For the Birds Radio Program: California Birding

Original Air Date: June 17, 1994

Laura tells us how to find hummingbirds along freeway embankments in downtown Los Angeles. (4:04) Date confirmed.

Audio missing


Two weeks ago, I went to Los Angeles, ostensibly for the American Booksellers’ Convention, but with hopes of seeing some new birds. Right in downtown L.A., there were plenty of pigeons, starlings, House Finches, and House Sparrows, and a few more exciting birds as well: a pair of mockingbirds building a nest in a streetlight, Allen’s and Anna’s Hummingbird feeding in flowers planted in an embankment along a freeway, and White-throated Swifts flying high above the high rises on the busy road between the hotel and the convention center.

I hadn’t seen White-throats in two or three years, so I jolted to a stop when I heard them chittering above. A guy lying on a bench asked what I was looking at, and when I told him, “White-throated Swifts!” he said, “Huh?” So I handed him my binoculars to check them out. His face lit up when he located them in the binocs. I felt more comfortable with the street people and pigeons than I did with all those suits inside the convention center.

But downtown L.A. didn’t have any lifers for me. I didn’t have transportation from downtown to the ocean, so I spent a day in Griffith Park. That’s the place where the Griffith Observatory and Los Angeles Zoo are, but the most recognizable feature of the park is the “Hollywood” letters in the mountain. The park is huge. I hiked fifteen or sixteen miles just going up and down different trails near the observatory, seeing western birds I hadn’t seen in years like Scrub Jays, Ash-throated Flycatchers, Phainopeplas, Bewick’s Wrens, Bushtits, and Black Phoebes. To an easterner, western birds seem very drab, as if their feathers had faded in the desert sun. Where we have a rainbow of warblers, they get dull little Bushtits and Wrentits, somber in color but sparkling with activity and friendliness.

It didn’t take long to add my first lifer of the day, Nuttall’s Woodpeckers. They’re in the same genus as our Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers but have a darker back.

I’d never seen Wrentits before, either. These tiny birds are tricky to actually see as they zip busily through the trees, but their long tail and white eye are excellent field marks even in a momentary glimpse. I also caught a few good looks at California Gnatcatchers. These perky little guys aren’t as pretty as the Blue-gray Gnatcatchers we see in the southern parts of the Midwest, but have as much personality.

Spotted Doves visited feeders on the periphery of the park. These exotic pigeons had been introduced to Los Angeles from Asia in the early 1900s and are well established. A California Thrasher sang from deep underbrush. I never did catch a good look at it, but thanks to the new rules of the American Birding Association allowing us to add lifers that we’ve simply heard, I added another one.

This brought my California list to five lifers, but when I got home and started writing them down, I got a shocking but pleasant revelation: I actually had added seven. It turns out that the little Empidonax flycatcher I assumed was a Western had been split into a new species called the Pacific-slope Flycatcher. And the ubiquitous brown sparrow-like birds that I shared my blueberry muffin with turned out to be new, too. What I had thought were Brown Towhees had recently been split into the Canyon Towhee, which I already had, and the lifer California Towhee. Seven lifers were plenty enough to leave me satisfied, yet little enough to leave ample reason to visit California again someday. I hear there’s plenty of state outside Los Angeles.