Allan and Muriel Kotin’s Malibu Area 2023 Birdathon

Thursday, May 4

Earlyish Start: Getting up before 6:00am, I checked the iffy weather forecast and rousted Allan after showering. While warming yesterday’s coffee at 6:44, I watched a flock of Brown Pelicans (#1) fly upcoast over the shore. Many more flocks followed, several accompanied escorted by gulls. At 7:10 an American Crow (#2) flew past. I phoned Judy Howell to confirm the Birdathon was on despite the weather forecast. We would meet at Malibu Creek State Park as planned.

So started our 2023 Birdathon, a 24-hour search for as many species of birds as we can find and identify. As always, ours is dedicated to raising money for San Fernando Valley Audubon’s Sepulveda Basin Environmental Education Program (SBEEP).

Adventure Starts: We drove away from our townhouse at 7:20. Driving along Westward Beach under threatening skies, we saw a Western Gull (#3) resting on the sand, the first gull whose species we could ID. We continued along Westward Beach Road to as close to the headlands as you can drive. We saw Whimbrel (#4), Heermann’s Gulls (#5), and California Gulls (#6) on the wet sand below the road. Driving Birdview Avenue up from the beach and along residences on Point Dume, a Dark-eyed Junco (#7) flew in front of my car. Mourning Doves (#8) and House Finches (#9) landed on phone wires.

8:00 AM, Pt. Dume Headlands and Disaster: As we arrived at the headlands, we found a Cassin’s Kingbird (#10) sitting on a phone wire and parked. We were delighted to find an empty parking space. In fact, “all” of the usually scarce spaces were empty. The drippy skies, cool weather, and forecast for showers had deterred other visitors. Allan showed me to the start of a recently completed new pathway that leads to the path that overlooks the ocean. Unfortunately, we decided that the very low orange net across the entrance was there only to keep out vehicles and not pedestrians. Allan started to cross it and tripped. He sprawled face down on the dirt path. His left cheek was bleeding, two fingers were bleeding, and his right knee hurt, but he was fairly certain nothing was broken. He requested to be allowed to gather his bearings before standing up and for me to fetch clean tissues and bandages from the car. While I was getting the tissues (no bandages available), a pair of young men passing by helped him up. He dabbed at his face and fingers with the tissues and hobbled back to my car. After a bit of cleaning his wounds, Allan decided we should carry on. We did. We headed to our appointment with Judy Howell. Almost as soon as we began to pass homes, we saw crows harassing something on a roof. We looked closely and saw a Red-tailed Hawk (#11) that to our eyes blended in well with the vent it was perching on. It must have been more apparent to the crows than to us.

8:35 AM, Malibu Creek State Park: We all arrived at the parking lot simultaneously. It was great to have Judy’s company and help. We were greeted by a California Towhee (#12). Then a Western Bluebird (#13). A Bewick’s Wren (#14) called. A Turkey Vulture (#15) soared above the dramatic peaks. We were able to ID a Red-crowned Parrot (#16) with the help of Allan’s spotting scope. We found an Ash-throated Flycatcher (#17), a tiny Bushtit (#18), and a Scrub Jay (#19), while Violet-green Swallows (#20) flew high in the sky. All this while we were still in the parking lot!

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Ash-throated Flycatcher

Judy had recently taught me how to use the Merlin App’s ability to identify bird songs and calls to verify our IDs of bird sounds. We enjoyed its assistance. To be fair, when we used it to identify sounds, we could not ID ourselves, we only counted those birds if we then saw them.

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Judy and Muriel Consulting Merlin

We headed for the Braille Trail. Although we missed two blue birds we hoped to find there, (Lazuli Bunting and Blue Grosbeak), we found lots of other

birds: Spotted Towhee (#21), House Wren (#22), Red-shouldered Hawk (#23), Lesser Goldfinch (#24), Acorn Woodpecker (#25), Yellow Warbler (26), Anna’s Hummingbird (27), Nuttall’s Woodpecker (#28), a pair of beautiful Western Tanagers (#29) that landed on top of an oak tree, and a Cooper’s Hawk (#30).

10:47 AM, King Gillette Ranch: After driving across Las Virgenes Road from Malibu Creek SP, we parked near the Interagency Visitor Center of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. King Gillette Ranch is endowed with beautiful early 20th century buildings from when the razor millionaire owned the property. The visitor center was repurposed from being elegant ranch stables, designed by Paul Williams. The photo below shows part of the visitor center on the right and the most elegant restrooms you’re likely to find in any natural habitat area on the left.

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Visitor Center (Rt.) and Restrooms (Lt.)

Before we left the restroom and parking area to stroll the nearby grounds, a flock of European Starlings (#31) flew by. Allan got a lovely photo of this tiny House Wren singing with a big voice in a beautiful valley oak.

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In the native plant garden, we heard an Oak Titmouse (#32), confirmed by Merlin.

Crossing one of the creeks to approach a lawn shaded by huge sycamore trees, we found an Allen’s Hummingbird (#33). While Judy walked ahead, Allan and I watched a Great Blue Heron (#34) move amazingly s l o w l y and s m o o t h l y along the grass in front of an imposing building now used for special meetings. Then it froze, neck outstretched. Suddenly it grabbed a mouse. A gopher? I think I saw a long tail and will call it a mouse. It flew with its lunch over to the nearest stream and washed the mouse before gulping it down. Allan was surprised to learn that herons are so fastidious about dining hygiene, but a friend informs me that herons do this to lubricate the fur so it will slide down the hatch more easily. Like most fishing birds, Great Blue Herons swallow their prey whole, whether it’s a fish, rodent, or reptile. Birds don’t have teeth and, except for raptors, don’t have the “equipment” to hold their prey still while daintily tearing off bites.

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Great Blue Heron with Mouse

Judy found a flock of Nanday Parakeets (35) flying in the distance while the Kotins enjoyed the heron-mouse drama. We all saw a Merlin (36) perched on the top of a tall tree, identifiable through Allan’s scope. Merlins are a small species of falcon, a hunter of birds like the other falcons. A female Mallard (#37) swam into view, followed by a male, then a duckling, then another duckling. So cute! Less predictably found, a Black-chinned Hummingbird (#38) landed on a low branch where it gave us good looks at its long bill and white spot behind the eye. We were pleased to spot and identify this summer visitor to the area.

11:43 AM, Las Virgenes Creek Restoration Project: We arrived behind the Starbucks on Agoura Road. Considering the dampness of the slope towards the creek and our general creakiness, we stayed on the upper walkway. Even so we saw a brilliantly yellow Bullock’s Oriole (#39) land, singing high in a tree. A Song Sparrow (#40) also sang and posed. Swallows chased insects so high in the sky we couldn’t identify their species. Hungry and tired, we headed for lunch in Malibu.

12:30 PM, Ollo: We saw a House Sparrow (#41) on the floor of the outdoor seating area while arranging to be seated. This year we ate indoors, so were lucky to find a restaurant bird here.

1:40 PM, Malibu Lagoon: There was much more water in the lagoon than we had been seeing since the fall and winter’s heavy rains began. We suspected that the deep channel gouged through the beach by rainwater from the mountains rushing to the ocean was starting to fill in with sand. This is a normal seasonal occurrence. We immediately found the Osprey (#42) that a dog walker at the creek restoration had told us about. It was perched on one of its favorite snags, along the side channel that runs near the Malibu Colony.

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A Double-crested Cormorant (#43) swam in the nearby channel, as were two kinds of dabbling ducks, Gadwalls (#44) and Mallards (#45). Dabblers are waterfowl that specialize in eating plants and small invertebrates. Barn Swallows (#46) flew along the mud in goodly numbers, even standing in it, to fill their beaks with mud. Mud is the favorite nest-building material of most swallows, sometimes reinforced with twigs and other plant material. They typically build their nests under bridges and the eaves of buildings so that the nests won’t dissolve if it rains. You might not like to be a swallow, considering their only food is insects, they carry mud in their mouths from where they gather it to the nest-building site, and they have to migrate thousands of miles twice a year.

As we walked toward the platform overlooking the main channel, a solitary Royal Tern (#46) flew high over the water toward the Malibu Colony, going the opposite way from a flock of Cliff Swallows (#47). A Canada Goose (#48) swam in shallow water connecting the side and main channels. As we neared the main channel, a Black Phoebe (#49) sat on the mud. Perhaps this resident flycatcher was resting before gathering mud for its nest of mud and twigs.

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A Small Fraction of the Pelicans, seen on Mud and Water and in Sky

As we arrived on the observation platform, we saw tremendous numbers of Brown Pelicans, Gulls, Cormorants and other water birds on rocky and muddy areas in the channel. It looked like 2023 is an excellent year for Brown Pelicans to judge by the numbers at the lagoon. Northern Rough-winged Swallows (#50) flew around in pursuit of insects. Ring-billed Gulls (#51) and other gulls sat on the nearest rocky area in the channel. A Great-tailed Grackle (#52) flew onto a fallen log arching out of the water. Elegant Terns (#53) sat on the main rocky area. As we returned to the viewing area near the parking lot, we found a Snowy Egret (#54) fishing in the shallow channel. As we were taking leave of Judy who had given her all for the day, a small flock of gulls with black heads surprised us as they flew past, heading upcoast. Seeing Bonaparte’s Gulls (#55) was a pleasant surprise. They are a species of gull we don’t see very often in winter plumage and very rarely see with the black heads of their breeding plumage.

3:50 PM, Malibu Country Mart: We stopped near the nest trees near Cross Creek Road. There were cormorants in nests in the two Norfolk Pines but only one bird in the tree where we saw nesting herons and egrets that made such a mess last year. Apparently, they were finished nesting and either the rain or maintenance men had washed away almost all white “paint” from the pavement. The one bird there was a beautiful Great Egret (#56).

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Great Egret Preening its “Bridal Veil” Above, Intrepid Photographer Below

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3:50 PM, Legacy Park: We walked the path leading to the little pond. Red-winged Blackbirds (#57) flew into the bulrushes. As we neared the ocean side of the pond, begging Mallards and Feral Pigeons (#58) found us. Eventually a solitary American Coot (#59) showed up, surprisingly the first of the day.

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Coot and Red-winged Blackbird

The first heavy rain of our expedition happened as we drove home along PCH. We got there at 4:00. Our plan was to go out again after a brief rest for a brief walk in Zuma Canyon. I went over my notes and realized that I had skipped five numbers and that we had seen only 59 species, not 64. Oops. That took a short time to fix, but I must have drowsed afterwards. I realized it was 6:00 PM and went downstairs where Allan was at his computer, to arrange to go out again quickly. He complained he was having chest pains when he moved. We couldn’t see any bruises on his chest, but he was not having any other symptoms of a heart attack and the pains seemed more from an injury, so we decided to carry on and to resume birding.

We left home at 6:15 PM and drove slowly through a very quiet Bonsall Drive to the Zuma Canyon open space.

6:30 PM, Zuma Canyon Trailhead: There were no other cars when we parked in the dirt lot. Allan stayed in the car with the windows and a door open, to spot any birds that showed up, while I walked the main trail to where it intersects with a loop trail. I heard birds but saw few. Finally, an interesting bird sound caught my attention. Merlin said it was a Black-headed Grosbeak, one of our target species for this location, so I patiently waited for the bird to show himself in the tree the sound was coming from. He finally appeared, a male Black-headed Grosbeak (#60), singing as loudly as he could. A little later, a small black bird that might have shown a patch of white on its wings flew into a distant leafless tree. After a long wait I got a good look at a male Phainopepla (#61) in perfect silhouette, pointed crest and all. Phainopeplas are San Fernando Valley Audubon’s mascot. A bird with interesting behaviors, they winter in the desert where they raise their first brood of the year. Around the start of spring, they migrate toward the coast where they raise a second brood and stay into fall. They eat insects and berries, especially mistletoe berries. They end up farming mistletoes, as the seeds of the berries pass through their digestive tract and are then deposited/planted by the birds in the trees where mistletoes live. And there was one more bird we could tally. When I returned to the car, Allan announced he had heard the unmistakable call of a Wrentit (#62). That was our total count.

The Expedition is Extended without Birds: As we left Zuma Canyon around 6:45 PM, Allan decided he should go to urgent care. UCLA’s Malibu Immediate Care was open if we arrived by 7:30, so we headed to central Malibu. We arrived around 7:10. There was no waiting. Allan’s EKG hadn’t changed from those on record, and we noticed a pale bruise starting to show on his chest. An X-ray didn’t show anything broken. The doctor diagnosed Allan with a bruised rib and prescribed a tetanus shot, icing a few times daily, coughing ten times every hour, and applying antibiotic ointment to his cheek.

9:00 PM, Home and Dinner: There were plenty of leftovers in the fridge. We were delighted to eat dinner, even if late.

Statistics: We drove 56 miles plus a 16-mile round trip to the immediate care and I walked 3.5 miles. Allan walked less for good reason. He had plenty of skin in the game. (He says he doesn’t mind the not-so-funny pun.) Fortunately, two days later he felt well enough to go to an LA Phil concert and out to dinner and his cheek showed little sign of its encounter with the dirt path. We don’t have Judy’s statistics, but we greatly appreciated the boost from her birding skills and enjoyed her company.

All photos taken by Allan on Birdathon day, except those of him and the building at King Gillette taken on Muriel’s iPhone.