Ballona Institute Publication
American Bald Eagle

History of Rare Birds
Ballona Valley and Playa del Rey

Robert Jan "Roy" van de Hoek
Conservation Biologist & Avian Ecologist
Ballona Institute
322 Culver Blvd. Suite 317 Playa del Rey, CA 90293

The definition of a rare bird is for a species that has been reported one to five times in the last 108 years. The beginning of scientists and naturalists tracking birds in Los Angeles County begins in 1898 when Joseph Grinnell first wrote his monograph, Birds of the Pacific Slope of Los Angeles County. Shortly thereafter, the Cooper Ornithological Club begins publishing findings in Condor through its editor, Joseph Grinnell. The relative completeness of the present list is due to the observations of members of various birding organizations, and to the fortunate circumstance that, in the early part of this century and up to 1923, members of the Southern Division of the Cooper Ornithological Club did a large amount of field work in this area. Their specimens, many of them deposited in the Los Angeles Museum, constitute an extremely valuable source of information on the birds of this territory, particularly as regards forms which are not readily identifiable in the field. Among the men who did the greater part of this early field work are included: Dr. Louis B. Bishop, W. Lee Chambers, Frank S. Daggett, Dr. Joseph Grinnell, Dr. John Hornung, Antonin Jay, Dr. Loye H. Miller, George Willett, and Luther E. Wyman. Primarily, their work was with water birds.

To some it may seem that the present list is unnecessary and superfluous, as Grinnell's list of the birds of the Pacific slope of Los Angeles County was published in 1898 and, more recently, Willett's list of the birds of southwestern California appeared in 1912 and , in revised form, in 1933. Little, if any, is added in the way of general information to the value of Willett's 1933 list. The latter paper, however, is much broader in scope than the present one in treating the distribution of species and in area covered, and it is more concerned with problems of taxonomy than is this one.

The following accounts take into consideration every species and subspecies of bird which has been reported on reliable authority at least once but not more than three times in the Ballona Valley and as occurring within the Playa del Rey.

Records of specimens from this area which have been used have been examined by the writer are here included and, unless otherwise stated, they are in the collection of the Los Angeles Museum. In so far as possible, reference is made to the areal distribution and relative abundance of each avian species found in the region, known dates of arrival and departure of migratory birds.

1. Bald Eagle. One individual that was unable to fly due, apparently, to oil on its plumage, was observed near the salt marsh lagoon on July 22, 1928, by Jack von Bloeker. Another Bald Eagle was seen in 1979-1980 by Ralph Schreiber and Audubon birders in the Ballona wetlands. It was a juvenile bird.

2. California Quail. Adult birds with coveys of young observed in the meadow in July and August, 1931; in May, 1932; and in May, June, and July, 1939 and 1940. These observations are by Jack von Bloeker in the Playa del Rey sand dune near present day LAX Airport.

3. Sandhill Crane. There is an adult male in the Bishop Collection taken near Culver City in Ballona Valley, prior to the 1940s (von Bloeker, 1943).

4. California Black Rail. Records for this area are as follows: one seen by G.F. Morcom, May 16, 1895 (Grinnell, 1898, p.16); adult found impaled on barbed-wire fence by Joseph Ewan, February 25, 1928 (Ewan, 1928, p.247).

5. Pectoral Sandpiper. One seen in 1923 by Ralph Hoffmann and Luther Wyman. Another sighting was in 2004 in the Ballona Marsh on Jefferson Boulevard.

6. Greater Roadrunner. Adult male collected by Willett at Playa del Rey, December 29, 1908, and adult female taken in the meadow by Jack von Bloeker, February 13, 1932. An old, but well preserved, nest of this species was found in the midst of a patch of tuna cactus on the seaward slope of the Playa del Rey sand dunes (future LAX) by G.P. Kanakoff, October 26, 1939.

7. Long-eared Owl. One record: specimen found dead on highway at Playa del Rey, December 31, 1929, by H.N. McCoy.

8. California Horned Lark. From a population of many individuals five specimens taken at Hyperion in January and February by Wyman. Adult male caught in mouse-trap set in the meadow, May 1, 1932. Additional specimens taken in latter locality in October, 1932, and February and April, 1932, by the writer.

9. Marbled Murrelet. Three records from Marina del Rey harbor from 1990s to 2003. One reported by Lilian Almdale to this writer-avian ecologist.

10. Stilt Sandpiper. One seen in Playa del Rey on the jetty on 8 September 1976 (Garrett & Dunn, 1981).

11. Ruff. One seen in Playa del Rey for 9 days on the jetty from January 6 to 15, 1975 (Garrett & Dunn, 1981).

12. Red-necked Grebe. One seen in Marina del Rey (Brantdt, 1975). Garrett & Dunn (1981) have disputed several records from southern California as misidentified birds. This grebe sighting may be one of those sightings that was discredited?

13. Rock Sandpiper. Five different winter sightings at Playa del Rey jetties from 1958 to 1967 (Garrett & Dunn, 1981).

14. Ferruginous Hawk. The first report ever that is published is in November of 2004 in a local Audubon newsletter. I oberved this Ferruginous Hawk on a nearly daily basis until January 20, 2005, when it departed to parts unknown.

15. Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa sandpiper). In 1981, there is only one record for Los Angeles County and all of southern California, and it is for this Asian godwit on Ballona Creek in Playa del Rey from February 11 (Wednesday) to March 2 (Tuesday), 1976. (Garrett & Dunn, 1981). The Asian limosa remained on Ballona Creek for 19 days and it was associated with North American limosid Marbled Godwits and other shorebirds on the muddy bed of a tidal, concrete-lined channel. There are approximately 28 records for California, mostly from the coast of northern California, but the appearance of this Asian Limosa in southern California was the first known for southern California. Since then, there have been two additional records in San Diego County (Unitt, 2004). The first Bar-tailed Godwit was seen on the beach at the Hotel del Coronado in November 4 to 27, 1981, right after Garrett & Dunn (1981) wrote their book. The other Asian limosid was seen on the urbanized tidal estuary of the San Diego River on September 4 to 5, 2002. The urbanized river mouth of both the San Diego River and Ballona Creek are similar in nature as both still function as estuaries as their respective urbanized rivers enter the sea. For example, both of these urban estuaries are armored on their sides but are soft-bottomed mud flats at low tide. Perhaps the Bar-tailed Godwit is partial to these settings as are the North American shorebirds.

16. Greater White-fronted Goose. One record of this goose, which has now been at Del Rey Lagoon Park in Playa del Rey for 8 months (late October 2004 to late June 2005).

17. Tricolored (Louisana) Heron. One record of this heron is know from Marina del Rey when it was seen for three days from August 25-27, 1972 (Garrett (1981,p.94).

This report, the result of a study of the avifauna of the Playa del Rey and lower Ballona Valley to as far inland as Sepulveda Boulevard, reveals the presence of 16 species of rare birds within the limits of the area considered and by definition of a rare bird.

Robert Jan 'Roy' van de Hoek
on the
Avian Ecology
Ballona Valley Birds

Ballona (Bayona) bird ecology is complex and is even more complex to communicate to the lay person. The excitement of rare birds to birdwatchers and Audubon Society members is difficult to express and communicate to the general public. Therefore, this article will likely appeal to a narrow audience but one which is vitally important as a citizen of Los Angeles County and belonging to conservation groups and environmental organizations.I would like to present two examples, the first is regarding the Ferruginous Hawk which is very rare to Ballona Valley and the second example regards the Burrowing Owl, which today is very rare but just a few decades ago was common in Ballona Valley.

The Ferruginous Hawk was not listed, nor discussed, by Joseph Grinnell, George Willett, or Jack Von Bloeker in their reports, apparently not an oversight but rather that no one had observed the Ferruginous Hawk in the Playa del Rey - El Segundo - Ballona Valley region. Interestingly, it had been recorded in coastal areas both north and south of our region of consideration. Thus, the observation of the Ferruginous Hawk this December, 2004 for 20 consecutive days thus far, is an interesting situation. My daily observations of this individual hawk is enlightening and eye-opening simultaneously. It roosts at night in various pines in an apartment-condominium complex in Marina del Rey. Between dawn and sunrise, it flies out to the Ballona area to roost on a power pole along Culver Boulevard, just west of the two (1933 vintage) Culver Boulevard bridges. Shortly thereafter it spends most of the day on the ground amidst a high density population of pocket gophers in a prairie-like landscape, sandwiched between Lincoln, Jefferson, and Culver Boulevards. This piece of land consists mostly of weedy grasses which is the primary food of the gophers. By the way, the main staple of food for the gopher throughout the western United States is grasses. Other plants are less important. In the late afternoon, about 30 minutes before sunset, the Ferruginous Hawk flies back to a pine tree in the nearby apartment complex. The pines are heavily thinned-out of their branches, from a previous year, and the species of pine is the Canary Island Pine. It chooses a pine that is usually about 75' to 100' in height. It is occasionally mobbed by crows, but they finally depart to other locations to roost themselves for the long 14 hour night. The daily hunting area for the Ferruginous Hawk is under intermim restoration planning and management, and it is likely that many of the scientists are going to recommend that this area be returned to a salt marsh with pickleplant (Salicornia virginica) and associated species for restoration. This action of conversion of a coastal prairie to salt marsh would be disasterous for the Ferruginous Hawk and other prairie raptors such as the Burrowing Owl, and for smaller raptorial-like birds such as the Loggerhead Shrike. This area is also prime habitat for large flocks of Western Meadowlark and occasionally Horned Lark. This region should remain as coastal prairie replete with thousands of gophers. Furthemore, it needs to remain as short-grass prairie rather than tall-grass (bunchgrass) prairie, so that the raptors can hun effectively. The area would be suitable for California (Beechy) Ground Squirrel to join the pocket gopher population, if the Red Fox were eliminated from this area. Currently, the ground squirrel is extirpated (locally extinct) in the Ballona wetlands region. A small population of Audubon Cottontail Rabbits have a small refugium in the bushes (pampas grass and Saltbush) along the west-facing levee slope of Lincoln Boulevard because there is a hedge-like habitat vegetation. Along Culver Boulevard there are two giant Arundo stands of 30' high cane-like vegetation which harbors homeless encampments and is cover habitat for Red Fox. A few palms, arundo, and saltbush are beginning to invade the prairie-liek vegetation, which will be bad for the Burrowing Owl, Ground Squirrel, Ferruginous Hawk, and Loggerhead Shrike. If these arundo, saltbush, and young palms were removed, the red fox and human homeless habitat would vanish. The area would then become a prime area for Ground Squirrel again. The Ferruginous Hawk, in addition to preying on pocket gopher and insects, also hunts ground squirrels, and at one time in the past, was named the "California Squirrel Hawk." Let us hope this area remains as prairie and as salt marsh wetland. It should be noted that this region, located between Lincoln, Culver, and Jefferson Boulevards, in high precipitation years, is temporarily covered in a shallow sheet of water, at which time it becomes habitat for watefowl such as Mallard, Ruddy Duck, three kinds of Teal, and Pintail. This is only for a few days to a week or two, and then the area reverts back to prairie and the gophers dig themselves out from the water that covered the ground above them.

For a second example, consider the Burrowing Owl. Jack Von Bloeker did discuss this bird in his report (see above list), so we have some baseline information on which to make scientific hypotheses, analysis, and conclusions. This owl which cannot burrow itself, depends completely on the burrowing activities of the ground squirrel. Unfortunately, the ground squirrel is locally extinct at Ballona and consequently, so is the owl. So when does an owl actually have a chance to use a squirrel hole for raising its own family of young owls? It depends on a squirrel hole being found vacant due to death of a squirrel. Squirrels die of old-age, disease, and predation by coyotes and hawks, and it is shortly after a death of a squirrel that a Burrowing Owl gains a nesting place. Now you know why the Burrowing Owl is gone from Ballona but why is the Ground Squirrel gone? The Red Fox has been studied throughout southern California and each location where there is a population of Red Fox, there is no ground squirrel, and consequently no Burrowing Owl. Apparently, the Red Fox is a voracious predator of the Ground Squirrel. One small area at Ballona, on private land adjacent to Del Rey Lagoon harbors the last remaining vestige of a population of the ground squirrel, with an estimated population size of about 8 squirrels. Why hasn't the Red Fox discovered this squirrel population. The squirrels are protected by a fence that encloses the squirrel population and the lagoon which historically remained filled with water. However, for the last year, the tides have been allowed to flow in and out of the lagoon, so that now, there are times that the Red Fox can hunt and wander along the shore of the lagoon, right to where the squirrels have been holding on to a small refuge. The squirrel numbers seem less now in this area, and it may already be too late for them. Eventually, the Red Fox eats everything and then it too will disappear.

I would like to conclude this afterword with some obvious birds that Jack von Bloeker did not list and describe from El Segundo and Playa del Rey habitats. These include the Red-shouldered Hawk, which today is a frequent migrant throughout the Ballona Valley. And secondly, the Great-horned Owl which is now seen and heard occasionally throughout the Ballona Valley. Both of these raptors, are now present because of the increase of turf (lawns), trees, and trash, which attracts the prey that this owl and hawk select for and also perches from which to hunt and roost. It seems that we have made the Ballona Valley increasingly suitable for an owl that once upon a time, not so long ago, was absent, and simultaneously, we have made Ballona Valley unsuitable for the five kinds of owls that were present during the time of the fieldwork of Jack von Bloeker, only 60-80 years ago. How can it be that we have made the Ballona Valley so unbearable for his five owls and a good place for the Great-horned Owl, which is a common owl. Studies show that the Great-horned Owl displaces the five owls reported by von Bloeker by lethal predation and constant threat harassment. Is it too late to bring back the five other owls? Not at all. We need simply to reduce the number of trees, reduce the turf-lawns, reduce the trash, reduce the Great-horned Owl, and then increase wide open prairie-like areas, remove the fox which increases the ground squirrels, which in turn increases the owls. Four of the five owls that Jack von Bloeker found commonly in the Ballona - Playa del Rey - El Segundo region, are ground-nesting owls, hence vulnerable to Red Fox predation. Similarly, these owls also utilize ground squirrel burrow systems including their underground cavernous dens, but again, the Red Fox has eliminated the squirrels that dig out the burrows. Finally, the Red Fox is a good burrower and he digs out the owls and squirrels from their burrows. The Red Fox, single-handedly, more so than the developers, due to its insidious fox-like behavior, has caused a mass genocide on the native wildlife. The Red Fox is an imposter that was brought by Man from Europe via ship and railroad to California, so that fox farms were established to make furs for the growing Hollywood starlets that wanted fox furs to look "beautiful." Thus, indirectly, the loss of the owls and squirrels is due to the Hollywood phenomenon and human behavior. Are you surprised? Don't be, it is yet one other way that Ecology functions.

Garrett, Kimball and Jon Dunn. 1981. Birds of Southern California: Status and Distribution. Los Angeles Audubon Society. 408 pages.