Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Photo Essay: The Shape-Shifting Island of Seagulls

About a year ago, I was on a boat cruise that was encircling one of the Channel Islands, looking for brown pelicans, seagulls, and blue-footed boobies.



But although our boat did land, it was on a different Channel Island, Santa Cruz—not this island, Anacapa.



By then I'd already been to Santa Rosa Island, and I was trying to hit as many of them as I could. But my opportunity to fully explore this one would have to wait.



I'd booked this year's trip to Anacapa to ideally coincide with wildflower and bird-breeding season, but that sort of thing is tough to plan ahead.



You never really know what you're going to find until right before you get there—and if you don't have the trip already planned, you're likely to miss whatever it is that you were looking for.



So when I finally got to climb the 150+ steps up the "cliff island" from Landing Cove to the ranger office and visitors' center, I hadn't banked on the fog layer. Anacapa looked completely different from what I'd seen on a sunny day a year before. It's no wonder its Native American name loosely translates as "ever-changing."



The islands sometimes create their own weather patterns, but this was the same fog that had stretched all the way from Beverly Hills into the San Fernando Valley and Ventura County and across the Santa Barbara Channel that morning.



To be honest, the low-hanging mist was rather romantic. At least, the seagulls must've thought so, because they'd already started pairing off for mating season on this island, the largest breeding ground for the Western Gull in the Western U.S.



"Just don't walk too quickly on the trail," our volunteer park ranger, Tara, told us. "The birds probably won't dive-bomb you, but if you've got a hat, you'd better wear it just in case."



The trail is one of great transition. When the Coast Guard inhabited Anacapa, they'd brought in some red flowering iceplant as ground cover to prevent erosion—but a little of that stuff goes a long way. Eventually, it takes over the whole habitat.



Volunteers are still pulling up the remaining iceplant; but now, crystalline iceplant (Mesembryanthemum crystallinum), with its bright pink flowers, is taking over.



Nevertheless, the gulls have plenty of vegetation—native, endemic, or not—to lay their eggs in and use for shelter. And fog to create some misty, watercolored memories.



The main botanical attraction this time of year is the coreopsis (or "tree sunflower").



The flowers look a lot like yellow daisies, but they grow in what looks like clumps dispersed throughout the hillside—but what are actually hardy little shrubs with thick stalks.



They attract butterflies and lots of pollinating insects, but they only last a couple of months in full bloom. And the higher you go—the closer you get to Inspiration Point—the less spectacular the display.



The gulls on the island are your common seagull—you know, the kind that will steal a sandwich out of your hand.



If nothing goes wrong, they could live to be 25 years old. (You can kind of age them by their eye color: The older the birds are, the lighter their eyes.)



But this is a special time of year for them.



If they're older than four years old (or so), they're ready to find a mate, make some babies, and take turns incubating the resulting clutch of eggs.



Of course, pairing off isn't always so easy—especially when you've got pesky humans ruining the mood. When you approach—even slowly, even quietly—one of them is likely to give a holler.



And once one starts to vocalize, it triggers a domino effect—much like gibbons—with the entire flock erupting in calls of alarm. Some of them sound like cows mooing, and others like dogs barking.



They're not very used to humans, given the remoteness of this island (and its lack of services). And so, they don't really like them. "They think the island belongs to them, and it does," Ranger Tara said. "Please don't disturb them."



Anacapa is the closest of the Channel Islands to the mainland (less than 15 miles from Oxnard), but it's got no fresh water source (and, hence, no endemic foxes). But that didn't keep intrepid explorers (and loners) from trying to make a go of it (including the namesake of Frenchy's Cove, Raymond "Frenchy" LeDreau, a hermit fisherman who lived on Middle Anacapa for nearly 30 years).



The only way the ranchers' grazing sheep survived was by licking the condensation that formed from the fog; but, later, the Coast Guard built a system to collect rainwater and store it in tanks made of redwood that were stored in the ecclesiastical-looking water tank house.



Unfortunately, Anacapa's rocky shore (including a jagged area known as "Cathedral Cove") caused its share of shipwrecks—until the Bureau of Lighthouses intervened. A primitive, unmanned beacon had already been erected in 1912, but it just wasn't enough. Anacapa needed a real lighthouse.



So came to be the Anacapa Island Light Station and many of the surrounding Spanish Revival-style buildings (including quarters for the lighthouse keeper), which were taken over by the Coast Guard in 1939. Of course, like all other light sources (including neon) during World War II, the Anacapa Light was extinguished for a while. The Navy took over the Coast Guard, and the isolated island was transformed into a Coastal Lookout Station.



And what better day to visit the island than a foggy one that really necessitated the light—and the deafening foghorn?



The 40-foot lighthouse was automated in the 1960s, putting the lighthouse keeper (and the Coast Guardsmen) out of a job. In 1980, five of the islands in the channel were designated a national park. In 1989, an acrylic, solar-powered lens replaced the original Third Order Fresnel lens from 1932, which is on view now at the visitors' center.



In 2008, the National Park Service took over the light station...



...and it still uses many of those white stuccoed, red terra-cotta roofed structures...



...though now it's the gulls that stand watch like soldiers, waiting to sound the alarm.



They swoop along the cliffside, defending their coast.



They stand watch on the old foundations of the former Coast Guard residences, waiting for a lover to breed and brood with.



And if there aren't enough males to father a clutch of eggs for every female, the ladies who are left behind might hook up and brood together.



Just as it seemed like I was starting to get to know Anacapa Island—and finally see it in the light—it was time to return to our boat at Landing Cove.



The gulls swarmed one last time in celebration.



The fog swirled low, blowing across the bluffs and blurring the scenery.



A couple of sentinels saw us off, making sure none of us were left behind.



The wind was picking up—as it tends to do, both early and late in the day on the islands of the Santa Barbara Channel...



...and the birds went about their preening, no time for modesty when you're still single and have got to make a good impression with your plumage.



The foghorn moaned from its perch, though the low visibility kept the light station out of sight.



We descended the cliff on those stairs down to the dock at Landing Cove, setting sail for the mainland.

I can't wait to see some hatchlings and fledglings on a return visit.

Related Post:
Photo Essay: Birding the Channel Islands