Have You Seen "Canary-winged Parakeets" in Los Angeles?

December 29, 2015

Yellow-chevroned Parakeets feeding on dates in a date palm. Photo by Kimball Garrett.

Hearing a group of screeching Yellow-chevroned Parakeets (Brotogeris chiriri) flying over the NHMLA café patio at lunchtime is hardly unusual.  This native of South America thrives in much of the Los Angeles region, including Exposition Park where they especially favor the seeds of the floss-silk trees that are widely planted in the area.  But on Tuesday, October 27, a group of us, including myself (Ornithology Collections Manager Kimball Garrett) and Herpetology Curator Greg Pauly, noticed that two of the birds in a small flock overhead were distinctly different, showing large white patches on the inner half of the wings.  These were White-winged Parakeets (Brotogeris versicolurus) — close relatives of the Yellow-chevroned.  In fact the two were formerly treated as a single, variable species called the “Canary-winged Parakeet”, with Yellow-chevroneds hailing from central Amazonia and White-wingeds from the southern Amazon basin.

Two White-winged Parakeets were foraging alongside Yellow-chevroned Parakeets in the floss-silk trees next to the NHMLA Car Park on December 15, 2015. On the left, notice the white feathering behind the yellow wing patch – this white is conspicuous in flight as a large white triangular patch. On the right, notice the grayish color between the eye and the bill (this area is bright green in the Yellow-chevroned Parakeet). Photos by Kimball Garrett.

White-winged Parakeets were established in small numbers in the Los Angeles area — especially around San Pedro and the Palos Verdes Peninsula — in the 1970s, and small numbers continued to be reported into the 1990s.  But Yellow-chevroned Parakeet numbers began to boom in the Los Angeles Region in the 1980s (probably reflecting a changing source of imported birds), and for the past 30 years it has been the widespread and common member of this species pair in this area. We don’t know if the decline in White-wingeds was related to the establishment and proliferation of Yellow-chevroneds.

Specimens from the NHMLA collection show the differences between White-winged parakeets (above) and Yellow-chevroned Parakeets (below). Photo by Kimball Garrett.
Recent sightings of White-winged Parakeets in Exposition Park (I saw another flock of 6 on September 18) suggest that small populations still survive in the area, or perhaps that there have been recent instances of birds escaping or being released.  In any case, having these two closely-related but normally allopatric (non-overlapping ranges) species together in Southern California creates an interesting ecological experiment that will surely receive ongoing study. Your sightings of both species — uploaded to iNaturalist or eBird  (alternatively you can e-mail us your observations nature@nhm.org, or tag them #natureinLA on social media)— will help us track their ever-changing fates.

Yellow-chevroned Parakeet feeding at a seed pod of one of the floss-silk trees on the NHMLA grounds. Photo by Kimball Garrett.
Yelow-chevroned Parakeets can be seen most of the year in Exposition Park — look especially in the large floss-silk trees on the north side of the car park (see photo above).  Another great place to find them is Echo Park, with noisy flocks seemingly always present around the north side of the lake. Other prime sites include the Huntington Gardens in San Marino, Legg Lake in South El Monte, and the Rosedale Angelus Cemetery west of downtown Los Angeles. A map of sightings from the eBird citizen science project shows their occurrence here in much more detail — just zoom in on the Los Angeles area until individual sightings appear on the map. 

(Posted by: Kimball Garrett)


Ankle Bracelets for House Sparrows

April 10, 2015

Last week, husband and wife ornithologist team Kimball Garrett (Museum ornithology collections manager) and Kathy Molina (Museum Research Associate) partnered with citizen science staff to band house sparrows (Passer domesticus). We hope that by banding these birds, we'll be able to understand how they use our urban environment. These little brown birds are literally everywhere, yet not much is known about their local behavior.  What we do know is that they are originally from Europe and were purposefully introduced to North America starting in the 1850s. Because they are very adaptable in both urban and rural areas, their numbers have since exploded. You might recognize them as the bird that once stole your French fries!

Kimball wants to know more, "do they spend all day feeding and socializing in our Nature Gardens or do some have lunch at the Science Center and then come back?” I'm thinking they could even head over to USC for happy hour snacks! But, how do you figure out where our birds hang out, what they do? Sure, radio tracking is an option but that is expensive and difficult to pull off, especially on small birds. A cheaper, and I'd contend more engaging process, is to think about bird accessories—colored ankle bracelets, aka bird bands!  

To get this citizen science project off the ground, we had to have some birds in hand (pun intended). Although house sparrows seem super friendly, literally coming in for a landing at our cafe tables, they really don't want to be caught. We tried using potter traps (little wire mesh traps that get tripped when they go in to eat the bait we've left inside), but none of them were curious enough to hop in on this day. It was clear that we needed an additional strategy.  Kimball and Kathy decided to set up some mist nets.

We anxiously waited, becoming more and more worried that we would not catch anything, especially as school children began to crowd around our trapping areas. But then finally one flew into the net (don't worry the birds are not harmed in any way, its almost as if they're lying in a hammock)!  A female!  The challenge was still not over once it was caught.  These birds are tough and are not afraid to bite.  In fact, I had to loosen the sparrow’s beak from Kimball’s finger.

Once the bird was in hand, Kimball and Kathy quickly and deftly attached the colored bands --two bands on the left or right leg (six different colors), which gives us the option of uniquely marking up to 72 birds. They also applied a uniquely numbered metal band issued by the U.S. Geological Survey, took a wing measurement and weighed the bird.


Although, we only caught two birds on this first try, we plan to band and release many more. Eventually, the Nature Gardens and Exposition Park will have a whole flock of banded house sparrows, and that's when we'll need your help. We're going to need your citizen scientist eyes to track these banded sparrows. So on your next visit to NHMLA or Exposition Park, keep your eyes open.  If you spot a banded house sparrow, please let us know. All you have to do is send us a quick e-mail with the date, time, exact location, what the bird was doing, and what color bands you saw on their legs (remember not to mix up their left and right) to nature@nhm.org. If you're fast and lucky enough to get a picture, send that along too.

We can't wait to see how this all works out!  

Written by Miguel Ordeñana


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


115th Annual Christmas Bird Count @NHMLA!

January 27, 2015

On December 28, everyday people from all over Los Angeles flocked to the Natural History Museum to help count the bird life of L.A.! Some came as beginners ready for an intro to birding from Kimball Garrett, one of the best and most well-known birders in town, who also happens to be the Museum’s Ornithology Collections Manager. Others came because they were interested in contributing to this important bird census, but didn’t plan to see any surprising or remarkable species in our small urban oasis.  Little did they know they were in for some surprises.

Kimball started off the morning explaining what the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is all about. He hyped up the activity by reminding everyone that it is the oldest citizen science survey in the world and provides invaluable information on bird population trends.  Another fun fact that Kimball shared was that the count began as an alternative to the Christmas “Side Hunt.” As its name implies, this annual activity brought hunters together to compete over how many birds they could kill that day! As concern grew about declining bird populations, the CBC was developed by the Audubon Society as another competitive yet non-lethal alternative to hunting birds. In that first year alone, 25 locations were counted recording 18,500 birds.

Cut to 2015, and the numbers are up significantly with over 377 million birds recorded from over 1,265 counts (check CBC as the numbers keep growing). After Kimball’s brief, but inspiring intro and birding tutorial, we went outside to do our own bird count. Thirty three citizen scientists split into two teams and covered the entire Nature Gardens. We counted 207 individual birds representing  21 species within about an hour. This may seem like a drop in the bucket, but the variety of birds and our urban location made the count meaningful and memorable.

The day ended up being full of surprises including finding a new Allen’s hummingbird nest (Selasphorus sasin), seeing a majestic American kestrel (Falco sparverius), and finding some birds that don’t often show up in the Nature Gardens—a Lincoln’s sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii), and a black-throated gray warbler (Setophaga nigrescens)! However, by far our most exciting record that day was of a Common poorwill (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii).  As described in Lila’s 2012 Poorwill blog, although this is a common nocturnal bird of southern California foothills, it isn’t often recorded in the CBC. You see, Common poorwills are hard to find during the day you can hear them vocalizing at night during the breeding season). This nocturnal bird relies on the coloration/texture of leaf litter to hide in. As you can imagine, looking for a silent, barely-moving bird that is the exact same color as the brush and leaves around it is like looking for a needle in the proverbial haystack.   

Fortunately, in the Nature Gardens we have lots of observant eyes, and the perfect habitat for these awesome birds to hang out in. As a result, we’ve recorded a Common poorwill (very likely the same individual) visiting the Nature Gardens every year since 2012. 

As scientists and citizen scientists continue to explore more of the urban landscapes more species patterns will become clearer. Surprising species detections like the urban-sensitive poorwill and red bat are trying to remind us that Angelenos still have the opportunity to make L.A. and other urban areas more conducive to human-wildlife coexistence. Will we answer the call?

Written by Miguel Ordeñana


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)



New Year: New Bird

January 3, 2014

"175," responds Kimball Garrett, the Museum's ornithology collections manager and resident bird nerd, when someone asked him how many birds he's documented around the Museum. In the last few days of 2013 Kimball checked off another bird that had never before been documented in Exposition Park, this brought Kimball's ever growing list to its current pinnacle.

Kimball behind the scenes in Ornithology

Although Kimball has been keeping track of birds in Exposition Park for 30 years now (WOW), this is nothing compared to his track record for Los Angeles. Kimball grew up in the Hollywood Hills where his parents had a bird feeder in their backyard. As a teenager Kimball would explore further and further afield, all the while documenting his bird observations in a journal.

Here's one of my favorite stories as recounted recently by Kimball:

"Growing up just a stone’s throw from Griffith Park’s Brush Canyon, I regularly escaped into that nature-filled canyon as a young teenager.  Among my many memories of watching birds and other wildlife in that area, one stands out in my mind. Winding my way up a narrow trail in the canyon bottom, not far below what I called “the waterfall” (I doubt it was more than about 8 feet high, but it seemed impressive at the time), I came around a bend and staring down at me from a dead oak snag was a King Vulture! Menacing, big, and very much out of place.  I assume this bird had escaped from the Los Angeles Zoo (just a couple miles north, over Mount Hollywood), and I couldn’t have known then it portended an interest I would develop in the non-native bird species (including parrots, mannikins, and doves) that are now among our most commonly encountered birds in urban habitats in the region."

Unlike the out of place vulture, the bird Kimball found on December 27 is a not that uncommon in our region. It was a Golden-crowned Kinglet (GCKI), Regulus satrapa, flitting around in a deciduous tree next to the pond. Unfortunately the bird was too fast for Kimball, and he was not able to snap a recognizable photo. However, he recorded the find and went back to his office. When he checked his Exposition Park bird list, he found that this was the first sighting of a GCKI! Though according to Kimball, we've had lots of sightings of its very close cousin, the Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Regulus calendula, which "is a common fall migrant and winter visitor to the park." In comparison the GCKIs are "scarce and irregular winter visitors to the lowlands of Southern California; this has been a better than average winter for them in the region."

This is what a Golden-crowned Kinglet looks like, photo courtesy of Dick Daniels.  

Maybe you can spot your own GCKI if you go out birding this weekend! Or if you are a novice, you could join a FREE L.A. Audubon bird walk this weekend and get some help.

Happy Birding in 2014!



(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


Thanksgiving for the Butter-butt (but not the Butterballs)!

November 20, 2012

Hold your horses...give me a moment to clarify this title, I'm talking about birds here! When I say "butter-butt" I'm actually referring to a small grey songbird that has a bright yellow patch on its derrière (yes, this really is what dorky birders like myself call this bird when we're out birding). In particular, I'm talking about the below pictured butter-butt, that narrowly escaped death hence the giving of thanks. In contrast, all those Butterball turkeys won't be giving much thanks. But hey, maybe you'll be inclined to give some on their behalf!

If this bird had a speech bubble, what would it be saying?This is what Museum bird expert, Kimball Garrett, has to say about butter-butts, a.k.a. Yellow-rumped warblers:"There’s hardly a surer sign of the approach of winter in the Los Angeles Region than the arrival en masse of Yellow-rumped Warblers (Setophaga coronata) throughout our lowlands in October. These hyperactive 12 gram songbirds breed widely in conifer forests of North America, and migrate in immense numbers to the southern United States (with some continuing as far south as Central America). In our area birds of the western 'Audubon’s' subspecies predominate. One secret to the success of this species is its generalized diet. Our fall and winter birds glean insects from vegetation or the ground, but also sally into the air to catch flying insects; they’ll also take nectar from a variety of flowers (winter-flowering eucalypts are especially preferred) and take their share of small berries as well. You’ll recognize Yellow-rumped Warblers by the eponymous color patch, as well as other yellow patches on the throat, the sides, and (usually hidden) the center of the crown, and white flashes at the corners of the tail. Grayish overall in their relatively subdued basic (“winter”) plumage, males don a brighter black, yellow and white plumage for the breeding season.Mortality in most small migratory songbirds of temperate regions is astonishingly high over the first year often approaching or exceeding 75%. In urban areas, collisions with human-built structures is an important cause of mortality, with glass windows accounting for a large proportion of these deaths. Some scientists have estimated that up to a billion birds are killed each year in the USA alone by such collisions. The hapless Yellow-rumped Warbler that hit a window by the Dinosaur Hall is, unfortunately, hardly alone."Hapless as this butter-butt may have been, it was one of the lucky ones, it revived and flew away some hours later. I wonder where it is now, how many insects and small berriers it has eaten since, and if it's learned to stay away from windows? Although, you won't be eating any insects (at least not knowingly) at your Thanksgiving feast, and you probably aren't rejoicing in life after narrowly esaping death-by-window, you probably have a lot of other reasons to give thanks. Go give 'em!

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


First Canada Warbler Spotted in Exposition Park

October 6, 2012

This week I got another e-mail from one of our scientists. This time it was from Kimball Garrett, our amazing Ornithology Collections Manager. He found another bird for our Exposition Park bird list, and my isn't it cute? Here's Kimball's communique from October 3rd at 1:24pm:"All,Canada Warbler, Cardellina canadensis [= Wilsonia canadensis] along the south edge of the Rose Garden just now.  First for the park, and brings the wood-warbler (Parulidae) list for the park up to 22 species and the park list to 171 species.  Sorry, no photos obtained."But wait, Kimball, never to be outdone by a bird, sent me this e-mail at 4:38pm that same day:"Lila,I went back out late this afternoon and had much better studies of the Canada Warbler and managed to get a few (lousy) photos. Here's one:"

 Wow look at that eye ring! Thanks Kimball.

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


What's that Bird of Prey Eating?

August 31, 2012

We've had another visitor at the pond. Since it's a bird, Kimball was kind enough to write this week's post!

"Cooper’s Hawks, Accipiter cooperii, such as this adult, have frequently been recorded by Sam Easterson’s “camera traps” as they drink and bathe at the Natural History Museum’s North Campus pond.  These hawks are among the most conspicuous vertebrate predators in urban Los Angeles – a significant turn of events given that this species was on the National Audubon Society’s “Blue List” as recently as the 1970s.  The “Blue List” – a sort of early warning list of potential endangerment – included species “suffering population declines or range diminution in all or parts of their range.”  Cooper’s Hawk populations have rebounded spectacularly in part because of reductions in the use of certain pesticides, but also because they are now rarely persecuted as the pest their nickname “chicken hawk” alludes to.  But the increasing population of Cooper’s Hawks in our region is not without ecological consequences.  These hawks, and other species in the genus Accipiter, are bird-eaters – they catch songbirds, doves, and many other kinds of birds by ambushing them with short flights over and through vegetation.  We don’t know the extent to which declines in populations of some urban bird species (such as the introduced Spotted Dove, which is now virtually gone from southern California, or the Inca Dove, whose population in the Tucson, Arizona region has plummeted) can be attributed by increased predation pressures by Cooper’s Hawks.  Careful observations by scientists and citizens – and Sam’s technological wizardry – may help us better understand the role of predators such as the Cooper’s Hawk in regulating populations of their prey species."Thanks Kimball! Finally, here's some footage Sam's trap captured of the hawk taking a bath in the pond!

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


We've Got Flying Neon Toothpicks in Our Pond

August 17, 2012

I admit it! I totally stole the title of this week's blog from my Facebook friend John Acorn, aka The Nature Nut. To be specific, I gleaned this gem of a title from one of his books, Damselflies of Alberta: Flying Neon Toothpicks in the Grass. Today, instead of taking lunch like a normal person, I went out to the pond with Kimball Garrett to survey for adult Odonates. Odo-what? I mean dragonflies and damselflies (the flying neon toothpicks), the jeweled predators of the sky.Among other things, Kimball and I found damselflies for the first time. Yay! Here are some pictures of what we found:

The first ever damselfly to be found in the pond!Pacific Forktail, Ischnura cervula

Flame Skimmer, Libellula saturata, in Kimball's handKimball also thought he saw a Wandering Glider, Pantala flavascens. Thankfully, Sam Easterson had snapped this picture earlier in the morning, confirming the presence of this impressive dragonfly.

Sam's shot of a Wandering GliderSo the list of Odonates in the pond has grown to 5 species:Green Darner, Anax juniusFlame Skimmer, Libellula saturataWandering Glider, Pantala flavascensVariegated Meadowhawk, Sympetrum corruptumPacific Forktail, Ischnura cervulaIn other Odonate news, Black Phoebes love them! Here's the proof, from one of Sam's camera traps:

Tasty dragonfly lunch for a hungry Black Phoebe

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


Another New Bird for Our Bird List

June 8, 2012

170 and Counting...

Late last week, Kimball Garrett, NHMLA's Ornithology Collections Manager, spotted a new species for our Exposition Park bird list...drum roll please!

It was an Indigo Bunting, Passerina cyanea. Although Kimball had his camera with him, he was unfortunatley unable to snap a picture. Here is an image of a male Indigo Bunting, so you can at least get a sense of what they look like.

Wow, those are some seriously blue feathers!


You can also check out what they sound like from the Fish and Wildlife Service.

If your browser does not support HTML5 audio, you should upgrade. In the meantime, you could listen to it here instead.



Here's what Kimball has to say about these birds:


The Indigo Bunting is a migratory songbird that breeds commonly in the Central and Eastern United States and adjacent Canada, and in small numbers west to Arizona. A few have summered and bred in Southern California, but the handful of Indigos that turn up annually in Los Angeles County are presumed to be off-course migrants.


A male seen in the xeric garden south of the California Science Center on June 1, 2012 was the first to be found in Exposition Park; the Indigo’s close relative, the Lazuli Bunting (P. amoena), is occasionally noted as a migrant in the park, mainly in August and September (as can be seen from the seasonal bar charts based on data from the eBird website). A third member of the genus Passerina, the Blue Grosbeak (P. caerulea) has been recorded only once, in May.


Seasonal bar charts from eBird


In addition to the brilliant blue plumage of the male, Indigo Buntings gained fame as the subject of pioneering studies of celestial navigation by night-migrating songbirds by Stephen Emlen in the late 1960s . Emlen placed caged buntings in a planetarium setting to study the directionality of their migratory responses when exposed to both accurate and manipulated celestial cues. Although we now know that star patterns are important in the navigation of such migrants, the occasional appearance of an individual well away from its normal geographical range shows that such navigation is not without errors!

Thanks Kimball, that was fascinating!

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


InSEX: Mating's Risqué Business in the Insect World

May 3, 2012

Last night I hosted an InSEX dinner at an undisclosed and secret location. No, we weren't eating insects (in fact, we had a lovely vegetarian meal). Instead, we were discussing their weird, wonderful, and various reproductive strategies!







Vietnamese Walking Stick, Baculum extradentatum

A great example of asexual reproduction





I also took some impressive beetles to show off


Here's an excerpt:




Sperm Wars-Unlike honeybees, dragonflies don't have exploding penises. Instead, they have an equally impressive mode of sperm competition. When a male dragonfly grabs a mateclasping her roughly behind the headhe carries her away for a nuptial flight. After some brief struggling, the male bends his abdomen around and inserts his aedeagus (that's insect for penis) into her reproductive tract. With his impressively spiked member he scoops out the sperm left over from a previous mating, thus ensuring it is his sperm and no other's that will fertilize the eggs she is about to lay...


But how does this all relate to the North Campus and L.A.'s urban nature? Simplewe found our first dragonfly at the pond! According to Museum Ornithologist, Kimball Garrett (yes, he does dragonfly identification too), this is a male Variegated Meadowhawk, Sympetrum corruptum. He was sunning himself on a rock, possibly waiting for a female dragonfly to make an appearance. Unfortunately for him, none showed up while I was there.


Over the next few months, the pond will attract more and more adult dragonflies and, soon enough, we'll have them mating. In tandem, the coupled dragonflies will approach the water's surface and the female will lay her eggs. Unbeknownst to many, the immature form of dragonflies actually live underwater! After the eggs hatch, the dragonfly nymphs will find a cozy spot to hide in the reeds. It's a dangerous and murky life down there, I mean who would want to get eaten by a fish? One way that dragonflies can evade predators is through jet propulsion. They pull water into their rectal chamber and eject it at high speed, thereby propelling themselves in a forward direction, and hopefully out of harm's way.


When they're not trying to evade their own predators, dragonfly nymphs are voracious predators themselves! They have extendable mouthparts that can be "shot" out of their heads in less than three one-hundredths of a second. This is very fast indeed, and allows the nymphs to sit and wait until something comes within mouth's reach. As you can tell, dragonflies are much more than just pretty insects good for putting on greeting cards and tattooing onto various bodyparts. I mean, what other creature can you think of that has jaws of death, rectal propulsion, and a highly modified penis for sperm removal?


Male Variegated Meadowhawk basking in the sun


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)