Chirps of praise for LA River willows and floodplains

June 28, 2010 § Leave a comment

Bird nerds and Creek freaks talk, compare notes, pass messages. Much to my delight, the following account of LA River bird sitings from the LA County Birding group (you can join this group at Yahoo!Groups) by Natural History Museum ornithologist Kimball Garrett came my way today:

I followed up on Dan Cooper’s cuckoo suggestion and walked the L. A.  River this morning (28 June) from the Glendale Freeway downstream to a point about  200 m below Newell Street. My expectations of not finding cuckoos were  spectacularly realized, but I remain impressed by the other birds in this linear  riparian woodland. Along this 0.8 mile reach there were 9 territorial (singing)  Yellow Warblers, about the highest density I’ve ever seen. Add to this 6  singing Common Yellowthroats and 3 singing Song Sparrows and you have a pretty  good contingent of riparian birds for a concrete-bank channel just a couple  of miles from downtown Los Angeles. And I was surprised to find two singing Yellow-breasted Chats – one at the end of Newell Street (in riverbottom  willows and later in a cottonwood on top of the bank right next to the street)  and another about 200 m downstream opposite power pole #H425 (but most  easily found by listening for all the chat racket). I observed one fledged Yellow  Warbler and heard other begging calls, so it’s heartening to know they’re  raising at least some young despite all the cowbirds around. Lots of swallows  (Barn, Cliff, N. Rough-winged), but no sign of Chaetura swifts. At least 10  Nutmeg Mannikins were in the arundo and willows ¼ mile below the Glendale Fwy.  where the river flow veers toward the far bank.

Thanks to Dan Cooper for sending the post along. Dan noted to me that Yellow Warbler and Yellow Breasted Chat are both California Species of Special Concern.

Yes, birds and willows – you’ll recall I wrote about that a few weeks ago – as well as a less popular topic – the value of natural flooding riparian systems. So I was pleasantly surprised when Kimball and I had a subsequent exchange (I was asking permission to quote his account above) and he offered the following unsolicited thoughts:

A healthy riparian system has different terrace levels, allowing riparian forest and lower and more successional habitats like mulefat scrub, cattail marsh, annual meadow growth, etc., to coexist within the floodplain.  The taller, older “forest” is now the dominant habitat in the river channel, with the rest of the channel being mostly fast-flowing river water and stands of arundo.  What’s now missing in most areas are the backwater pool/marsh areas that had lots of Red-winged Blackbirds, ducks, herons, etc.  (The LA River’s tall riparian woodland close against the water today) is an interesting (though unnatural) habitat succession that has been good for some birds and bad for others.  What we really need is a river floodplain that’s ten times wider than what we have now…

I am always happy to learn it’s not just the creekfreaks that think so. Making that happen in urban LA is another story. At the very least, we can re-establish these narrower naturalized rivers with the riparian woodland, and develop long term strategies for regaining as much floodplain as possible – and in undeveloped areas like the Santa Clara River preserve the entire floodplain and its terraces.

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