Santa Rosa Island: Tour 1 Update

Anna FasoliBirding, Field Work, General News and Info1 Comment

It’s been a busy month as I said goodbye to my work with Florida Scrub-Jays in Ocala National Forest and took a new position in California. I now work for the Institute for Wildlife Studies as a Raptor Biologist on Santa Rosa Island. Santa Rosa Island is part of the Channel Islands National Park. I’ve birded this area a few times in 2010 and 2011 while living in Blythe, California, but I had been hoping to come back since then; you just can’t beat the climate, scenery, and of course, birds, in Southern California. My main duties here will include monitoring both Bald Eagle and Peregrine Falcon nests on Santa Rosa Island.

My first tour (week) on the island started on February 10th. I met about 15 other people (including my new boss Dr. Peter Sharpe and coworker Sarah Dantuono) at the Channel Islands Visitor Center who were also headed to the islands for the week. After our safety briefing, we all piled onto the National Park Service boat and headed into the harbor, through a huge swell of waves. As many of you may know, I am not a fan of boats/pelagic birding. This is all because of an incident in 2012 when my friends and I went on a pelagic trip off the coast of Delaware (my one and only pelagic birding experience, until now, not counting a smooth whale-watching tour out of Santa Barbara in 2010). This was an overnight pelagic trip, involving a sleepover on a boat. There was no more room in the cabin, so my friends and I set up our sleeping bags on the top deck of the boat and were rocked to sleep. About half way through the night, a storm hit, and quite frankly I am not sure how we all didn’t get washed off the deck of the boat by the huge waves crashing down on us. This easily could have wiped out PA’s entire cohort of young birders.  By sunrise, the storm broke, but waters were stilly choppy, and after having my insides churned like butter throughout the night, combined with the smell of a freshly butchered shark (for chumming), you can imagine what happened next. Over and over again. And it didn’t help that it was happening to just about everyone else on the boat. Sure, we saw great birds on this trip, and I even managed to get some good photos, but I was convinced my pelagic birding career was over before it even began.  Kind of sad, but I like land.

So, you can imagine my trepidation as the boat rose and sank over the huge waves in the harbor. Most everyone on these boat trips stays in the cabin, but I feel claustrophobic in boat cabins, so I stayed on deck and did my best to not get sick. My coworker was not so lucky and she retreated to the bunk room. As my main objective was to keep it together and not fall off the boat., I didn’t get great looks at birds, but I managed to pick out a few Common Murres, Black-vented Shearwaters, Pigeon Guillemots, and what I am pretty sure was a Rhinocerous Auklet.  I was told these huge swells were not normal, so I am looking forward to more pelagic birding during the 40 mile boat trips each week!

Upon approaching Santa Rosa Island, we all put our daypacks in a mega bag, along with our other supplies for the week. We got off the boat one by one and waited as a massive crane on a pickup truck pulled our bags up onto pickup truck beds on the dock from the boat. This is really a crazy operation but it runs very smoothly thanks to NPS staff who have been doing it for years.  After gear was loaded up, the boat then headed to Santa Cruz and Anacapa to drop off other staff.  We headed up the hill to housing and got unpacked and oriented to the island for the evening.

Santa Rosa Island

Santa Rosa Island

One of the many great views on Santa Rosa. More photos to come!

One of the many great views on Santa Rosa. More photos to come!

To say that the weather was magical for our first week on Santa Rosa is an understatement. Santa Ana winds mean calm weather for the islands, and most days were 75+, no clouds, and no wind. Only our last two days were more normal weather, with morning fog and higher winds.  On our first day, Peter gave us our ATV safety training, and by evening we were looking at our first pair of resident Bald Eagles at Lopez, who were not yet incubating. The other resident pair of Bald Eagles on the north side of the island, however, were incubating on a newly constructed nest (their old nest grew too tall to be usable on a big ledge that it was on). There are two other eagle hangouts on the islands, and we are continuing to scope both places out for more possible nests. We also checked on eleven Peregrine Falcon territories. No pairs were incubating yet, but at least most were present on their known territories. We will also be looking for additional Peregrine territories on the island (Peregrines have only been intensely monitored here since 2013, so there still may be more to find!). You can read a detailed update for each day of our first tour here on the IWS Eagle Cam Discussion Forum, by Peter.

I usually don’t take many pictures during my first week of work at a new job, but I did manage to get some birding time in during the hour before our boat came to take us back to the mainland. On our drive back to the dock, we spotted the resident Black-billed Magpie, a wayward bird that is the only one of his species on the island. He looked curious but flew off, so I went birding to find him.

A lone Black-billed Magpie stalks humans near the historic ranch area on Santa Rosa

A lone Black-billed Magpie stalks humans near the historic ranch area on Santa Rosa

The most common species on the island are Western Meadowlarks and Horned Larks. Song and White-crowned Sparrows are abundant, and on nice weather days you can catch an Allen’s Hummingbird zipping by. House Finches hang out near the buildings, and an occasional Northern Flicker or American Robin can be seen.  Orange-crowned Warblers can be found in the vegetated sheltered canyons, and I am looking forward to birding these areas more in the future for more small passerines. Of course Common Ravens are quite common due to all of the available nesting habitat, as are Red-tailed Hawks. American Kestrels are present but not common, and we’ve seen two Northern Harriers in the grasslands.

Before I headed back for the boat, a cooperative Allen’s Hummingbird was dining on the abundant supply of wildflowers, and White-crowned Sparrows were gathered near a barn. In another small ravine, I found a Loggerhead Shrike in addition to a Red-breasted Sapsucker.

A male Allen's Hummingbird is hard to miss!

A male Allen’s Hummingbird is hard to miss!

Allen's Hummingbird - male feeding on Red Paintbrush, one of the many types wildflowers in bloom on the island

Allen’s Hummingbird – male feeding on Red Paintbrush, one of the many types wildflowers in bloom on the island

Allen's Hummingbird - male

Allen’s Hummingbird – male

Back at the dock, our gear was being loaded back into the boat, along with one of our ATVs that was having carburetor issues. The trip back to the mainland was much more agreeable, and I’ll be posting a summary and some photos of what I saw! I am really looking forward to spending more time on the island and around Southern California!

Our broken ATV being lowered back onto the boat

Our broken ATV being lowered back onto the boat