Winging it on Ballona Creek
In this wetlands wonderland, winged creatures abound.
Three black-crowned night-herons stand sentry behind tall grasses. A graceful snowy egret picks its way between coastal rocks while another flies low, nearly skimming the brackish water.
A dozen black-necked stilts, their slim, tuxedoed bodies balanced on spindly scarlet legs, probe muddy islands with their long beaks. Nearby, about 15 brown pelicans flap in the water or tuck their pouched beaks under their wings for the night.
And everywhere, scores of gulls in every shade of white, brown and gray roost on mud flats or soar toward the sky, chattering.
This birding hot spot is not in the Florida Everglades or a remote wilderness. It’s right in Los Angeles, along Ballona Creek as it flows west toward Santa Monica Bay, emptying in the Marina del Rey area. I’m seeing all these species while standing near a Marina Freeway overpass where cars whoosh by, their occupants oblivious to nature’s bounty below.
For those who bike or hike the paved path that runs along the northern bank of Ballona Creek, the birds are hard to miss, although many passersby are perplexed by what they see.
“I didn’t know we had cranes here,” one bicyclist said as she surveyed half a dozen stately birds roosting in a meadow about 50 feet off the path.
We don’t. She was instead eyeing great blue herons, the largest in North America, which can stand 4 feet tall or higher.
Bird-watching was the last thing on my mind when I bought a house near Ballona Creek four years ago. I didn’t own high-powered binoculars or envision myself traipsing through muck in pre-dawn darkness. I just wanted to get my heart racing on the bike path.
But soon I was seduced by the menagerie of water birds, most visible to the naked eye. In a three-mile stretch of the creek that I regularly ride between Centinela Avenue and the bay, I usually come across dozens of birds.
Over the years, more than 300 bird species have been recorded in the Ballona Valley, which includes the creek and the adjacent Ballona Wetlands, said Dan Cooper, a wildlife consultant and president of Cooper Ecological Monitoring in L.A. Bob Shanman, who has long led bird outings for Los Angeles Audubon, said he has personally logged more than 200 species.
More than a wildlife retreat, Ballona for decades has been a legal battleground between environmentalists, developers and local authorities contesting how best to preserve it. Lined with concrete, its shores dotted with clumps of grasses and nonnative flowers, the waterway is both a flood-control channel and a rest stop for migrating birds on the Pacific flyway and other routes.
Which species you see depends partly on when you go. Many gulls, egrets, herons, pelicans and ducks are around all year. Others, such as ruddy turnstones, whimbrels and sanderlings, arrive in fall or winter, flying thousands of miles from the Arctic or elsewhere, said Kimball L. Garrett, ornithology collections manager for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
On Ballona Creek, which is influenced by tides, birds cluster by zones. Below the Centinela Avenue overpass, on a typical summer day, the mud flats and shallow depths attract dozens of ducks and stilts. Farther west, as the water deepens, scores of foraging gulls and dive-bombing pelicans hang out together. Near the bay, flocks of long-legged willets peck for food among coastal rocks.
Of course, you’ll see more than birds and bicyclists along this urban waterway. Grocery-store carts and trash litter the creek, joined by flotillas of foam-plastic cups after rainstorms.
“The debris is just horrendous,” Shanman said. He regards humans as the main threat to the creek’s birds, which may mistake bits of plastic for food or be wounded by lost fishing hooks.
More worrisome may be what you can’t see: chemical-laced runoff from city streets and the occasional sewage spill. Still, the wildlife seems surprisingly resilient. The brown pelican population, once decimated by DDT, has bounced back in the decades since the pesticide was banned. Ducklings paddle furiously behind their mallard mothers. Fish jump. Along the shore, great blue herons, which have nested near the creek for more than a decade, stand motionless, scanning for prey.
Aloft, these herons are heart-stopping. When one recently swooped across my path, emitting a deep croak and unfurling its 6-foot wingspan, I could not have been more startled had a winged Jurassic reptile flown from the pages of a natural history book.
And to think, I once regarded birding as boring.
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If you go
THE BEST WAY TO BALLONA CREEK
Entry points to the paved path (which is mostly flat but with a frequent head wind) include Centinela Avenue and the jetty south of Fisherman’s Village in Marina del Rey. Whether you hike or ride the Ballona Creek bike path, bring sunscreen, water and, if you like, binoculars and a bird guide.
Los Angeles Audubon, (323) 876-0202, www.laaudubon.org, offers regular bird walks and field trips in Ballona and other areas. Walks are free; some trips have fees.
TO LEARN MORE
“The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,” by David Allen Sibley.
“Birds of the Los Angeles Region,” by Kimball L. Garrett, Jon L. Dunn and Bob Morse.
“Introduction to Birds of the Southern California Coast,” by Joan Easton Lentz.
For a gallery of the birds of Ballona Creek, and a quick video from Jane Engle on birding tips, go to www.latimes.com/ballona.