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Vernal Poolish Madrona Marsh: 11 February 2023

February 27, 2023

[Chuck Almdale & Jean Garrett ]

Western Meadowlark, loudly singing (Chris Tosdevin 2-11-23)

Although many of our members regularly visit Madrona Marsh Preserve in nearby Torrance, the last time we were there as a group was in December, 2016, way way back in the Before Times. It was nice to see it again with so much vegetation. As our visit was brilliantly **timed months in advance to fall between a gigantic atmospheric river and the winter-storm-of-the-century-so-far, we saw lots of water and ducks, but had a fine, dry day in the field. The numerous paths are crushed granite (or something similar) and are raised an inch or so, so none of us got wet or vanished into a sinkhole.

**Note: Patent-pending on our field trip prediction process, so don’t bother asking.

Northern (Red-shafted) Flickers in the brush were among the first birds we found. One of us glimpsed a possible Yellow-shafted which quickly fled. (C. Tosdevin 2-11-23)

That said, Madrona Marsh, located a few miles south of I-405 and a mile west of Crenshaw Blvd., is a great spot to know about and visit. It regularly hosts odd birds attracted to this restored coastal scrub oasis amid the malls and housing tracts of South Bay. The rains of Winter and Spring, if and when they occur, fill vernal pool basins and dragonflies and waterfowl proliferate. Before this area was domesticated by millions of people, it was part of an extensive coastal terrace lying just inland of the coastal dune system. There were innumerable potholes, cienegas and vernal pools, and early settlers reported winter waterfowl numbering into the millions. That’s hard to imagine today. Madrona Marsh is a small remnant of this vanished habitat which the Tongva people enjoyed for millennia.

Eurasian Collared-Dove (C. Tosdevin 2-11-23)

We notified them ahead of time and a volunteer opened the gate for us at 8 AM, an hour or two before their normal opening time. We followed a trail to the northeast to the currently very large vernal pool.

Madrona Marsh Vernal Pool (R. Juncosa 2-11-23)

There was a nice variety of waterfowl, many of them apparently already in pairs.

American Wigeons (R. Juncosa 2-11-23)
Canada Geese (R. Juncosa 2-11-23)
Northern Shovelers (R. Juncosa 2-11-23)

We looked for but didn’t find any Soras or other rails skulking in the reeds. Other birds hung out around the fringes of the pools.

Red-winged Blackbird male, epaulets on display, staking his claim to the reed bed. (R. Juncosa 2-11-23)
Black Phoebe, waiting for a fly to fly by. (R. Juncosa 2-11-23)
Madrona Marsh Vernal Pool (Ray Juncosa 2-11-23)

We left the pools and wandered to the west. In the grassy fields around us were quite a few Western Meadowlarks, (see photo at top) singing for all they were worth. Frequently these birds are seen from afar across a field, their vocals muted by distance, but these were nearly at our feet. And they were sweetly melodious, yet piercingly loud.

American Goldfinch were very common; Lesser Goldfinches less so. (C. Tosdevin 2-11-23)
The white-chinned Cassin’s Kingbird (C. Tosdevin 2-11-23)

Cassin’s Kingbirds were flycatching from grass stalks and twigs. While Western Kingbirds typically fly farther south for the winter, Cassin’s often stick around in small numbers. We had both Anna’s and Allen’s Hummingbirds scattered around the fields and pathsides, sitting on twig-ends.

Allen’s Hummingbird (C. Tosdevin 2-11-23)

A few of us had heard Cedar Waxwings overhead but couldn’t see them. It is often said that when you begin to lose your hearing, the song of this species is the first to go. I don’t know if that’s absolutely true, but I can attest to the fact that I haven’t heard them in about 20 years. However, I did spot two flocks fly by overhead (hint: they’re always in a flock of 10-100 birds) before I spotted one come low and fly into a tree, where they stayed for quite a while.

Cedar Waxwing flock, nicely camouflaged. How many can you find? (C. Tosdevin 2-11-23)
The elegant Cedar Waxwing eats small seeds and fruit. Occasionally they get drunk on fermenting winter berries such as mistletoe. (C. Tosdevin 2-11-23)

A female (brown back) kestrel landed in a nearby tree, but didn’t try to make any moves on the waxwings.

American Kestrel, female, preening away (C. Tosdevin 2-11-23)

After watching the waxwings for a while — they’re a treat to see and we don’t see them every year — we wandered over to the “sump.” This area is fenced in to keep people — who may be wandering around and not watching where they’re walking because they’re fixated on looking at some bird — from falling down the sides. It’s a deep hole perhaps 75 yds. across, maybe farther, originally dug to drain water out of the surrounding marsh. This water eventually runs through a pipe and out to the ocean, but creates a small pond in the meantime. Some birds appreciate its privacy and shade, including a half-dozen Hooded Mergansers, like the snoozing male below. We also found a Green Heron that was actually green, unlike most of them, lurking in the pondside brush.

There were a lot of sparrows, which I haven’t mentioned until now. Most of them were White-crowned, as are the two below.

White-crowned Sparrows: Left – adult; Right – immature
(Left: Ray Juncosa; Right: Chris Tosdevin 2-11-23)

Lighting, shading, angle, posture, distance, surrounding foliage: all can play tricks on you. I missed the Golden-crowned Sparrow which some of the group saw in a bush or low tree. This species is similar to the White-crowned but is much less common in SoCal, where White-crowned Sparrows can be abundant in proper habitat in the winter. When I saw the above right hand photo of the immature (almost a year-old) White-crowned, I thought for a while it was a Golden-crowned as it seemed so brown rather than gray. But the plumage — mostly of the head as you can’t see the back — wasn’t right for Golden-crowned. Yet the bill, especially the upper mandible, seemed too dark for White-crowned, which has a pinkish-yellow bill. Then again, young White-crowns can have a bit of dark on the upper mandible. Checking my NGS field guide, I wondered if the right-hand bird might not be in the subspecies Z.l.oriantha; this subspecies breeds from SE British Colombia to the Owens Valley of eastern Calif. and to north-central New Mexico, but winter in northern Mexico rather than coastal California. The upper mandible of the pictured bird seems a bit reddish, as are the bills of ss. oriantha, so I wonder if one didn’t wander off course and head SW from the Owens Valley instead of SE.

Then again, it could just be a trick of the light.

As always, many thanks to our photographers: Ray Juncosa and Chris Tosdevin.

Madrona Marsh Trip List12/10/162/11/23
Canada GooseX
Cinnamon TealX
Northern ShovelerX
American Wigeon6X
Green-winged TealX
Ring-necked Duck1
Hooded MerganserX
Rock Pigeon8X
Eurasian Collared-DoveX
Mourning Dove50X
Anna’s Hummingbird3X
Allen’s Hummingbird9X
American Coot5X
Greater YellowlegsX
Ring-billed Gull2
Western Gull4
California Gull2X
Green HeronX
Black-crowned Night-HeronX
Sharp-shinned Hawk1
Red-shouldered Hawk1
Red-tailed Hawk2X
Downy Woodpecker1
Northern Flicker2X
American Kestrel3X
Ash-throated Flycatcher1
Cassin’s Kingbird6X
Black Phoebe6X
Say’s Phoebe1X
American Crow4X
Common Raven2X
Ruby-crowned Kinglet12
Cedar Waxwing20X
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher13X
House Wren1 Heard
European Starling8X
Hermit Thrush1 Heard
Scaly-breasted Munia45
House Finch20X
Lesser Goldfinch3X
American Goldfinch45X
Chipping Sparrow6
Brewer’s Sparrow2
Fox Sparrow1
White-crowned Sparrow60X
Golden-crowned Sparrow2X
Savannah Sparrow4X
Song Sparrow2X
Lincoln’s Sparrow3X
California Towhee2X
Western Meadowlark10X
Red-winged Blackbird2X
Great-tailed GrackleX
Black-and-White Warbler1
Orange-crowned Warbler6X
Common Yellowthroat3
Yellow-rumped Warbler10X
Black-throated Gray Warbler1X
Townsend’s Warbler1
Total Species – 635146
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