Santa Barbara Birding: The Lure of the Islands

Our Channel Islands Are a Magnet for Rare Species

The streaked shearwater can be identified by its white head and scaly-patterned back. | Credit: Hugh Ranson

The fall birding season got off to a great start in early September when a Santa Barbara County–first ruby-throated hummingbird came to a birder’s hummingbird feeders (he has 10 or so). Ruby-throated is the hummingbird of the eastern United States, and it is extremely rare for one to show up in California. (A qualifier: It is extremely rare for one to be identified in our state.)

This young saw-whet owl eventually tired of us and fell asleep | Credit: Hugh Ranson

If the bird had been an adult male, it would have been relatively easy to pick out, but as in most cases of rare birds found out of range, this was a young individual making its first migration, and it had gotten lost. The ruby-throated is most closely related to our locally common black-chinned hummingbird, and it took careful scrutiny to differentiate between the two. The shapes of individual feathers on the wing had to be studied, as did the shape and length of the outer tail feathers. I learned a great deal by studying this bird, and that is one of the reasons I love birding so much: You are always learning. 

In last month’s article, I talked about how birders look for rare fall migrants by finding where the food is, often lerp-infested eucalyptus trees. There is another way to increase your chances that I was determined to try this fall. I made it my goal to head out to Santa Cruz Island as much as possible. I usually go there once per fall, but I recently retired after 32 years in the classroom, so this was my chance to really explore island birding. I went out to Scorpion Anchorage five times, spending the night on two of those occasions.

Why would islands be a good place to look for rarities? The theory is that some eastern nocturnal migrating birds have faulty compasses; they fly in the wrong direction and end up flying out over the Pacific. When dawn comes and they realize their mistake, they turn around and head to the nearest point of land — often an island, if they are close to our coastline. To increase your chances of finding these birds, you’d need to go where there are trees for food and cover. There is not much hospitable land on the east end of Santa Cruz Island, but the valley around Scorpion Ranch, with its eucalyptus groves, fits the bill nicely.

Left: Yellow-green vireos nest in Mexico; this one was quite lost. Right: An ovenbird, one of the eastern birds west coast birders hope to find in fall. | Credit: Hugh Ranson

On my first excursion in mid-September, I found a puzzling flycatcher of the Empidonax genus, birds that are so similar to one another that even experienced birders are often left scratching their heads. I had my suspicions about this green-and-yellow bird and took a dozen or so photographs before campers flushed it to flight; despite my searching for much of the rest of the day, it was not to be seen again. Once home, I sent the photos to experts on Empidonax flycatchers and received the exciting news that confirmed my hunch that the bird was a rare stray from the east: a yellow-bellied flycatcher. If accepted by the California Rare Birds Committee (10 experts who review and vote on reports of extremely rare birds), it will be the first island record and only the second for our county.

Buoyed by my good fortune of being at the right place at the right time, on my next visit, I decided to spend the night in the campground. Along with a friend, we waited for dark and went out searching for saw-whet owls, the smallest of the northern owls, standing about eight inches tall. To our delight, we found a young owl in a eucalyptus grove. We watched it, and it watched us, ’til it became bored and fell asleep!

This Philadelphia vireo proved to be a first Santa Cruz Island record | Credit: Hugh Ranson

The next afternoon, two hours before our departure, will be a time I’ll never forget. Birding had been pretty slow up until that point, but all of a sudden, birds started appearing — from where is one of the mysteries that makes studying birds so intriguing. The first bird to pop up before our astonished eyes was a Philadelphia vireo, a rare visitor from the east, as the name suggests. This bird proved to be a first record for the island. Within minutes, another rare vireo appeared, this one a plumbeous vireo, a bird of the Great Basin. While we waited for our boat at the Scorpion ranch house, still buzzing with excitement, another vireo landed in an acacia right in front of us. Astonishingly, this one proved to be a yellow-green vireo, a bird that breeds in Mexico, and another potential first island record. Three rare vireos, and all from different parts of North America. What had brought them together in this remote canyon and at the same time? Mysteries.

My visits to the island were punctuated by a deep-sea pelagic boat trip. It was advertised as a deep-sea trip, but when we reached Anacapa Island and were ready to motor over the deep seas beyond, we were informed by the navy that the waters to the south of the island were closed because there was missile testing going on. The testing was supposed to be over by 9:30, but the time was pushed back later and later, and all on board were glum as we stayed close to shore. When we were in the gap between Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz Islands, bird life began to pick up, and we saw large flocks of shearwaters. As we approached one of these groups of pink-footed shearwaters, we saw that one bird at the end of the flock had a strangely white-headed appearance, one of the characteristics of the rare streaked shearwater. We followed this bird for 40 minutes as it flew and settled again and noted all the field marks that did, indeed, make this a streaked shearwater, only the second ever to be seen in Southern California and a life bird for almost everyone on board. Streaked shearwaters nest in Japan and China and should have been thousands of miles away! What had looked to become a disappointing day turned suddenly rosy — and it took just one bird.

The cryptically colored common poorwill is rarely seen | Credit: Hugh Ranson

On my last visit to Santa Cruz Island, the sheer number of migrants was astonishing. Two species that are usually quite scarce, Nashville and Tennessee warblers, were almost everywhere we looked. Over the two days, we tallied 16 different warbler species, including some unexpected — but hoped-for — rarities from the east: an ovenbird, a lovely olive-backed warbler that spends much of its time walking, not hopping, through the leaf litter in search of bugs; a Blackburnian warbler; a northern parula; a Virginia’s warbler; and a black-throated blue warbler, a smart royal blue, black, and white treat of a bird.

While all these birds were thrilling to find, the memory that will last longest was taking a night hike on the headlands above the canyon, and there on the path coming upon a common poorwill, a cryptically colored and rarely seen night bird, that allowed us to watch and admire from mere feet away.

Santa Barbara’s first ruby-throated hummingbird. It’s a young male and so lacks the red throat | Credit: Hugh Ranson

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