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Where to Go Birdwatching in Southern California

Owens Birds
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In Southern California, we’ve got no shortage of birds, that’s for sure. Credit our geographical position along the Pacific Flyway, at least to see the migratory flights headed north and/or south.

But if you’ve ever tried going on a “birdwatching” expedition, you might’ve gotten a little frustrated at how few birds you actually were able to see.

That’s because most birders, by nature, have to be a little bit obsessive-compulsive in their search for our fine, feathered friends. It’s the hunt that pushes them forward — the same thing that drives pickers to go antiquing, visit sprawling flea markets and sift through piles of “vintage” wear on Melrose.

It actually doesn’t have to be so hard to see some pretty incredible birds in SoCal — even if you’re not anywhere near the coast.

It helps, of course, to be situated near at least some water — whether it’s an artificial lake on a golf course, an underground spring or a seasonal pool. Because whether the birds eat smaller birds, rodents and other small mammals, fish, invertebrates, nectar or berries, they’ll only find their food where there’s water.

And while there are still some places in SoCal where you can visit birds in captivity (recalling the golden age of our ostrich farms), here are five great places where you’re guaranteed to see some feathered flocks out in the wild.

1. Madrona Marsh, Torrance

You wouldn’t think that a 43-acre preserve in the middle of the City of Torrance — literally across the street from Del Amo Fashion Center — would be such a good birding area, but it is. Starting right at the entrance, you’re likely to spot lesser goldfinches — but they certainly won’t be the only songbirds you hear. This vernal marsh (so named because the temporary freshwater pools are only wet in the spring, thanks to rainwater runoff) gets a nice spring bloom of wildflowers, but all year long, this rare, undeveloped parcel of land (part of which was formerly an oil and gas recovery site) has plenty of vegetation for birds to perch onto and hide in. Among the reeds and the black willows, you’re most likely to see red-winged blackbirds (which look exactly as their name implies) — and out in the open water, mallards, Canadian geese and coots. This time of year, you can see entire families of them, including little puffy, fluffy and spiky ducklings, goslings, and chicks. While you’re looking for birds in this “island habitat,” beware of the harvester anthills that might be underfoot. Entrance is free, and the nature center across the street hosts monthly bird walks as well as rambles through the marsh with a naturalist. For more information about birding in the South Bay area, visit Wild Birds Unlimited, a nature shop located in Torrance that also has an incredibly informative website.  

Madrona Marsh
Sandi Hemmerlein
Madrona Marsh
Sandi Hemmerlein

2. El Dorado Nature Center & El Dorado East Duck Pond, Long Beach

El Dorado Park is a historic, inland area of Long Beach along the San Gabriel River, east of the Long Beach Airport. Across the street from the former venue for archery competitions in the 1984 Olympics, you’ll find the El Dorado Nature Center, which provides access to a couple of miles of trails through over 100 acres that span different kinds of habitats — from riparian to woodland and grassland. Starting at the nature center, you’re likely to see and hear a lot of hummingbirds (and not just at the feeder that hangs on the porch), but a quick jaunt on the trails — your choice of ¼ mile, one mile, and two miles — will reveal an abundance of scrub jays, mallards, Canadian geese, coots and quite spectacularly, great blue herons perching visibly in trees and posing for photos. This is a park where you’ll hear more birds than you’ll actually see, so if you haven’t got binoculars or don’t feel like craning your neck and straining your eyes to identify whatever is rustling in the trees, head over to the El Dorado Duck Pond by the El Dorado Park Golf Course. You’ve never seen so many feisty snowy egrets perching in the same palm tree, and you’ve never been able to get so close to a black-crowned night-heron (or two). If you’re not proficient in identifying birds by their plumage, calls or flight patterns, there’s a phone number you can call for an audio tour, courtesy of the “El Dorado Park Winged Wonders” program. Soon, you’ll be able to tell a wood duck from a cinnamon teal and a Northern shoveler, and a mute swan (a permanent resident of the pond) from a domestic swan goose. And if you’re still feeling unsure, you can hook up with the El Dorado chapter of the Audubon Society for a field trip to learn more.

El Dorado Nature Center & El Dorado East Duck Pond
Sandi Hemmerlein
El Dorado Nature Center & El Dorado East Duck Pond
Sandi Hemmerlein

3. Los Encinos State Historic Park, Encino

One of the stops on the Portola expedition of 1769 — when Spanish explorers first arrived — was right here in the San Fernando Valley, in the L.A. neighborhood now known as Encino. At the time, it was an Indian village (a "rancheria," to the Spaniards) known as "Siutcanga" that the Tongvas (who the Spanish called "Fernandeños" or "Gabrielinos") had occupied for several thousand years. Once Mexico gained control over Southern California, the rancheria became known as "Rancho Los Encinos," in reference to the oak trees that grew in abundance in the Valley. Fast-forward to the 21st century, and now you can visit the long, narrow adobe that’s an excellent example of the basic Californio style and is full of historic artifacts — and, of course, a stone-walled pond built by sheep ranchers in the 1870s at the site of a natural spring (and in the shape of a Spanish guitar). The pond is fed by the artesian well, and although it used to drain into a stream that drained into the Los Angeles River, it now drains into the flood control system. You’re likely to find the pond full of ducks and geese, which you can lure over to you with a couple of coins and a turn of the knob on the feed vending machine. But beware: the geese bite! If you’re feeling a bit peckish yourself, visit the Lakeside Restaurant upon the shore of the pond — it was once the original location of the first El Torito tiki bar / Mexican restaurant.

Los Encinos State Historic Park
Sandi Hemmerlein
Los Encinos State Historic Park
Sandi Hemmerlein

4. Owens Lake, Inyo County

Visiting with Huell Howser: Owens Dry Lake

Technically, Owens Lake in the Owens Valley region of Inyo County is a dry lake. A basin in the “basin and range” area of Eastern California, the City of Los Angeles pretty much sucked it dry after it bought up the surrounding water rights and started pumping the local alpine water 300 miles south through its aqueduct(s). But now, when you combine the blowing dust abatement program managed by LADWP (which consists, in part, of irrigating the dry lake “surface” so it doesn’t blow away so much) and the plentiful rains that we had last winter, it’s looking a little wetter than we’re used to seeing it. In terms of shorebirds — either permanent residents or, more likely, migrants along the Pacific Flyway — you’re guaranteed to see lots of California gulls and eared grebes, but you might catch sight of a black-necked stilt, a white-faced ibis, sandpipers, yellowlegs and California avocets digging around for some invertebrates to snack on. Visiting the lake can be a bit tricky, though the LADWP has been working on creating more public access with its Owens Lake Trails program. You can find a few proper parking areas, interpretive kiosks and even land art — and it’s best to stay on “official” roads so as not to get caught slogging through quicksand or dodging the many white LADWP trucks that frequent the area. For year-round water access, check out the birds at Cartago Springs (adjacent to the western shore of Owens Lake) and nearby Diaz Lake (technically a sag pond formed after the 1872 earthquake), the latter of which also provides opportunities for boating and camping. The annual Owens Lake Bird Festival provides access to all of these areas and more, but you can also get some expert advice from the Eastern Sierra Audubon Society or the Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association any time of year.

Owens Lake
Sandi Hemmerlein
Owens Lake
Sandi Hemmerlein

5. Wild Parrots, Pasadena (and beyond)

If you’ve spent any time in Southern California, at some point you’ve probably seen — or at least heard the squawking of — one of our flocks of wild parrots. Wherever you are, look up and you’re likely to see their green feathers stunningly illuminated in the sunlight. Or, you might see them rustling in the trees or even perched on power lines. They’re wonderful to look at (if a bit noisy and disruptive), but make no mistake — they’re wild! Their ancestors may have escaped from some domesticated environment (perhaps from one of our long-lost Busch Gardens amusement parks) but these non-natives are, at least from an evolutionary standpoint, far more acclimated to the sparsely populated Amazon than to their current, highly urbanized dwellings. Pasadena has become famous for its flock(s) of parrots, but these tropical tree-dwellers have been convivial enough at least with each other — even sometimes interbreeding — to have spawned multiple flocks that have spread as far and wide in the L.A. metro area as Burbank, Hollywood, Long Beach and Redondo Beach. You can also find them in some areas of Orange County and San Diego County. If you happen to find an injured one that can’t fly, don’t try to nurse it back to health by yourself. Some of our Southern California Humane Society chapters have wildlife divisions that can accept parrot patients (including Pasadena Humane), and the non-profit SoCal Parrot dispatches team of volunteers all over Southern California to shuttle injured or orphaned wild, urban parrots to its rescue facility in Jamul, where the birds are rehabbed and rereleased into the wild.

Wild Parrots
Sandi Hemmerlein

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