they seemingly aren’t tanagers at all, and just for added confusion the only real tanager now found in the USA doesn’t have tanager in its name: Morelet’s Seedeater!

To me one of the signs of fall are Western Tanagers suddenly appearing as migrants in my yard or at Vina as happened the other day. Other cardinalidae start to show up too including Black-headed Grosbeaks and Lazuli Buntings. Cardinalidae make up some of the most common vagrants in Southern California too in the shape of Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Indigo Buntings.


Blue Grosbeak – Luke Tiller

Late July and early August Lazuli Buntings start to wander away from breeding sites and gather locally at sites where there are lots of open habitat and seeds available in order to fatten up for migration, places like Peck Pit, Hahamongna or the San Gabriel River Spreading Grounds. It’s a great time to go see these birds, as well as an opportunity to test your skills identifying young birds or adults that are molting into basic (non-breeding) plumage. Trying to pick out young, female or basic plumaged male Passerina Buntings is a nice challenge and with the possibility of both rarities and hybrids it’s one that can tax the most experienced of birders skills.

Though Lazuli Buntings will definitely dominate in August, there’s always the chance of finding Blue Grosbeak away from their breeding grounds, if you get really lucky an Indigo Bunting or if you win the birding lottery a Painted Bunting. Studying up on these birds and learning the field marks before you head into the field will help you improve your chances of finding something interesting. A blog post from friend Julian Hough on IDing vagrant buntings (here).


Wilson’s Snipe – Luke Tiller

Family Focus – Shorebirds.

August is still in the peak of shorebird migration and diversity is increasing. Later migrants are starting to show up as we head through the month including things that peak later like Pectoral Sandpiper, Baird’s Sandpiper and Wilson’s Snipe. More and more juvenile birds are arriving too, allowing birders to hone their skills comparing them to the adults. More on shorebirding in last month’s essay (here).

August is typically a great time to be getting out on the water looking for seabirds as well, although the opportunities to do that safely this year seem difficult for most people. Of course given the right conditions it’s possible to see some of these pelagic species from shore given some dedicated time seawatching.


Grey Flycatcher (Vina Vieja) – Luke Tiller

Local (Patch) Birding

My local patch is Vina Vieja Park in Paasadena and I published an ode to it and patch birding generally that was republished in the Pomona Valley Audubon Newsletter a couple of years back (here). The great thing about patch birding done right is that it gives you a new appreciation for even the most common of birds. I think it took a couple of years for me to finally see a Eurasian Collared Dove at Vina Vieja and that day was no less exciting for the fact that you can easily find them less than a mile away

I’ve always liked urban birding and revel in finding birds eking out an existence in the most challenging of human environments. Here’s some notes from the blog from a decade ago, dedicated to my patch in New York City (blog link here).

Here are a couple thoughts on finding your own patch if you don’t yet have one:

  1. It should be close to your home. Ideally you want to be able to get there in 10 minutes maximum. It’s the kind of place you can hit on the way too or from work or just on a whim.
  2. One thing I like to do is compare the ebird hotspot map to google maps and see if there are local parks without hotspots or with hotspots containing very few checklists? This might be the perfect way to pick your patch too? (ebird hotspot link).
  3. Is your patch different to the surrounding area? Part of the reason I picked Vina is that it’s an open area in the middle of a fairly wooded neighborhood. In theory this makes it the most appealing place for open country species in the local vicinity. Google maps can help you find places by looking at hybrid or photographic maps.
  4. Does it have open water? Water is a big draw for migrant birds in L.A. The chances are if your local park has some, it’s already a well known hotspot. That said some lush grass and some large trees might equally be a nice draw for birds. Understory also seems to be at a premium in city parks, but is invaluable for migrant birds in my experience.

American Golden Plover – Luke Tiller

Vagrant Hunting

Late August sees the start of peak of White-winged Doves showing up in Los Angeles. This is a bird that feels like it should be more common here and for that reason I refuse to chase them with the expectation that I’ll eventually find one somewhere in LA County. So far I’m still looking, perhaps you can beat me to one? Best bet seems to be checking coastal migrant traps and sea watch sites.

Shorebirds are still your best bet for turning up something really rare locally with Buff-breasted Sandpiper, American Golden Plover, White-rumped Sandpiper, Ruff,  and Little Stint tallied in Los Angeles during this month.

Indigo Buntings – see section on Cardinalidae for ID and guidance on finding (there’s one at Hahamongna as I write this in 2020).

As a personal reminder that something interesting can show up at any time and anywhere Catherine and I were lucky enough to have a Zone-tailed hawk fly over over our house on July 28th. It was definitely the bird from Monrovia as it had the same damaged primaries as the photos from Monrovia earlier in the year. Where it had been for the last two or three months though I have no idea (ebird checklist with a photo here).

Typical PAS Field Trips

At the beginning of August Larry Allen leads a shorebirding trip to the LA River focused on Willow Street (see the shorebirding section for July for directions). At the end of August we typically have a trip outto Piute Ponds. Note in the shorebird section for last month that unfortunately Piute Ponds will be off limits to birders because of the ongoing COVID19 situation.