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1. Sepulveda Basin

Easily one of the best birding locations in the Los Angeles area, the Sepulveda Basin is built around a large dam. The best all-around birding spot is probably the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Area, located east of Woodley Avenue and north of Burbank Boulevard, where you’ll find a majority of the river’s distinctive species.

Cement observation areas at the edge of the man-made lake, and a small network of trails through riparian habitat, allow for ease of observation. At the height of spring or during the fall migration, birders can expect a to see close to 100 species in a single day.

To the east, Balboa Lake offers excellent birding along the river. Enter on the east side of Balboa Avenue. A large, man-made fishing reservoir is on your left. The river, obscured by dense vegetation, is to your right. It forms the southern border of the picnic area. Simply walk through the picnic area and check the river at intervals. Weekends tend to be crowded, so weekdays offer the best birding. You can also park at the soccer fields on the south side of the river (west side of Balboa Boulevard, across from the golf course) to reach a walking path atop the south levee.  This path, which heads east from Balboa Boulevard, can be crowded with joggers and walkers. An early-morning visit, particularly on a weekday, should be productive.

Watch for the ruddy duck, pied-billed grebe and American white pelican, nesting cormorants and herons, Cooper's and red-shouldered hawks, the Allen's hummingbird, belted kingfisher, the Nuttall's and downy woodpecker, Cassin's and western kingbirds, Say's phoebe, the western bluebird, blue-gray gnatcatcher, yellow warbler, spotted towhee, lark sparrow, great-tailed grackle, tri-colored and red-winged blackbirds, the Bullock's oriole and the American goldfinch. Nesting birds should be especially active during May and June. By mid-October, wintering birds should be plentiful. Waterfowl are most abundant from about November through March, both at Balboa Lake and at the wildlife area.

2. Bette Davis Park

Separated from Griffith Park by the 134 Freeway, Bette Davis Park is filled with mature sycamore, coast live oak, and old pecan trees that date back to an era when the land had more orchards than houses. This smallish park offers a glimpse of oak and sycamore woodlands in the southern San Fernando Valley, a landscape now best known through old photographs. You can park along Victory Boulevard and reach the park on both sides of the street. The river meets the south side of the park, just west of Victory Boulevard. Walk upstream (that’s west) to where the tall willows peter out amid an area of open water dotted with small boulders that create riffles. You’ll find ducks here in winter, and a small numbers of shorebirds. Birding is probably best on a quiet weekend morning, before the traffic gets too loud.

Depending on the time of year, birds to watch for include the American wigeon (and the occasional Eurasian wigeon), cinnamon teal, bufflehead, the great egret, spotted sandpipers and Vaux's swift. Swallows, particularly the northern rough-winged, barn and cliff swallows are found here, as are the common yellowthroat and red-winged blackbird. In the park's trees, look for red-shouldered and Cooper's hawks, the band-tailed pigeon, and the yellow-chevroned parakeet, a non-native introduced into the area. You’ll also see acorn and Nuttall's woodpeckers, black-chinned Hummingbirds, the ash-throated flycatcher, and oak titmouse. Also house and Bewick's wrens, a crested songbird called the Phainopepla, both black-throated gray and Townsend's warblers, the western tanager, and the black-headed grosbeak, as well as both Bullock's and hooded orioles.

3. Los Feliz Drive – the Glendale Narrows


The Glendale Narrows, a stretch of the LA River from the 134 Freeway to just north of downtown, is bounded by the steep slopes of Griffith Park and Elysian Park to the west, and the lower hills of Mt. Washington to the east. Historically, this low-lying area was filled with vineyards and pasture land. Since then, the river has been encased in concrete and the freeways were built. The once-swampy area still known as Frogtown for the thousands of western toads that lived there, has been drained. And yet, the Glendale Narrows remains surprisingly birdy.

The best place to introduce yourself to the Narrows is the walking path along the east levee of the river, located north of the Los Feliz Avenue bridge. Reach it via the parking lot that serves the small golf course on the north side of Los Feliz Avenue, just east of the river. Here, you can take a long walk north, toward the Colorado Boulevard bridge, and see birds the entire way. Water birds and marsh birds are frequent here, and if you can visit on a quiet weekend morning, the traffic from the 5 Freeway, visible across the river, will be bearable.

Birds to watch for in this stretch include the blue-winged and cinnamon teal, American wigeon, ring-necked duck, bufflehead, hooded merganser, osprey, red-tailed and Cooper's hawks, and egrets and herons, including the green heron. You’ll also see red-tailed hawk, killdeer, black-necked stilts, the spotted sandpiper, greater yellowlegs, Cassin's kingbird, and barn and other swallows. Orange-crowned, yellow, and black-throated gray warblers drop by in winter, and during their migration.

4. Willow Street Pool

Among the best birding areas in the urban LA Basin is the Willow Street ‘pool’,    located at the point where the river’s cement channel meets the soft-bottomed section of the river south of downtown LA. Here, water flows around boxy cement baffles and forms a wide pool that filled with birds almost year-round. Easy parking is available along DeForest Avenue (south of Willow Street) in a residential neighborhood on the east side of the river. A cycling and jogging path leads to the top of the levee. You can then walk upstream, under the Willow Street bridge, and north for several miles, birding the whole way. Though the riparian and marsh vegetation south of Willow Street can be productive, when positioned on the levee, you're too far away to see much. With a spotting scope, however, you can scan the river channel north of here and see dozens of species of water birds. This is particularly true in fall, when migratory birds mingle with winter residents.

The bird life of this lower stretch of the river, unlike sites north of downtown LA and in the San Fernando Valley, reflects a greater coastal influence. In the fall. great flocks of thousands of shorebirds feed in the shallow, algae-filled water upstream of Willow St. Migratory birds, like Wilson's phalarope, lesser yellowlegs, Baird's sandpiper, and even the ruff can be picked out among the more abundant species, such as Western and least sandpipers, the long-billed dowitcher, the black-necked stilt and the American avocet. Wilson's snipe can often be seen crouched on the little islands of vegetation in the middle of the channel. The American kestrel often perches on utility wires in this area. Overhead, watch for the Caspian tern as it circles in search of for fish, especially above the deep pool south of Willow Street. Species like the American wigeon, northern Pintail, northern shoveler, and all three teal species are a common sight here in winter.

5. Golden Shore Marine Preserve

423As is the case with most urban waterways, visitors should be prepared to see a variable amount of trash.

Coastal birds here include the surf scoter, the Western and eared Grebe, and three possible species of loons. In mid-winter, look for the brown pelican, marbled godwit, black oystercatcher, Heermann's gull, and several species of terns -- the elegant in summer, and the Caspian and Forster's in winter. You’ll see migrant shorebirds such as semipalmated plover and the long-billed curlew in spring and fall. The ornamental trees in the parking lots here should have wintering orange-crowned and Townsend's warblers, as well as the more common yellow-rumpeds.

Other birding spots

Want more? These five locations are just a few of the popular birding spots along the 52-mile length of the LA. River. More await your discovery.

  • Several pocket parks sit at the end of east of Riverside Drive, on either side of the Glendale (2) Freeway. These offer good access to the west bank of the river at the Glendale Narrows.
  • The recently-opened "Rio de Los Angeles State Park" (aka Taylor Yards) along San Fernando Road, separated from the river by an active rail yard, is always worth a stop.
  • Farther south, DeForest Park in north Long Beach is one of the premiere places to observe the fall bird migration in the L.A. area. The trees here can be filled with colorful warblers, grosbeaks, and other songbirds during September and October.
  • Just downstream, south of Del Amo Boulevard, the Dominguez Gap wetland provides scarce freshwater marsh and scrub habitat along the east bank of the river.

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