A Baby Owl or a Goatsucker at Esperanza Elementary?

January 19, 2016


written by fifth-grade Esperanza Elementary School students Kaya Johnson and Cristian Torres with their principal, Brad Rumble


"Mr. Rumble, there's a baby owl on the playground!" exclaimed Robbyn, a first-grade student at Esperanza Elementary School on Wilshire Blvd. just west of downtown Los Angeles. It was the day before Halloween 2015 and Mr. Rumble, the school's principal, thought this might be a Halloween prank. But, as any birder would, he went with Robbyn to take a look.


Unbelievably, there, on the asphalt of a corner of the playground, was not an owl but a Common Poorwill. It was 9:15 a.m. and in fifteen minutes 130 first-graders would be playing four-square mere feet from our unexpected visitor. What to do? Cordon off the area around the bird, grab a bunch of field guides and create an impromptu observation site for an autumn migration species.

A member of the Goatsucker family, the Common Poorwill (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii) usually is nocturnal. As students read about the poorwill they hypothesized that our bird was just trying to get some shut-eye during its southbound migration. Its cryptic color pattern helped it camouflage so well that some students thought they were looking at a pine cone. No one could believe this species actually hibernates during winter.


Even though there were nearly 900 students on campus, not one of them disturbed the bird. One complication: at 1:15 p.m. hundreds of students, parents and staff members would gather on the poorwill's playground for the annual Halloween parade. Student leaders and educators debated what to do. In the end not even Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and scores of super-heroes and princesses could disturb our nocturnal visitor's slumber.

That evening, as Mr. Rumble was leaving campus, he observed the poorwill suddenly lift off and begin to fly low into the night. Though on campus just the one day, this bird captivated an entire school community and left us wanting to know more about it. For us, the Common Poorwill is anything but common.


**All photos by Brad Rumble

(Posted by: Kaya Johnson and Christian Torres)


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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)


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What's Up Goatsucker?

October 26, 2012

Yes, the first Goatsucker has been found in our new wildlife gardens! No, I'm not talking about a weird new species of goat parasite, I'm actually talking about a type of owl-like bird. Goatsuckers, a.k.a. nightjars, are members of the family Caprimulgidae, which comes from the Latin word Caprimulgus, literally meaning goatsucker. The Latin name came about because of the mistaken belief that these birds would swoop under milking goats to steal milk from the teat!


Common Poorwill, Phalaenoptilus nuttalli,

found on North Campus


Here's what Kimball Garrett, our awesome Ornithologist, has to say about the Common Poorwill (the specific type of Goatsucker) we found:


"It certainly appears that October is the month to find Common Poorwills (Phalaenoptilus nuttalli) around here.  The previous two Exposition Park records are for 1 October 1973 (a specimen in the collection), and 12 October 2005 (a bird seen by me and some of my volunteers along the NW wall of the Rose Garden),


Poorwills catch insect prey (mainly moths and beetles) by sallying from the ground up into the air, especially from dusk through the evening.  They’re often seen on paved roads on warm summer and fall evenings – presumably taking advantage of the warmth retained in the asphalt and perhaps elevated numbers of insect prey in that warm microenvironment.  The species is named after its call, often heard on warm evenings on the breeding grounds.

Although some individuals seem to be year-round residents, others individuals (especially those from more northerly or interior breeding populations) are migratory.  Observations and specimen evidence suggest that the main fall movement into/through the lowlands of the Los Angeles Basin occurs in October.  The nearest breeding areas are on dry chaparral slopes of Griffith Park and elsewhere in the Santa Monica Mtns. (and poorwills are even more common in rocky desert and mountain areas farther inland).  In some parts of their range poorwills are known to undergo torpor on cold winter nights, some even hibernating for extended periods."

Whoa! Did Kimball just say these birds hibernate? Remember that tidbit for your next trivia contest!

But wait there's more! Did you know birds pant sometimes, to keep themselves cool just a like dogs do? To be more precise, scientists call it gular fluttering and Sam Easterson caught a video of it:

Wow, that's an impressive gular you have there

Mr. Goatsucker!

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)

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