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Califauna - Ballona Wetlands, Los Angeles

by David Lindo (The Urban Birder)

Ballona wetlands
Ballona wetlands
Savannah Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Black-necked Stilt
Black-necked Stilt

'Hudsonian' Whimbrel
'Hudsonian' Whimbrel

When you think of LA the images that conjure up include visions of the ‘beautiful’ silicon wannabes, fancy cars, blazing sunshine and more recently, the Beckhams.

As a regular visitor, I have been to many of LA’s urban birding spots and amazingly, the birdlife in this truly sprawling metropolis can be startlingly rich. But my favourite place by far, is the Ballona Wetlands (pronounced Bi-yowna). I have adopted this remarkable and beautiful place as my main LA ‘local’ patch.

Sandwiched between LAX and Marina Del Rey and 30 minutes drive from the salubrious streets of Beverly Hills, this 1,087 acre ecosystem consists of salt and fresh water wetlands, dunes, bluffs and upland habitat.

For over 100 years the site has had a truly turbulent existence with Hollywood style drama thrown in for good measure. Howard Hughes bought over half the land on the ‘30s and more recently Steven Spielberg was warded off from developing the area into a studio. The Ballona Wetlands of today is a result of years of fighting the threat of development.

Late winter and spring is a great time for birds here. On the fresh water marsh viewable from the southern side of Jefferson Boulevard you will find plenty of wildfowl to sift through. Mallard, Cinnamon Teal, American Wigeon, Ruddy Duck head the cast with vociferous Killdeers and the resident Pied-billed Grebes much in evidence. Red-tailed Hawk, Osprey, White-tailed Kite are regulars, whilst Marsh Hawk and Short-eared Owl make very occasional appearances.

A walk around the marsh could produce Black-necked Grebes that can often be seen swimming amongst the Ruddies while Red-winged Blackbirds, Lincoln’s Sparrows and Common Yellowthroats can all be found in and around the reeds.

Further west along Culver Boulevard are the salt marshes that back onto Ballona Creek. Access here is restricted due to the sensitive nature of the habitat, therefore this area is best watched from the raised path along the creek - easily reached from the beach.

In the hazy distance, you can make out the loafing Caspian Terns that often share standing room with legions of Grey Plover, the odd Marbled Godwit and the occasional Long-billed Curlew. Great and Snowy Egrets are common and Great Blue Herons are not in short supply either.

It is in this area that you are likely to bump into a solitary Belted Kingfisher sitting sentinel-like on a post or branch watching for prey. Searching the sky will result in several hirundine species including Barn, Cliff, Northern Rough-wing and the occasional Tree Swallows. A solitary Burrowing Owl has been present for the second consecutive winter - the first occurrence of this charismatic owl at the wetlands in over two decades.

Head further west along Culver and you will eventually hit the coast with its miles of sandy beaches that stretch in both directions. Here aside from ‘Baywatch’ look-a-likes invariably jogging, cycling or rollerblading along the tarmac paths that traverse the beach, you will also discover a good selection of seabirds.

On the beach itself are usually small resting groups of Caspian Terns. In early spring also expect to see sizeable flocks of Elegant Terns along with the odd Royal Tern affording an excellent opportunity to compare these two troublesome species. Occasionally flying along the shoreline and up the nearby Ballona Creek are the locally endangered Least Tern, the more familiar Forster’s Tern and scarce Black Skimmer.

Let us not forget the gulls, of which there are many. Amongst the terns you will discover the abundant Western and Ring-billed Gulls with lesser numbers of Heermann’s, Glaucous-winged, California, American Herring, rarely Mew and infrequently, Bonaparte’s Gulls overhead.

All these birds along with waders like Willet, Sanderling, Marbled Godwit and Whimbrel seem almost oblivious to the humans and are often quite approachable, which is great especially if you have got a camera.

On the sea often quite close to the shore are small rafts of Surf Scoter, Western Grebe, Brown Pelican, Pelagic and Brandt’s Cormorant. The last three species habitually hang out on the rocky jetties that protrude from the mouth of the Ballona Creek. And it’s on the creek that you can have amazing views of Great Northern Diver (Common Loon) and Pacific Diver (Loon), more Black-necked Grebes, Bufflehead and Double-crested Cormorant. Check the rocky shoreline for Black and Ruddy Turnstones, Willet, Surfbird and if you are lucky, American Pipit.  This winter (2006-07) a Rock Sandpiper  (a rarity down here) has been seen quite regularly.

Lying parallel with the beach practically surrounded by housing and to the north by the creek, is Del Rey Lagoon. Despite its small size and its close proximity to habitation, a surprising amount of birds turn up here including rarities. Expect to see Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead, American Coot and along the muddy edges egrets with the more secretive Green and Black-crowned Night Herons putting in flight appearances. The shoreline here is a fantastic place to observe waders at fairly close range, especially Western Sandpiper.

As you might be able to tell, Ballona Wetlands is an amazing urban refuge that deserves the full protection that it is currently enjoying. When you are LA, after seeing the ‘Hollywood’ sign you have got to come here!

For more information on Ballona visit or contact Bob Shanman at Wild Birds Unlimited


David LindoDavid is a broadcaster, writer and he also DJ's. He was previously Head of Membership at the British Trust for Ornithology and is the author of many articles on urban birdlife and has featured on BBC Springwatch, Radio 4 and BBC Radio London.

When not doing any of the above, you'll find him birding at Wormwood Scrubs, West London.'
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