Bird Watching

Our river has over 100 species of birds!

In fact an additional 133 species have been spotted in the Los Angeles River in the last few years. From the strut of the stately great blue heron to the daring dive of the osprey as it hunts for fish, the river offers a great introduction to the bird life of Southern California. Whether you have a few minutes to enjoy the natural world before work, or want to spend a full morning exploring the river’s pools and marshes, the LA River is easy to reach.

All you need is a pair of binoculars, and if you want, a field guide. (A spotting scope can help in sorting out the trickier ducks and shorebirds.) Whether it’s the spring nesting season in the Sepulveda Basin, or fall shore bird migration in north Long Beach, birds – and birders – flock to the river. So grab your bike (or your horse or rollerblades) and come see for yourself.

Bird Habitats of the River

The L.A. River, which originates in the west San Fernando Valley, runs along the northern base of the Santa Monica Mountains. At Griffith Park it turns south and continues through downtown Los Angeles. After 52 miles, it meets the Pacific Ocean at Long Beach Harbor. Along its 52 length, the LA River passes through formerly vibrant habitat areas like valley oak savannah, alluvial fan scrub, coast live oak woodland, coastal prairie, alkali wetland and, at the river’s mouth, coastal salt marsh. While these ecosystems have been all but eliminated, echoes of their bird communities remain.  

Three types of habitat dominate the LA River. The first, in places where engineers left the river with a natural bottom, is a lush riparian forest, a fresh water wetland irrigated by year-round releases from water-treatment plants. These releases keep water moving through the river even at the height of summer, something that rarely happened before the concrete channel was built.

The second habitat type is simply the river’s cement floor, which supports a thin film of water. This modern-day novelty mimics the historic alkali wetland, a community that was once extensive on the coastal slope of the LA basin.

The third habitat, made up of irregular bands  of open space, features wooded areas found mainly north of downtown LA, and grassy swathes that still retain the features of the now-lost coastal prairie.

Several species of birds have characteristic of the river. Perhaps most distinctive are black-necked stilts, which flock to the lower river by the thousands each summer. These shore birds, with long, pink legs and a long, thin, bill, are now found mainly near the shallow waters of the channelized LA River, and in flood-control basins.

Species such as the American kestrel, a small falcon, and the Western meadowlark, a medium-sized songbird, are now reduced to a pitiful remnant of their historic populations. Along the grasslands of the river, however, and in open lots that border the rights-of-way for power lines, these birds can still be found.

Waterfowl and marsh birds are always a draw, and the LA River is one of the best spots in the city to watch them. Ducks, geese, herons, egrets, cormorants, and other wetland species go about their daily lives, catching crayfish and frogs, nibbling on aquatic plants, building nests, or just stopping for a rest while in migration.