Catalina Island News

Catalina's Bird Population includes Rare Finds and Colorful Migrants

Catalina Island Conservancy

A Crested Caracara (Caracara cheriway) appears to be like the nearly 1 million visitors to Catalina every year: It has taken its own vacation on the Island. Often referred to as a Mexican eagle, the Crested Caracara is known to inhabit Mexico and Central and South America as well as Arizona, Texas and Florida in the United States. This tropical falcon took a vacation of sorts on the Channel Islands earlier this year.

In addition to Catalina, this island visitor was spotted on Santa Cruz, San Miguel and Santa Rosa Islands. Conservancy Director of Conservation and Wildlife Management Julie King said this was the first time a Crested Caracara had been observed on the Channel Islands. It was first spotted in Middle Ranch on April 25th and has even been seen on the golf course in Avalon, it was last seen in Middle Ranch as of September 1st.

The Crested Caracara eats insects as well as small and occasionally large vertebrates, including fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals. Its vulture-like tendencies include a taste for eggs, carrion or dead animals. Their flat talons allow them to walk and run more easily than other falcons.

Other birds to watch for on the Island include the Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana), a small cardinal-like bird, which appears on Catalina in greatest numbers in the Spring. When the males dart through the air, they can appear like a dancing flame. The male color patterns are consistent with yellow bodies, black wings and a flame-like orange head. The females have a yellow-green plumage. These are beautiful birds that come to Catalina during migration as a stopover point where they capitalize on the scrub oaks and other habitats found here.

They primarily eat insects and you can find them foraging methodically along branches and leaves of trees. While most red birds owe their redness to a variety of plant pigments known as carotenoids, the Western Tanager gets its scarlet head feathers from a rare pigment called rhodoxanthin. Western Tanagers are unable to make this substance in their own bodies, most likely obtaining it from insects in their diet.

Western Tanagers’ numbers have steadily increased over the last half-century by 1.2 percent per year. Keep an eye out for these fiery birds next Spring.  

By Elizabeth Bailey
Elizabeth Bailey is the education program assistant at the Catalina Island Conservancy. For more information, please visit our website.