Santa Barbara Island – July 19, 2007

A pretty full day – leaving Ventura harbor at eight in the morning to reach Santa Barbara Island approximately three hours later. This was followed by a quick lunch at the camping ground, a walk through the Visitor center, and then walking tours to see the flora and fauna of this tiny island in the Santa Barbara Channel – led by three botanists from SBBG. After three-thirty in the afternoon, the Island Packers boat left for the return trip to Ventura arriving after six o’clock in the evening.

Santa Barbara Island
(Santa Barbara Island)

On the way out we saw a small group of whales, and some fast-moving dolphins. Santa Barbara Island was hidden behind fog and cloud for most of the trip, and became visible only as we got close and the scattered banks of fog were left behind. Once we arrived, the small treeless island was in bright sunlight with just a wisp of foggy cloud above the island.

Santa Barbara Island
(Santa Barbara Island)

Santa Barbara Island is the smallest and youngest of the eight Santa Barbara Channel Islands, and is part of Santa Barbara County. Many of the rocks on the island are of the same age as those on other islands. It is believed that the islands were formed by volcanic action at a lower level than current sea-level, and were pushed up as a result of tectonic plate activity – responsible also for the mountains around Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara Island was the last of the islands to surface in the Channel.

Silver Lace
(Silver Lace or Nevin’s Woolly Sunflower)

Human habitation had a severe impact, and island vegetation started a slow recovery after the last (rabbits) of the alien mammals were removed in 1978. Santa Barbara has three plant endemics, found nowhere else, and which clung to life in remote locations during the days of farming on the island. Two of these, Santa Barbara Island Dudleya and Santa Barbara Island Buckwheat, were seen on the trip. The third is an Annual Poppy. About fourteen other endemics found on other Channel Islands also grow on Santa Barbara Island. One of the most popular flowers for butterflies and other insects was the island endemic, Silver Lace or Nevin’s Woolly Sunflower. Many Western Pygmy Blue, the smallest butterfly in the world, were seen as well as Gray Hairstreak.

Pygmy Blue
(Western Pygmy Blue)

One of the most striking plants is Giant Coreopsis, dried out at this time of year, standing stately and starkly waiting for the rains of the next season to unleash a brilliance of color. Giant Coreopsis numbers increased dramatically after the rabbits were removed. I found the dried, reddish-brown flowers to be almost as attractive as the fresh bright yellow flowers of spring.

Giant Coreopsis
(Dried Giant Coreopsis Flowers)

In among the stands of Giant Coreopsis, Pelicans have built many nests. Santa Barbara Island is a haven for birds, especially because of the absence of predators. The only terrestrial mammal on the top of the island is an endemic subspecies of deer mouse. (There is also an endangered island night lizard). About seventy species of birds make use of the island including Peregrine Falcons, American Kestrel, California Brown Pelicans, Horned Larks, three species of Owls, Costa’s and Allen’s hummingbirds, Xantus’ murrelets, Cassin’s auklets, three species of Cormorants, three species of Storm-petrels, and many Western Gulls. Endemic species include Horned Lark, Orange-crowned Warbler, and House Finch – and unfortunately, one that is considered extinct, the Santa Barbara Island Song Sparrow.

Western Gull
(Western Gull chick)

Down along the rocky shores (there are no sandy beaches on the island) California Sea Lions, Harbor Seals and Northern Elephant Seals live and breed – their food being the rich kelp forests growing in clear waters around the island.

Sea Lion
(California Sea Lion)

Although it was a warm day, and the island vegetation was mostly brown and dry, there was enough of interest to make it a worthwhile trip, and certainly an incentive to return when spring flowers are in full bloom. What an interesting, tiny 639 acres of land surrounded by a wealth of marine and bird life!

(Imagine – the dried Giant Coreopsis covered with yellow flowers)


(Map of Channel Islands)