Last weekend, I finally fulfilled a dream that has been hidden in my heart since I was a little girl watching Bugs Bunny cartoons – I visited the La Brea tar pits (yes, this is a fairly redundant phrase. No, I don’t care.)

While the birding in the park around the pits was somewhat limited — an Audubon’s Warbler, a Northern Junco, a Black Phoebe — the birding inside was nothing short of spectacular. Behind glass was evidence of a lost avifauna that was nothing short of spectacular.

As with mammals, the avifauna of the tar pits is heavy on individuals from predatory and scavenging species who were perhaps drawn to the struggles of dying mammoths and ground sloths. Condors, of course. California Condors, La Brea Condors, and the Merriam’s Giant Condor — a magnificent bird even in death. Eagles with appealing names like Fragile Eagle and Errant Eagle, as well as the extant Golden Eagle. The long-gone American Vulture (more closely related to old-world Vultures than anything we have today) and the still-healthy Turkey Vulture.

Water birds would get trapped in these deceptive lakes as well. Many are what we’d expect to see today: Mallards and Canada Geese. A few we will never see again, like the La Brea Stork.

And a few victims are birds that just came down to drink at the wrong place and the wrong time, birds like Passenger Pigeons and California Turkeys, and also birds like Great Horned Owls and American Goldfinch.

The heady mixture of extinct and ordinary was a fine brew to spark reflection, even if it did smell of asphalt. Which species that we take for granted today will seem mysterious by their absence tomorrow? And, as always, birds that sit still forever are birds I can take pictures of.

golden eagle fossil

Golden Eagle and coyote fossils

la brea condor fossil

La Brea Condor

La Brea caracara

La Brea Caracara

Written by Carrie
Carrie Laben, after years of writing and birding in New York, moved to Montana to pursue her two great passions more effectively. She recently graduated with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Montana in Missoula. When she is not cranking out essays and speculative fiction stories, or wandering around on mountains failing to see the birds she is looking for, she is likely to be drinking one of the many fine local microbrews or attending a potluck with something from the local farmer’s market in hand. On Mondays from 3 to 3:30 Mountain Time you can find her answering questions about birds on live chat at