Los Angeles Raptors

20 11 2016

Ferruginous Hawk – Luke Tiller

When people think about Los Angeles I’m betting most of them aren’t thinking about raptors, and yet the deserts of Los Angeles County boast perhaps some of the better winter raptor watching in the country? Though Southern California generally isn’t great for witnessing raptor migration, beyond Borrego Valley Hawkwatch (see post here), winter does almost make up for it with plenty of stunning wintering raptors. Possibly the jewel in that crown is just an hour and a half or so from downtown Los Angeles: The Antelope Valley.

The Antelope Valley, though now sadly mainly devoid of the Pronghorn that gave the area its name, hosts a wealth of exciting winter raptors, among them a large number of highly prized Ferruginous Hawks.


Ferruginous Hawk – Luke Tiller

While out birding today looking for Mountain Bluebirds and Mountain Plovers we managed to see at least ten of these impressive and beautiful buteos without much effort at all, which gives you some idea of there abundance. Most of them were light morphs, like the bird above, but one was a stunning dark bird (top) which is in keeping with the idea that about 10% of this species are dark. To find numbers of these birds all one needs do is drive backroads looking in the farm fields (they often perch on the ground) and atop the many telephone poles.

The mix of high desert scrub and agricultural habitat out in the valley seems to provide plenty of food for all including huge flocks of Horned Larks and mixed blackbird flocks. These in turn provide for plenty of prey items for falcons like the beautiful Prairie Falcon that we ran into below. This one had just plowed through a flock of Horned Larks before alighting just behind our vehicle.


Prairie Falcon – Luke Tiller

American Kestrel are easily the most common Antelope Valley falcon, but Merlin, Prairie and Peregrine are all usually quite find-able in a day’s birding. Excitingly, as well as your standard “Taiga” Merlin it is sometimes possible to find a couple of other subspecies of these feisty little falcons Southern California. Though both are rare one can find both “Black” Merlin, generally on the coastal plain, and “Prairie” Merlin, like the one below, out in the deserts.


Merlin (Richardson’s) – Luke Tiller

Ferruginous Hawks are certainly up there with my favorite raptors and and in January I am looking forward to sharing these wonderful birds with some fellow members of the Hawk Migration Association of North America and with a tour group from Sunrise Birding. Let’s hope the birds are being as cooperative then!

OK one more Ferruginous Hawk photo before we go, just because. Samuel Pepys was quoted as saying that “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” I think one can safely say the same about Ferruginous Hawks too!


Ferruginous Hawk – Luke Tiller

Patch Grasshopper Sparrow

8 11 2016

Grasshopper Sparrow – Luke Tiller

When I picked my new patch out in Pasadena, CA it was based on the site providing an area of open ground among a patchwork of wooded suburban yards, gardens and parks. It was also home to a dog park which is what first took me there. Though Possum doesn’t like the off leash area there he does like walking around on a leash and getting a bunch of cookies for vague signs of good behavior.


Grasshopper Sparrow – Luke Tiller

My thought was that this open area would provide good opportunities to find a bunch of sparrow species (which along with raptors are up there with my favorite families). So far I haven’t been disappointed with at least fifteen species found at the park, with potential for more if they ever split the Fox Sparrows. The park checklist now boast about 140 species including a wealth of good birds: Eastern Phoebe, White and Black-throated Sparrows, Lewis’s Woodpecker, Broad-winged Hawk, Vermilion Flycatcher and more (eBird Hotspot list here).


Grasshopper Sparrow – Luke Tiller

The thing I like about sparrows is that they offer a level of ID that is challenging but not impossible for most birders (so it’s fun to help people learn to ID them) and that they are often beautiful but in a subtle way. It would be hard to accuse the Grasshopper Sparrow of being a “Little Brown Job”.


Grasshopper Sparrow – Vina Vieja

It’s actually been a slow year so far at Vina for me in terms of new birds. In fact it was only yesterday that I added my first new species for the year. Today’s Grasshopper Sparrow was a little more exciting to me than yesterday’s Double-crested Cormorant. Grasshopper Sparrow is pretty uncommon in LA County generally with this seemingly just the third record for the county this year in eBird.

Desert Get Away

10 10 2016

American Redstart – Luke Tiller

I’ve been running a few local walks just to enjoy the process of fall migration and to get to meet a few local birders. That said there’s only so much fun you can have birding in a couple of hours, so I suggested to the group that maybe we could try something more extensive. Enough people seemed to like the idea and so for that reason this Thursday we found ourselves meeting at a park and ride on the 210 at La Canada in the wee hours of the morning in order to get to birding in the desert as near dawn as humanly possible.

We started our morning at what has rapidly become one of my favorite LA birding sites: Rancho Sierra Golf Course (which is either in Palmdale or Lancaster depending on who you believe). Our trip got off to a pretty explosive start when after spotting a couple of Black-throated Gray Warblers another sweep of my binoculars yielded a female type American Redstart. Views were brief at best before it flew and the group split to try cover as much territory as possible. In a couple of minutes though I had relocated the bird and it posed nicely in the bare twigs of a half dead cottonwood allowing good views for the group. What a nice start.  There was a nice mix of species at Rancho and it felt birdy but though we tried we didn’t come up with anything more exciting than the Redstart. That said a Rock Wren perched on the only rocky habitat there (an old concrete pipe) and two early Ferruginous Hawks (that had perhaps come in with the Turkey Vultures that were roosting in the trees at the course) were a nice bonus.


Rock Wren – Luke Tiller

A quick stop at the farms on West 50th produced next to nothing and the diversionary drive to Apollo Park via Blackbird Park (the planes not the birds) was probably more entertaining. Apollo was quiet with almost nothing in the park of interest. It’s always interesting to me how one park in Lancaster can be busy and another almost dead. Perhaps timing or maybe where the migrants have arrived from? Probably the highlight of the visit to Apollo was finding a somewhat uncommon Horned Grebe. This was certainly my first for the park and there are just a couple of records of this species each year. It was also nice enough to be sat with one lone Eared Grebe which provided nice comparisons for the group.

Galileo Hills Silver Saddle Resort is an incredible and somewhat bizarre oasis in the south eastern corner of Kern County, just outside of California City. California City (the self-styled third biggest city in California) is itself an interesting failed suburban development (more here). The resort isn’t open to groups at the weekends which is what prompted me to hold this weekday trip. As you drive in from what is essentially the Mojave Desert, it’s amazing to come upon this small area of lush greenery. The lawns, ponds, fountains and trees here are a magnet and a safe haven for any number of wayward (and not so wayward) migrant birds. Silver Saddle boasts a number of incredible local records including such anomalies as Arctic Warbler (check out the eBird hotspot checklist here). Though not particularly busy on our visit a hybrid sapsucker was an interesting find.


Hammond’s Flycatcher – Luke Tiller

On our way back to Mojave for the evening we made a quick stop at California City Central Park, the somewhat crumbling focal point for the areas development. Here we added a couple of new species for the trip including a latish Hammond’s Flycatcher that provided us the chance to work through empidonax flycatcher identification. This identification is more complicated than usual because, as well as the usual west coast empidonax suspects, between Galileo and the Central Park California City boasts multiple records of Least Flycatchers and one each of Yellow-bellied and Buff-breasted. We ended our day in Mojave at Mojave Thai Cuisine (yelp reviews here), enjoying great food and conversation about all things birding before heading for an early night in anticipation of more birding adventures the next day.

Friday we started our day bright and early at Silver Saddle. Again it wasn’t overly birdy but we did manage to add a couple of new species to our list including brief views of a Cassin’s Vireo and long and accommodating views of an Ovenbird. This eastern vagrant showed particularly well and allowed all that wanted to to get some nice photographic records of the bird.


Ovenbird – Luke Tiller

With many of the group having evening plans in Los Angeles we decided to cut our adventure a little short. We however had time for a brief stop in California City back at the Central Park where we managed to add a handful of new birds for the trip including Western Wood-Pewee and Wilson’s Warbler. One of our last sightings of the tour was perhaps one of our best: a Lewis’s Woodpecker perched in a pondside snag around California Central Park. We got decent views of the bird perched and then got to witness its distinctive flight as it circled the lake a few times before heading off for a quieter spot along the golf course. A nice way to end the trip, with the Lewis’s and the American Redstart providing exciting bookends to a really fun trip.

I posted a few photos from the adventure on my flickr page (here) and am already thinking about where we might run something like this again in the future!


Say’s Phoebe – Luke Tiller

Raptors of Panama

12 09 2016

Bicolored Hawk

Last week I was lucky enough to spend five days co-leading a tour with the incredible Carlos Bethancourt in Darien Province, Panama with Sunrise Birding. Though raptors were not our specific focus at Canopy Camp we did have plenty of great encounters with them including one with perhaps the most sought after raptor in the world, a Harpy Eagle.

Our first day was taken up with a drive from Panama City down to the Darien where we encountered our first raptors of the trip. Our first was a beautiful little adult Double-toothed Kite. Though superficially they look somewhat like an accipiter these neat birds generally hunt lizards and insects by following troops of monkeys, picking off creatures that are escaping the commotion of a roving group of primates.

As the sun began to break out, on this thus far cloudy day, so small groups of Swallow-tailed Kites began to drift up from the surrounding forest before kettling up and making their way southwards on their migration. Swallow-tailed Kites are resident in Panama but these kettling groups of up to thirty birds were definitely migrants. Also migrating in smaller numbers were groups of Plumbeous Kites. These migratory kites are very akin to Mississippi Kites, but with much fancier rufous and black primaries. Plumbeous Kites only get as far north as Mexico to breed but do cross paths with Mississippi Kites during migration and in winter.

Our day ended at the Canopy Camp in Darien, where we were greeted on arrival by a flyover Zone-tailed Hawk.


Crane Hawk

After waking to the sound of calling Mottled and Crested Owls, the morning of day two was spent mainly around the Canopy Camp itself. A Roadside Hawk or two are often patrolling the property and early morning a Savanna Hawk sailed over. As the morning warmed up, so did the raptor activity. Black and Turkey Vultures are abundant almost everywhere in Panama, but it’s foolish not to look at groups of them closely as there are often other similarly colored raptors hiding among them. In among the clouds of mainly Black Vultures we soon had Common Black Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk and both adult and juvenile King Vultures. King Vultures must be up there with the most beautiful species of the vulture family, with the black and white adults much easier to pick out in the soaring throng than the all black juveniles.

During the day Plumbeous and Swallow-tailed Kites again passed overhead pretty much constantly in ones and twos while resident species like Short-tailed Hawks caught some of the thermal activity. Later in the day we birded the very end of the Pan American Highway where roadsides offered us views of Bat Falcons and Roadside Hawks among the flocks of oropendolas and caciques. Another great day of raptor viewing in Panama.


Laughing Falcon

Day three started with a short boat ride up the Chucanaque River. Though ostensibly to search out the very localized Dusky-backed Jacamar and other glorious species like Blue Cotinga and Golden-green Woodpecker there was always plenty of raptor action to be had. Along the river we picked up a couple of new species for the trip including Gray-lined Hawk (a relatively recent split from the Gray Hawk) and Crane Hawk, a beautiful and interesting raptor noted for their long legs and double-jointed tarsal bones. The aforementioned features allow the crane hawk to hunt successfully for prey in tree cavities.

Later in the day we again birded a couple of local roads where we managed to do something that would be pretty tough to do in the US: have a four kite species day. Adding Gray-headed Kite to Double-toothed, Swallow-tailed and Plumbeous. It was amazing to just have Swallow-tailed Kites flowing over most days in decent numbers in and of itself.


Harpy Eagle Nest

Day four was one that will live long in my memory, an encounter with a Harpy Eagle. This bird had been recently discovered on a nest by a relatively nearby community and had only been seen by Carlos and our local guide thus far. It was a fair way away from where we were staying but was within the realms of possibility for a day trip.

The Harpy though wasn’t our first raptor of the day as we had to travel quite a distance to get to the nest site, first by car, then by boat and follow that up with a long walk through a sauna-like jungle. Boat rides are a great way to see raptors as they perch out along the river and our dugout “cruise” netted us a bunch of nice sightings of previously encountered species. The hike started in a plantain plantation where we encountered both Laughing Falcon and Black Hawk-eagle before setting off on our long march toward the Harpy. With temperatures hovering around 85 degrees and humidity right in that ballpark as well it wasn’t long before the hike had us pretty sweaty, pretty tired and a little sore. Harpy Eagles, however, are a pretty strong motivator so we shrugged off these minor inconveniences with good humor.

When we arrived at the nest site there was initial disappointment when nothing was visible in the nest, though that just made it all the sweeter when about fifteen minutes later there was some stirring of movement and one of the adult eagles stuck it’s head up above the parapet. We all did our best to oooh and aaaah in a respectfully hushed tone and enjoyed our wonderful scoped views from a deferential distance. After a short encounter with this magnificent bird we all hiked our way back to the boats with a definite spring in our step. This whole day was a magical one that I will have to write about more extensively another time.


Harpy Eagle

We had enjoyed incredible weather for our whole trip considering it was the green season (realtor like code for rainy season) but our last day did finally see some daytime rain catch up with us. That said it wasn’t heavy enough to deter the birds or us hardy birders. While drizzle doesn’t really encourage soaring raptors it did encourage a beautiful juvenile Bicolored Hawk to grab a snag-top shower in our presence on our route back to Panama City. This forest accipiter is quite rare in Panama and can be quite tricky to see anywhere and even more so tricky to see well. It was in fact just the first juvenile Carlos had definitively encountered and probably the best views any of our group had ever had. Usual views of this species tend to be quick ones as they dash across a trail, but this bird sat with us for a full 20 minutes before we left him to his preening.

The trip ended back in Panama City where after the heavens opened they cleared just enough in the late afternoon to allow me to view a few raptors continuing their migration or heading to their roosts for the day. My impromptu hotel parking lot hawkwatch therfore netted me both Plumbeous and Swallow-tailed Kites and at least a couple of Ospreys. My last “hawks” of my trip were a steady stream of Common Nighthawks heading for their wintering grounds at dusk. An enchanting end to a magical trip to Panama.

Next year I will be back in Panama with the Hawk Migration Association of North America especially for raptor migration. The Harpy Eagle is a long shot on this tour, but the tour is  just about perfectly timed if they repeat one of those two million raptor flight days over Panama City like they had in 2014. It certainly promises a more raptor focused trip with a few species that were not in the range of this tour. More on the HMANA website here. I’m also hoping I might convince Sunrise Birding to let me run their Darien trip again – more on that in the future I hope.

Raptor list for this five day tour of the Darien:

Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture, King Vulture, Osprey, Gray-headed Kite, Swallow-tailed Kite, Plumbeous Kite, Black Hawk-eagle, Double-toothed Kite, Bicolored Hawk, Crane Hawk, Common Black Hawk, Savanna Hawk, Roadside Hawk, Gray-lined Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, Mottled Owl, Crested Owl, Red-throated Caracara, Northern Crested Caracara, Yellow-headed Caracara, Laughing Falcon, American Kestrel, Bat Falcon


Mother of all Mountain Quail

28 07 2016

Mountain Quail – Luke Tiller

Mountain Quail must be right up there with one of the most sought after species in Southern California, so when I took some friends from the east coast out birding today I had hoped that we might manage to have a brief encounter with a bird or two. Instead we had an incredible and prolonged encounter with at least a half dozen birds.


Mountain Quail – Luke Tiller

Even if you are lucky enough to run into Mountain Quail, views are generally brief as they dash across a road or disappear under brush as they scarper away up a nearby slope. If you are a tasty looking little chicken sized bird it is probably good to be pretty wary and these birds generally are.


Mountain Quail – Luke Tiller

It was interesting though to note that even in the relative open these birds blend quite nicely with their surrounds. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to show this beautiful species to numbers of tour participants in recent years but this encounter is probably the most spectacular. You can find out how to join me on my trips, tours and private guiding page.


Mountain Quail – Luke Tiller

Of course being friends with incredible photographers online means that I know that these shots aren’t perfect, but considering I have just a 300mm lens I’m pretty ecstatic with how they turned out. We also picked up a bunch of other goodies but after the quail experience it was hard to get motivated to take more photos. Amazing to think this is all just a stones throw from LAX!!!!


Mountain Quail – Luke Tiller

Pasadena Audubon Society Ode Walk

25 07 2016

Red Rock Skimmer – Luke Tiller

Following David Bell’s talk at the Pasadena Audubon Society monthly meeting this past May we decided it would be nice to follow that up with a walk introducing PAS members to the world of dragonflies and damselflies (odanata or odes). This trip was scheduled for 10:00am Sunday July 17th and lead by Kimball Garrett and David Bell.

Unlike birds, dragonflies are not early risers, so those that hadn’t spent their morning on the LA River (see previous post) got a rather more leisurely start time for a PAS walk than usual.  Participants met at the new (and rather attractively laid out) Oro Vista Park in Sunland/Tujunga and even prior to the official start David had managed to both point out and explain the differences between a couple of glider dragonflies (Wandering and Spot-winged) that were milling about near the park parking lot.


Flame Skimmer – Luke Tiller

After the group assembled we made a two minute drive down to Haines Creek a weedy, riparian area created by runoff from the local neighborhood. Here we picked up a few relatively common dragonfly and damselfly species that often inhabit these kind of habitats including a brief sighting of a Cardinal Meadowhawk before it was unceremoniously grabbed from its perch by a passing Black Phoebe! Among the common species we managed to work on a few basic ID challenges: Neon vs Flame Skimmer and Western Pondhawk vs Blue Dasher.

As well as having a nice mix of odes at Haine’s Creek we also had a couple of interesting  bird species to look at and listen to including a European Goldfinch (which I’d photographed here a few days before). Most exciting though surely was a Golden Eagle that was being initially harassed by a Red-tailed Hawk as it soared over us and slowly glided away. Haine’s Creek is an interesting riparian pond area that has hosted a number of interesting birds in migration and is one of those sites I’m contemplating for my series of local free walks this fall (details here).


Sooty Dancer – Luke Tiller


With a nice selection of odes under our belt our next stop was a at Wildwood Picnic area in the Angeles National Forest. Here we hoped to pick up a few species along the creek that required slightly different habitats and water. The initial immediate hit here were the incredible views of arguably the regions prettiest damselfly: American Rubyspot (images and information here). As well as the rubyspot we also managed to find a number of other species of damselflies including three species of dancer: Vivid, Lavender and Sooty as well as two species of bluet: Northern and Arroyo.

Some of these damselflies are much easier to ID in the hand than they are in binoculars and David managed to skillfully net a couple to show people up close in the hand. Even more impressively a couple of the PAS Young Birders Club were quick enough to carefully grab a couple from the rocks with their bare hands!

As well as the damselflies we picked up a few nice new dragonflies at our second stop including a Pale-faced Clubskimmer and a couple of Red Rock Skimmers.

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Serpent Ringtail – David Bell

Our last stop for the day was at Stonyvale Picnic Area a little further up Big Tujunga Canyon. Here we found two neat new odes for the day. Perhaps the hardest to find on the day simply because of its minute size: Desert Firetail, a truly tiny but beautiful little ode (more here) and the rather neat Gray Sanddraggon (photographed below).

In the end we tallied an impressive twenty three species of dragonfly and damselfly on the day somehow missing perhaps one of the regions commonest: Variable Meadowhawk. You can see the PDF list put together by Kimball here: ODONATA FIELD TRIP DB edits. I think everyone had a great time, enjoyed seeing some beautiful insects and learned a great deal about our local odonata. Thanks to Kimball Garrett and David Bell for their expert guidance. If you want to learn more about dragonflies then Odonata Central is a good place to start (link here). David’s company put together their recently released  iPhone App which you can download for free!

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Gray Sanddragon – David Bell


LAR Peeps

17 07 2016
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Semipalmated Sandpiper

A couple of meh digiscoped pics of a couple of vaguely interesting shorebirds prior to the PAS Dragonfly walk today down on the Los Angeles River. A Semipalmated Sandpiper (I think we ruled out something more interesting) and a crazily bright Western Sandpiper. Why when I was looking on the East Coast didn’t all Western Sandpipers look like this? Talk about making life easier.

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Western Sandpiper – Luke Tiller