A Room for the Birds all Along the River

The Los Angeles River and its environs are home to a wealth of flora and fauna. This series of posts on Confluence attempts to unveil the hidden wildlife that thrives along the river banks and is developed in collaboration with fellow nature lovers working in the sciences.

In this article, we asked Kimball Garrett, Ornithology Collections Manager at the Natural History Museum (NHM) to share some of the noteworthy bird life to be found on the river and why it matters.

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Ask Los Angeles River fans and their favorite memories of the river will most likely involve the sight of its majestic birds, especially along the lush, soft-bottomed sections of the river. 

Most of these would likely be freshwater birds which include swimming and diving birds, as well as wading birds and marsh birds. 

The river’s most iconic bird species is probably the great blue heron. In fact, its likeness graces the city’s blue river signs. “They’re big and everybody notices them,” says Kimball Garrett, Ornithology Collections Manager at the Natural History Museum (NHM). According to Garrett, these herons can often be seen in the verdant section of the Los Angeles River in Elysian Valley feeding on fish, frogs and crayfish. 

  Great Blue herons are the iconic birds of the Los Angeles River. || Photo by: Grove   Pashley

Great Blue herons are the iconic birds of the Los Angeles River. || Photo by: Grove Pashley

These herons might visit the river, but they don’t actually reside on the river. “Those birds may nest well away from the river,” says Garrett, in places like nearby residential neighborhoods and parks. Some go as far out as the Silver Lake Reservoir. A few years ago, one could even see their nests in Echo Park. 

Other celebrity birds on the river include ospreys, black-necked stilts, and ducks.

But those birds, fabulous and ostentatious as they are, aren’t the only feathered residents of the river. “I wish people would also notice the small shorebirds that use the bare river bottom, and terrestrial birds that breed in the river channel’s riparian habitats,” said Garrett. These birds aren’t as colorful, but they nevertheless add life and vibrancy to our strange river. 

Though birds can be found everywhere in the city (“It’s just a question of opening your senses a little bit,” says Garrett) they are especially attracted to the Los Angeles River because it offers them many advantages. “Pretty much everything many bird species need can be found by the river,” says Garrett. Not just in the idyllic, soft-bottom spots in Sepulveda Basin and Elysian Valley, but throughout its 51 miles. 

First, there is water. Many kinds of birds live in or immediately adjacent to water. Los Angeles is a relatively dry area, and the drought isn’t helping the case. Therefore, the river’s water is a siren call, much like it would be to a thirsty man in the desert. 

The river’s 51 miles offers different kinds of water habitat, which are suitable to and attract different types of birds. “Some birds like open still water. Others like fast, flowing water,” said Garrett.

In the soft-bottomed parts of the river around Elysian Valley or Griffith Park, it wouldn’t be unusual to see diving ducks and birds such as hooded mergansers, buffleheads, and pied-billed grebes. These are birds river watchers in Downtown or Long Beach would not likely find. In Long Beach, where the concrete is plentiful, it would be far easier to spot sandpipers (and their relative, including stilts, avocets and plovers) that forage along the very shallow waters.

  Least sandpipers are highly migratory. This is a huge flock of them just loafing on the concrete river. They nest in the Arctic tundra and spend winter on the Coast of California, Mexico and Central America. || Photo by: Grove   Pashley

Least sandpipers are highly migratory. This is a huge flock of them just loafing on the concrete river. They nest in the Arctic tundra and spend winter on the Coast of California, Mexico and Central America. || Photo by: Grove Pashley

Second, the river also hosts vegetation, which can be rich in insects and seeds. Since most birds eat insects, seeds, or both, the river is kind of like their own buffet. 

Even the river’s concrete sections provide food for migratory shorebirds like the Western Sandpiper whose long, narrow bill, easily rummages through the algae that creeps along the waters of the concrete river for food during the dry summer and fall months. 

Third, the waterway is also ideal for birds to rest and nest. The vegetation in some sections of the river is dense enough for concealment, a quality of crucial importance when it comes to laying eggs.

It’s not just the actual river and its immediate environs that are important for birds, says Garrett, so are the spaces far beyond the river. “Most birds need a mosaic of habitat, which is why you would see much higher bird diversities in large, open spaces that have adjacent habitat such as in Sepulveda BasinHansen Dam or Hahamongna,” says the ornithologist. Much like human travelers who revel in new places, birds also need a change of scenery themselves.

As an example, Bell’s vireo, an endangered bird, and the relatively uncommon blue grosbeaks, can’t survive in a narrow river channel that lacks vegetation outside of its banks. “They need adjacent low brush and grassy, weedy habitats. They need the willows in the river, but also these adjacent, 'upland' plant associations,” said Garrett. 

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus is known for the saying, “No man ever steps into the same river twice.” It could be expanded to include the birds. The river can sometimes become this one homogenous blob in our minds, but even a cursory understanding of the qualities birds find attractive in this waterway show that variety truly becomes the spice of life, whether it be human or avian. The Los Angeles River morphs and changes as it makes its way from the headwaters to the ocean. It’s these variations that call to different birds—and people—from all corners of the world.

You can see more of Grove Pashley's photos at the Frogtown Artwalk on Saturday, August 13th from 4 to 10pm.

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