PICTURED: The bald eagle known as A-03 soars over the Pacific Ocean near Santa Cruz Island in Channel Islands National Park. Photo by Chuck Graham

by Chuck Graham

 The manic cacophony of western gulls was too frantic to pass up, diverting my attention span toward drama-filled blue skies as a keystone species buzzed a pelagically prominent, weather-beaten seabird rookery.

 As I kayaked toward the commotion, I soon realized I was in the presence of an apex predator wreaking havoc over Scorpion Rock near the southeast end of Santa Cruz Island, part of the Channel Islands National Park.

 The lone bald eagle possessed antagonistic tendencies as it repeatedly dive-bombed guano-covered Scorpion Rock in what appeared to be for the pure joy of it. I could see its steely gaze as it sent at least 100 gulls at a time into a dizzying tizzy, which swarmed the steady glide of this majestic raptor. Bald eagles eat fish, not western gulls.

Once the eagle had (apparently) satisfied its craving for disrupting the plethora of angry gulls, it soared back to a small grove of toyon and island oak trees overlooking a shimmering, tranquil cove just southeast of Little Scorpion Anchorage.

 Return to the Channel

Later that afternoon I kayaked to that same serene cove and discovered the same adult bald eagle roosting comfortably in that secluded grove. 

Perched next to it was a subadult bald eagle: Easily the same size as the adult, yet still adorned in its youthful, mottled feathers. The mature eagle had a blue tag on its wings, signifying that it was a Channel Islands National Park bird. The juvenile possessed an orange band barely visible on its lower left leg, and only seen when it was flying

 “Male A-03 hatched at the Fraser Point nest on western Santa Cruz in 2017,” said Dr. Peter Sharpe, a wildlife biologist with the Institute for Wildlife Studies (IWS), speaking on the blue tagged bald eagle. “We’ll have to keep an eye on the Scorpion Anchorage area next year.”

 Sharpe has been instrumental in returning bald eagles back to the Northern Channel Islands (NCI), those islands — Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel — that make up four of the five isles in the national park.

Bald eagle numbers declined dramatically in the Channel Islands in the 1970s as the result of DDT pesticides. When DDT became outlawed in 1972, pesticides were dumped into portions of the Southern California Bight by the Montrose Chemical Corporation. The bight, a 426-mile-long stretch of curved coastline that runs along the West Coast of the United States and Mexico, reaches from Point Conception in California to Punta Colonet in Baja California, plus the area of the Pacific Ocean defined by that curve. This includes all eight of California’s Channel Islands, the Coronado Islands, and Islas de Todo Santos of Baja California.

DDT in the bight had a devastating impact on bald eagles. It caused them to lay thin-shelled eggs that could not survive the incubation process and were crushed by the parents. Generations of eagles were lost across the island chain. Eventually bald eagles vanished from the Northern Channel Islands altogether.

A juvenile bald eagle (top, with mottled feathers) has been seen in the presence of 4-year-old A-03 (center, with the blue tag), although the exact nature of their relationship is unknown at this time. Photo by Chuck Graham

After about a 50-year absence, the recovery and return of bald eagles to the northern chain began in 2002-06. During those years of recovery, 12 bald eaglets at 8-weeks-old were placed in hack towers (structures used to simulate nesting) each year. At that age, raptors are not ready to fly, but biologists wanted the eaglets to feel the ocean air in their wings and get a good look at their old historic habitat, preparing them for life on the islands. Each hack tower was raised about 15 feet off the ground and equipped with a perch and a nest. A trap door in the back of the hack tower was used to feed the eaglets fish without any human imprint. After another four weeks, the doors were opened, and the eagles flew when they were ready. 

It’s been almost 20 years since that recovery began. And this keystone species is making an indelible mark on a fragile island biome.

Other circumstances might have given the species a boost as well. With the new pier being constructed at Scorpion Anchorage beginning in November 2019 and finishing in February 2021, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, visitors were kept away from the main hub in the national park. That’s likely when A-03 and the subadult eagle made the region their own.

 Where Eagles Dare

A-03 isn’t alone within the Scorpion Anchorage region. 

Keeping company with the 4-year-old bald eagle is that juvenile. Cloaked in mottled feathers, I’ve noticed it flying over Scorpion Anchorage and catching fish on its own, but also hanging out in that grove of trees with the adult near the southeast end of the most biodiverse islet off the California Coast.

 Currently there is no background on this impressive looking raptor, which currently is something of a “mystery” eagle. For biologists, two scenarios come to mind. 

“The subadult looks like it is still a year or two away from breeding, but maybe they’ll stick together,” explained Sharpe, after viewing my images.

 The other scenario revolves around the orange band on the juvenile’s lower left leg. Bald eagles are monogamous birds, and this subadult might be the offspring of A-03. The adult bird has not been seen with a mate, however, so the exact nature of their relationship remains unclear.

 “If it’s banded, then it’s obviously likely from another known nest on the island,” said Nathan Melling, also a biologist with IWS working with bald eagles on the Channel Islands. “If not, then it could be the offspring of 03 from an unknown nest in the area.”

In any event, bald eagles have made steady strides recovering across the craggy archipelago.

Currently, there were 12 known breeding bald eagle pairs on the NCI in 2021, producing 14 fledglings. There are at least another 10 bald eagles that are young or non-breeding birds learning how things work on the chain. There are around 50 bald eagles in all on NCI.

 As I sat in my kayak gazing up at A-03 preening on its lofty, volcanic crag surrounded by stands of dormant giant coreopsis, I waited patiently for it to take flight and extend its impressive wingspan over cobalt blue waters and a thick canopy of giant bladder kelp. It was repeatedly being dive-bombed by irritable gulls. Nearly 90 minutes later and tolerant no more, it eventually flew off. I followed it through my 300mm lens until it was a mere speck through my viewfinder, the vast ocean realm vital to its existence surrounding the teeming Northern Channel Islands.

Institute for Wildlife Studies, P.O. Box 1104, Arcata, Calif., 707-822-4258. Follow the work of the IWS on Channel Islands National Park bald eagles at www.iws.org/species_bald_eagle_main.html

For more information on Channel Islands National Park, visit www.nps.gov/chis/index.htm.