If you feel like going birding, call the Los Angeles Audubon Society at (213) 874-1318. A taped message will tell you where the rare and special birds have been spotted each week. But whether you decide to drive a distance or stay home, there are birds to be found throughout Southern California.
Here are some of the places to begin your search for birds:
The City: Look in your backyard, or in the trees and shrubs around your apartment building. At any season, you may see nesting hummingbirds, mockingbirds or house finches. Look overhead; that big bird soaring in tight circles is a red-tailed hawk. Those dark birds flapping more and flying straight are crows or ravens. Parrots chatter as they fly with short, fast wing beats. When you go Downtown, watch for peregrine falcons chasing pigeons between the high-rises.
In winter, any sizable parking lot will have California gulls scavenging tidbits during the day. When you're out at night, listen for soft hoots from the tops of big trees or street lamps. Look up and you might see a great horned owl, our largest and most ferocious avian predator. It's fairly common, more abundant even than the decoy owls people put on their roofs to scare pigeons. It's fond of rats, but will go after anything it can carry. So if you hear one, keep your kitten inside at night.
Urban Oases: Big parks and recreation areas concentrate wild birds in heavily urbanized areas. Griffith Park, mountainous and brushy, has most of the usual chaparral. Poor-wills hibernate in winter in cliffs near the Hollywood sign, and migrants are easy to find in the Ferndell area of the park during the spring.
The Whittier Narrows Nature Center, on Durfee Avenue in El Monte, has ponds, marshes and riparian woodlands that host ducks, herons and egrets year-round, plus many land birds, including the only breeding population of bright-red northern cardinals in our area. These birds were transplanted from the East, but are still worth seeing, especially for homesick Easterners.
Other good freshwater wetland oases include Madrona Marsh in Torrance, Harbor Lake in Wilmington and the El Dorado Nature Center in Long Beach.
All arboretums and botanical gardens are good, especially for wintering rarities. Perhaps the best park for all-around good birding is Huntington Beach Central Park in Orange County. With just a small patch of wet woods and pond and plenty of shrubbery, it attracts an incredible variety of rare strays and local birds, even when crowded on weekends. Brazilian cardinals can sometimes be found here, too.
Along the Coast: The Malibu Coast, where the Santa Monica Mountains come down to the sea, offers good coastal and land birding in the same general area. Malibu Lagoon, with its newly restored marsh, has a good assortment of gulls, terns, shore birds, a few ducks, and migrant land birds.
A short drive up Malibu Canyon is Tapia Park, with oak and riparian woodland birds like acorn woodpeckers, red-shouldered hawks and black-chinned hummingbirds. Next door, in Malibu Creek State Park, a few pairs of golden eagles nest in the highest crags and occasionally come down and roost in oak trees near the parking lot.
Farther up the coast are two good lookouts for whales and ocean birds: Point Dume and Point Mugu. Big Sycamore and La Jolla canyons, just east of the Point Mugu lookout, are good for migrants, strays and chaparral birds in the wild, undeveloped hills of Point Mugu State Park.
Another state park up the road is McGrath, just south of the Ventura Marina. The large estuary here is like Malibu, but on a much grander scale. It's the best shore-bird spot on the coast; Eurasian rarities show up nearly every season, and there are always hundreds of gulls, terns, cormorants, pelicans and other water birds. It's one of the last and best nesting sites for the endangered snowy plover.
The best coastal marshes in our area are in Orange County. Bolsa Chica, near Huntington Beach, has the usual herons, terns, plovers and rails, with ducks in the fall and winter. But its specialty is black skimmers, which have established a permanent breeding colony here. These bizarrely beautiful birds have expanded their range from the Sea of Cortez in recent years.
Behind Newport Beach is Upper Newport Bay, long and narrow, and bordered with a paved road, which makes it much more accessible than any other salt marsh in the Southland, and the best place to see rails. Virginias, soras and even the rare clapper rail can be spotted from a car. At the highest tide, even black rails emerge from hiding just to keep from being swamped; this is perhaps the shyest bird in North America, and the fact that it can be seen at all here makes Newport Bay a mecca for birders from all over the country.
The Mountains: The California condor, North America's largest land bird, no longer flies over Mt. Pinos. But it's still possible to see calliope hummingbirds, the smallest birds, feeding from the flowers in Iris Meadows, next to the parking lot on the summit.