Wild Side of Canyon Lake: Make Skippers Island a bird sanctuary


There is still one place in our shared wild land, Skipper's Island. The island is often lined with birds.

Credit: Ken Cable

Geese lay their eggs on Skipper's Island and hang out at Holiday Harbor.

Credit: Ken Cable

Mallard are one of the dominant ducks on the lake.

Credit: Diana Castillo

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For all the years we’ve lived in Canyon Lake, birds have shared our little bit of paradise. Thirty years ago, long stretches of shoreline were undeveloped and the wild birds lived on or near our lake in great profusion. Domestic geese and ducks mixed amiably with their wild cousins as evidenced by the mixed coloration of hatchlings seen paddling after their mothers every spring.

Willows and cattails grew undisturbed at the water's edge of undeveloped lots attracting redwing blackbirds in what seemed to be the thousands. Forster’s terns, Western grebes, Caspian terns, sea gulls, pelicans, cormorants, cliff swallows and so many others were regular feeders above and below the surface of the lake, just as they are today, but in increasingly limited numbers.

In those days, the dominant duck, in terms of numbers, was the Mallard. This tough little avian seemed to be everywhere, flying in and out of coves and paddling after boaters begging for scraps.

Big Bass Cove once was home to a small colony of “top knot” ducks (they seemed to be domestic but I’m not sure of their species). I called them top knots for a mop of uncombed feathers on their heads. As I recall, they were mostly yellowish in color.

Mallards weren’t the only wild ducks to visit. Occasionally, a flight of Mergansers would drop in and feed on fish on the Main Lake. I’ve seen small flights of Teals pass through. Teals come in three wing and body colors: green, blue and cinnamon (hence the names of the streets in Canyon Lake). I think the ones I see now are of the cinnamon variety. Teals are very shy and fast flying little ducks.

In those early years, flotillas of domestic geese and rafts of ducks, wild and tame, flew and paddled their way through our scenic views. As time passed, nesting areas for water birds disappeared along the shoreline as new homes filled up the waterfront lots.

There is still one place in our shared wild land that is free of development, Skippers Island. I’ve never learned the botanic name for the trees that grew on the island and other undeveloped stretches of shoreline in Canyon Lake. To builders, they were a nuisance; to much of the Wild Side of Canyon Lake they were home, shelter and lakeside resting places.

I’m not sure when the trees and shrubs that once adorned the Skippers Island disappeared, but I recently counted 10 or 15 straggly trees and one fan palm still standing. The natural growth of grass and flowers has long since disappeared and the ground looks flat and sterile. This is due in part to the hundreds of water fowl that come ashore each evening to spend the night.

I just drove to Happy Camp to take a closer look at the island. It was about 4 p.m. Hundreds of birds crowded the shoreline facing the camp. The bulk of these were cormorants, but there was a cluster of pelicans in the mix, dozens of snowy egrets, a scattering of great white egrets and lots of mallards (I didn’t see the grey geese that we see occasionally grazing on the lawn by the Lodge. It was probably too early for them to turn in.

Skippers Island is, of course, where the 4th of July fireworks are launched each year. Other unplanned and not-so-festive activities take place there, too. Boaters land to explore, and this often results in goose nests being disturbed and eggs destroyed.

In spite of these intrusions, the island is one of the few remaining sanctuaries for our wild and domestic water fowl. While it is true there are still scattered patches of habitat suitable for nesting inside our gates, Skippers Island is the only one that can be made safe from land-based predators such as coyotes, bob cats, raccoons, dogs, cats ? and careless humans. Of course flying predators are a hazard, but odds of survival are far better for nesting and roosting birds on an island.

Over the years, people have suggested that the POA declare Skippers Island a permanent bird sanctuary. Planting additional trees and shrubs, native grasses and wildflowers would not be a costly venture and will improve and make even more beautiful one corner of our lake. Declaring Skippers Island a sanctuary would give assurance that birds will remain a part of our Canyon Lake experience. I believe most residents would agree.