Birding Elyria Canyon Park: Anatomy of a 50 Species Morning

One of my emphasis points this year as a birder is a heavy focus on covering my home area, or what birders refer to as a "patch". The most important part of my home patch is Elyria Canyon Park, a 35-acre park right next door to my house that is managed by the Mountains Recreation & Conservation Authority. The park contains an excellent trail system over hills and through canyons, with a mix of grassland, chaparral, and California black walnut woodland. While I've birded there frequently over the years, I have not given the park the regular coverage it deserves until this year. I knew when I entered the park this morning at Bridgeport Drive that my first singing Common Yellowthroat of the year was a good sign. Even if it didn't turn out to be a good day as far as overall birding was concerned, any walk serenaded by singing warblers is an enjoyable one. The walk past the gate was productive. Sparrows were in abundance near the red barn, with Spotted and California Towhees, and Lincoln's, Fox, White-crowned, and Golden-crowned Sparrows bringing my total for that short stretch to 20 species. A newly-arrived Hooded Oriole chattered just past here. I searched in vein for the newly-arrived Pacific-slope Flycatcher that I had on Sunday.

The rest of the first pass through the park was productive overall, but I missed several species that I would expect to get. While the Wrentits were calling in the northeast portion of the park, the resident California Thrashers were quiet. A Downy Woodpecker called amidst the regular Nuttall's. I've never been able to figure that species out, as I get Downy Woodpecker in the park (and at my house) from time to time year-round, but with great irregularity. I've seen both sexes. My assumption is that they are breeding, but outside of the park, and just visit the park from time to time. Speaking of woodpeckers, I also noted that Northern Flickers are now much more difficult to get (as they only regularly occur here in the winter), but I did hear one calling in the distance. I finished my first pass through the park with 30 or so species, which is a pretty expected number for this time of year. Notably lacking were raptors, for which I had zero. But that was about to change.

As headed back through the park in the opposite direction, I first noticed that it seemed unusually warm. At roughly 9:30 am, the wind suddenly picked up drastically from the west. Between the warm air and the wind direction, this apparently created marked uplift conditions on the Elyria Canyon Park side of Mt. Washington. First, there was one Cooper's Hawk circling. Then, a handful of Common Ravens. This was followed by the local pair of Red-tailed Hawks, and shortly thereafter by the subadult Red-tailed Hawk that also lives in the canyon and frequently fights with the resident pair. Then, the Cooper's Hawk's mate. As I watch these raptors soar around and kite in the wind, they are joined by a large and pointy-winged bird that looks like a jet fighter: a Peregrine Falcon. The falcon would soar lazily in circles higher and higher, then fold its wings and dart quickly across the canyon, before returning to more lazy circles. Neither the Cooper's Hawks nor the Red-tailed Hawks were happy about the Peregrine's presence, and individuals from both species spent considerable time chasing the Peregrine in a mid-air dogfight. This lasted approximately 20 minutes. As if this wasn't enough to watch, the Red-shouldered Hawks that reside somewhere along Elyria Drive joined the fray, and a female American Kestrel also passed through low, seemingly try to stay out of trouble. While watching the aerial show, I finally saw a group of six Violet-green Swallows pass over (the first record for the park, but expected at some point during migration), which were joined by several White-throated Swifts and passing flocks of gulls from the LA River. Then, the wind got even stronger from the northwest and the show stopped. It ended with a calling Western Bluebird, also a first for the park despite the fact that they occur in good numbers on the other side of the hill.

I tallied my list for the day. I was at 45 species. I knew then, especially as I hadn't gotten a number of expected species, that I had to stay until I got to 50. Anything less than 50 was unacceptable. Some common species I was missing included Turkey Vulture, Dark-eyed Junco, American Robin, Cedar Waxwing, Phainopepla, and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. I walked back north again to try to get California Thrasher and hope to find the junco flock that often hangs in the pepper trees along the northern edge of the park. The thrashers were still quiet. The juncos were present and chipping as they flushed. 46 species. I head back toward the bench on the central hill. Still no thrasher. A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher calls from a nearby sugarbush. 47 species. A pair of Phainopeplas land nearby. 48 species. I scan more for the Turkey Vultures. Nothing. Finally, a single Northern Rough-winged Swallow flies low overhead. 49 species.

Forty-nine. That's a horrible number of species. I might as well have one. Yes, I am suddenly stressed about it. I can't leave the park until I get to 50. Why are some of the residents a no-show? The wind is really strong now, making it hard to hear birds calling and singing. Smaller birds aren't flying around up high now, because flying is hard when it gets this windy. I decided to leave my perch on the hill and just walk back and forth until I find something. Anything. Any of the numerous birds that I normally should have had at this point, but didn't.

Finally, climbing up the hill toward Burnell Drive, there is a lull in the wind. I stop and cup my hands behind my ears to listen down the hill. I--finally--hear the complaining scold notes of an angry American Robin. Species 50. I did it!

Of course, I didn't want to end on a flat 50, so I decided to head through the length of the park again. I walked slowly. Deliberately. Frequently watching the sky for flyovers. The raptors take flight again and start to put on another show. I couldn't find any other new species, though, and left the park via Wollam Street at exactly 50 species. The eBird list is located here: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S28486267