Forces of Nature

By Chuck Graham   |   November 16, 2021
Lightning strikes off the pier on Santa Cruz Island

Strolling down Scorpion Canyon to the cobble beach, I was keen to see lightning strikes across the Santa Barbara Channel. From the southeast fringe of Santa Cruz Island, the beach was deserted with lightning strikes touching down around the largest isle off the California Coast.

As dusk approached, the storm moved directly over Scorpion Canyon. Lightning struck and the thunderclaps were as loud as I have ever experienced. While heading back to my tent, I noticed a subadult red-tailed hawk emerge from the base of a willow tree next to the seasonal arroyo that serpentines its way to the beach. This was a red-tailed hawk that arrived at Scorpion Anchorage mid-summer and has stuck around. This raptor has been extremely active. I’ve seen it slay a couple of gopher snakes, its fair share of mice and songbirds, and one day myself and some of the other kayak guides saw it next to our kayaking gear with a dead Island Fox. After examining the Island Fox, we determined that it was an old fox that had passed on its own, was discovered by the red-tailed hawk and the raptor brought the carcass down the canyon where we stage our gear.

The hackles of this red-tailed hawk were up like the fur on the back of a dog or cat when it’s agitated. Those neck feathers made its head appear larger, so was the rest of the bird as it fully opened its wings when it emerged from the willow. At first, I was confused as to what was happening, but then two adult Island Foxes joined the fray. Each one of the foxes took their turns charging the raptor. There were even a couple of occasions where both foxes dove toward the hawk simultaneously. 

The red-tailed hawk was protecting something, but island flora wasn’t allowing me to see what it was clutching. There was a moment of reprieve as the foxes backed off, but were still visible in the coyote bush, willows, island hazardia, and island buckwheat. During that stretch I was able to scooch along on elbows and toes with camera slung over my shoulder. At that point I had maneuvered to where I was facing the red-tailed hawk. I was blown away by what I saw.

A pair of Island Foxes steal an Island Spotted Skunk from a red-tailed hawk
A red-tailed hawk and Island Fox have a stare down over some prey

I spend somewhere between 100 to 150 days per year on the islands. I might see the nocturnal island spotted skunk once a year, maybe. Weighing in at one pound, they are three pounds less than a full-size island fox. They are only found on Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands. There’s not a lot known about them, and research on this mystery fauna is ongoing. So, when we do see them, it’s big news in Scorpion Canyon. Mostly, we smell them before we see them. I’ve seen one, the same animal twice this fall. One night it walked right up to where I was standing. It sniffed my camera pack, but it didn’t spray.

That red-tailed hawk and I stared at one another as it stood over its prey, talons latched onto a gutted Island Spotted Skunk. The other part of the equation was the interest of the Island Foxes. I’ve always wondered about their interactions across the island. Recently, I’ve witnessed a smidge of their behavior when they’ve crossed paths. The night an island spotted skunk walked up to my camera pack, it was busy foraging for island cherries. It was a good year for this fruit. It was dark and within the beam of my headlamp the skunk was gorging on fallen fruit. Suddenly, an island fox arrived. Just a couple feet away from each other, the skunk turned and vanished into the shadows of a lemonade berry bush. The fox climbed straight up the tree and feasted on island cherries. Neither animal displayed any aggressive behavior towards the other. It may have been all the food available at the time.

Island Foxes are omnivorous; they’ll eat everything they find, but it was strange watching them attempt to steal the red-tailed hawks’ prey. Eventually, the hawk appeared to grow uninterested with the skunk. It flew off to a nearby tree. As soon as it did, both Island Foxes moved in. One of them quickly grabbed the skunk and sauntered off into dense cover along the dry creek-bed. 

I never feel as if I’ve seen everything one can see at the islands, but it sometimes feels that way when one spends a lot of time in one region. I will say, it was a natural moment I never thought I would see, but one I constantly think about since. There’s no predicting wildlife behavior, but with each moment experienced my eyes are wide open.


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