As a kid growing up in Southern California, the Los Angeles River was always considered a joke – a huge, barren, concrete arroyo with a trickle of water running down the middle. So I was surprised to learn in the past few years that it also has havens of avian habitat.The river begins in the northwest part of the San Fernando Valley and flows relatively undisturbed through the Sepulveda Basin – a short distance behind my son’s home, where willows and other vegetation have grown up and provide an urban oasis. However, like many wild areas, it also is a magnet for fast food wrappers and plastic bags that get caught in the vegetation.
On my frequent visits to Encino, I always enjoy walking along the edge of the river that flows behind the sports fields in the Sepulveda Basin Recreation Area to check for seasonal birds.
As it flows through central Los Angeles, it reverts to the concrete arroyo. However, as it approaches Long Beach, the river accumulates silt, allowing vegetation to grow in places. And by time it reaches Willow Street, the river becomes soft-bottomed, forming an estuary. At this location, the freshwater of the LA River begins to interact with the saltwater of the Pacific Ocean and is affected by tidal action. It also is a migratory stop-over and wintering grounds for a multitude of shorebirds, waders and waterfowl.
When I checked the Los Angeles Rare Bird Alert prior to my most recent visit, I kept noticing sightings at the Willow Street crossing, which I discovered was near my friend Carole’s new home in Long Beach. After our visit with Carole, my friend Sue and I spent two hours enjoying this gem of a location.
We parked on a side street just south of where Willow Street crosses the river, and then walked up the paved access trail to the bike/walking trail that runs along the south levee. As we reached the top, we gasped at the plethora of birds enjoying the varied habitat in and along the river. The build-up of silt along the edge of one section supported a mini riparian habitat where both a Great Blue and Black-crowned Night Herons stood nested at spots along the water’s edge. A cluster of Mallards swam nearby.
The real spectacle was a group of American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts. Long-billed Dowitchers slept nearby with their bills tucked under their wings. Nearby a group of Red-necked Phalaropes stirred up crustaceans with their circular paddling.
Swarms of American Coots preferred the area where water streamed over the slightly-inclined spillway under Willow Street and joined the pooled water below. Killdeer scurried on a little sandbar.
On the far side of Willow, nestled under the bridge, were the tarps and belongings of homeless residents who share the habitat with the birds.The east side of the spillway was dabbling duck territory – Northern Shovelers, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Blue-winged Teal, and scads of Cinnamon Teal. The water was deep enough to support the small diver, Ruddy Duck. There was another cluster of Avocets, Stilts and Dowitchers.
A little further on were the seven Greater-White-fronted Geese first sighted a couple of days earlier. Their pink bills, with its white band at the base where clearly visible. They lounged on a small ‘island’ in the river. As we watched, they gradually got up, stretched their wings and started foraging.
We walked a little further east and encountered a large flock of Western Gulls resting on the river, with a few Ring-billed Gulls mixed in. Nearby were four Canada Geese.
Black and Say’s Phoebes perched on the edge of a narrow concrete wall. “They weem to be having a hay day,” Sue commented.
Nearby was a group of shorebirds, Greater Yellowlegs, Pectoral Sandpipers and willets. A Snowy Egret flew in.
As the air warmed both Barn and Violet-green Swallows began swooping and diving over the river. A Red-tailed Hawk circled overhead.
It was is heartening to know that efforts are being made to manage the river in a way that supports wildlife, while continuing to channel run-off safely during the occasional storms that dump rain on the area. It was delightful to be able to witness the estuary wildlife that calls the L.A. River at Willow Street their home.