October: The Great Migration

Left: A White-Crowned Sparrow forages on the ground

October is the peak of southward migration, yet among the crowds heading south are some who stay here in SoCal for the winter (and, why not?). These include: warblers, Green-tailed Towhees, White-Crowned Sparrows, and numerous other sparrows, such as Lincoln's Sparrows, who, like other local sparrows, prefer a bit of damp, such as a canyon bottom, a marshy area or a well-watered back yard.

Last month the migrant warblers were those passing through on their way to Mexico. Now, we are seeing the warblers that are here to stay for the winter, most notably the Yellow-Rumped Warblers. Small and active, they have a bright-yellow patch at the base of their tails that shows up best from the rear. They are enthusiastic visitors to feeders that offer live worms.

          Right: Yellow-Rumped Warbler in a local garden (Larry Naylor)

The Yellow-Rumpeds have to share their feeders with other Warbler migrants, such as the Orange-Crowned and Black-Throated Gray Warblers. Not as common as the Yellow-Rumpeds, they still can show up any place there is a small amount of water, such as riparian areas along canyons with thick brush.

Also staying around for the winter are two sparrows whose singing can light up your garden. If your birdbath is full or there is a wetland area nearby, you are likely to see a couple of Song Sparrows. They are boldly streaked, including one from behind the eye to the back of its neck. Chipping Sparrows, with their perked rusty caps, favor park-like locations with weedy fields or lawns and scattered trees. You are likely to see them in a mixed flock with Juncos, Yellow-rumped Warblers and other sparrows.

Below: A Chipping Sparrow sings lustily




The sparrow you are most likely to see, however, is the largest of them all, the California Towhee, a big brown sparrow with a streak of rust under its tail. Usually seen in pairs, their sharp, percussive CHIRP quickly alerts you to their presence. They flit energetically among the bushes or scratch in the leaf litter on the ground for seeds and bugs. They appreciate a seed-laden feeder, especially if it has a flat place to perch.

Our local hummingbirds are here all fall and winter. They start to nest in December, so keep your feeders filled and clean throughout the cooler months.

Northern Flickers, the beautiful woodpeckers with a red swoosh on their cheeks, begin to arrive this month. They especially appreciate suet, which gives them the extra calories they need in the winter.

 Right: Northern Flicker up close (Larry Naylor)

Geese and ducks begin arriving throughout the region. These species can be seen in local parks, such as Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area, the Ballona Wetlands or Malibu Lagoon State Park. Bring our waterfowl food for Pacific Loon, Red-Throated Loon, Ruddy Duck, Surf Scoter, Lesser Scaup, Redhead (breeds locally in marshes), Green-Winged Teal (marshes, ponds), Northern Pintail (larger estuaries), Mallard, American Wigeon, Gadwall (estuaries), Wood Duck (if nest boxes are provided), and Canada (and Cackling) Goose (resident in many parks),

Pine Siskins, cousins to our common goldfinches, make their earliest appearance at coastal feeders. They also love nyjer, so keep your feeders full until they depart in March.

One of the most popular events of October is when the huge Elephant Seal males start to engage in combat for breeding rights, creating quite a spectacle along the California coast north of Hearst Castle. There are elevated walkways and viewing points near the beaches, but going near the seals is both foolhardy and prohibited. California State Parks has recently started a program to train volunteers to keep viewers off the beaches and to give the seals the rest they need after their combats.