Migrant Trap

By Chuck Graham   |   January 18, 2022
A red-breasted nuthatch

I was sitting patiently on a hillside within Scorpion Canyon on Santa Cruz Island, the most biodiverse isle in the Channel Islands National Park. It was mid-morning, and all was quiet in early November 2021.

It was dry and warm, and the deer flies were having their way with me, as I overlooked a fruitful fig tree left over from the island’s ranching era 100 years prior. Suddenly though, there was a flash of red, and I forgot all about those pesky insects. A red-naped sapsucker flew in from who knows where.

However, that is one of the many beauties of the Channel Islands. During fall and spring migrations, with Audubon Christmas Bird Counts smashed in between, there’s lots to look for, especially when considering the volcanic archipelago as a migrant trap, a stopover for avian species getting blown off course and those craggy isles serving as a pelagic sanctuary to those needing a break from another arduous migration.

Scorpion Anchorage

I spend on average 125 to 160 days a year in the broad-mouthed canyon, mostly leading kayak tours, sea caves being the main draw, but you never know what you might come across on the open ocean or on foot. It is extremely rare for me to be without my camera gear. I don’t consider myself even a serious birder, but I need to be outside. I love all things wild as they should be, and I love photographing wildlife in wild places. So, I get pumped when fall and spring roll around, and for the last several years there’s been a wide variety of bird species enjoying the diversity of Scorpion Canyon and its wave-battered anchorage.

Just between the back end of the lower campground to the anchorage has always proven fruitful. That’s maybe less than a mile in length, and even as an inexperienced birder, I get really interested when species arrive that I haven’t seen in a while or are flat out a first sighting for me. Some of those include the Pacific loon, American redstart, ovenbird, red-breasted nuthatch, mountain bluebirds, and the black-throated blue warbler.

Every now and then very good birders show up at Scorpion Anchorage. Typically, they are helpful divulging information. They’re easy to locate carrying around big lenses and binoculars. I always hit them up with, “see anything good?” I’ll take a mental note of where and when, and then try to track that species down later in the day. One of my favorites was the sage thrasher that showed up near the beach at Scorpion Anchorage three years ago. The word was the sage thrasher moves around a little bit like a roadrunner. Sure enough, after leading a tour, I ran back to the beach at the bottom of the seasonal arroyo, and there it was, the sage thrasher hopping around happily in the saltbush. I think more than anything though, I just like saying sage thrasher.

Hunkering Down

For whatever reason, burrowing owls like to hang out for the fall and winter on craggy Anacapa Island. There’s a small, rocky sinkhole on the southside of East Anacapa Island. It turned out to be the seasonal home of one very unafraid burrowing owl. Within the sinkhole was a readymade burrow cloaked in lichen, ideal cover for a wintering burrowing owl.

In the absence of suitable homes created by ground squirrels, prairie dogs and desert tortoises, burrowing owls will resort to nesting in PVC pipe and other lairs provided by humans. Fortunately, none of that goes on out on Anacapa Island, where they feast on endemic deer mice and a throng of insect species.

This burrowing owl had no fear of just a few of us humans who knew of its whereabouts. It came out of its dark lair every time it knew one of us was around. It would simply hangout and roost in the sinkhole and survey the skyways like only a burrowing owl can, it’s head and big yellow eyes seemingly on a swivel.

It’s All About the Eyes

A Poorwill

It’s a gratefully lonely, seven-mile hike from Point Bennett on San Miguel Island, heading east back to the ranger station. I typically stay at Point Bennett all day at the largest seal and sea lion rookery in the world, and then walk back in the dark. Headlamp burning bright, It’s the best way to find the endemic island fox on the windswept isle.

Last October, I was on a roll and spotted seven island foxes on that nocturnal hike, curious eyes bobbing and weaving in the coyote bush and island buckwheat. Just east of San Miguel Hill, I spotted what I thought was a low-lying island fox in the narrow trail. When I tried to focus manually with my camera, I became confused at what I was peering at.

As I crept closer, I was surprised to find a Poorwill probably soaking in the last bit of warmth on an early fall evening. I was so thrilled to see one for the first time. I fired off a few frames, looked at my screen to see if I got anything, looked up, and the Poorwill was gone. 

It was less than a minute with a rare sighting of a nocturnal species on the most remote islet in the Northern Chain. A moment that was fleeting, but a memory that will be everlasting.  


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