Birds on Catalina Island - Kate

By Kate Crowley
When I stepped out onto the patio and looked up, I saw a flock of black birds soaring around as if on thermals, but it was too early in the morning, even on Catalina Island to have much heat rising up. Yet, somehow the ravens and crows managed to catch currents of air coming off the ocean.  I was there for my mom’s 90th birthday party (she lives in Iowa but wanted to celebrate someplace warmer) and I am the only one among my siblings and other relatives who looks at and for birds the moment she steps outside.  I was especially excited to see the ravens, since they are my favorite bird and are rarely found in urbanized areas. The only other town that I know of in the lower 48 states that has ravens flying around is Ely, MN.  The ravens are easy to tell from the crows, because of they tend to soar longer and their general silhouette is much larger, with a tail that is wedge shaped.  Their cries are also deeper and more varied. 
When I am with my extended family they humor my bird watching passion by pointing out birds to me and showing a cursory interest.  Behind my back, who knows what they say, but I gamely share what I know and it doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm in the least that they are not as thrilled as I am by these winged creatures.  Luckily, my two kids are interested in birds too, my son more than my daughter, but they both enjoy seeing and watching birds wherever they are. They were started young on this pursuit and though they totally lost interest in their teens and early 20s, they have both shown more interest as they have become full adults and parents.
Besides the ravens, the other bird that will forever be connected in my mind with Santa Catalina Island is the acorn woodpecker.  These are birds I have only seen in the southwest U.S.  As their name indicates, they are normally found living around oak trees, where they drill perfectly shaped holes that they fill with acorns.  These woodpeckers have the most delightful faces, with a red cap, red cheeks and forehead, and black that goes from the back of the head up to and around its bright yellow eye. We have always thought they look like clown faces.
On Catalina the woodpeckers are using date palm trees for their storage (granary trees) and nest holes. At the top of the tree, beneath the green fronds, there is an area where old fronds have fallen or been cut off and what’s left is thick and deep enough to accommodate the birds after they have hollowed out the core.  There are some species of oak trees on the island, and I suspect the woodpeckers collect those acorns when possible to store in the palm trees, but they are probably gathering other nuts as well. 
My daughter Alyssa and I stood beneath one tree, located next to a golf course and watched four of the birds poke their beaks and bodies into the holes.  The entire tree was riddled with holes.  Later, on another date palm, I watched some crows circle around the tree, putting their beaks into the holes.  I’m sure they will steal whatever the woodpeckers put into them.  In fact, a volunteer at the Nature Center told us of seeing a flock of acorn woodpeckers attacking a raven and actually killing the larger bird.  Ravens and crows are predators and will take eggs or nestlings if they have the chance. Other birds know this and will mob them if they feel threatened. 
The final bird that I will long remember from the island by is the brown pelican. These large ocean-living birds are so unusual in appearance that you can’t help but be captivated by them, both in flight and when floating on the water, or especially when they dive for fish. We watched them late in the afternoon circling above the harbor, near the moored sailboats and the feeding sea lions.  Every once in a while, one would lift up slightly and then tilt downwards in a piercing dive, folding its wings at the last moment. It would pop up in just a moment, but I never could see if it had a fish in its long bill. I suspect they swallow them quickly.  Without wasting another minute, the big birds lift up off the water and continue their search for food.    


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