Island Hopping

Ventura Harbor, California

Ventura Harbor, California

In the birding world, Santa Cruz Island is best known for a single bird species that can only be seen here, the endemic “Island Scrub-Jay”. The starting point for any Santa Cruz adventure begins in Ventura Harbor. The main vendor offering passage between mainland Ventura, CA and the Channel Islands group is “Island Packers Cruises“. They offer regular ferry runs throughout the Channel Islands as well as local Whale Watches and sunset cruises to the general public.

Santa Cruz Island

Santa Cruz Island

There are two main landing points in Santa Cruz Island. “Scorpion Anchorage” is at the extreme northeast end of the island and “Prisoner’s Landing” is on the north shore ~1/3rd in from the east end of the island. Scorpion is National Park Service territory with an historic ranch and campground. It offers more diverse habitat and is likely better for all types of birding, but the best Scrub-Jay habitat here is further away from the landing along the Scorpion Canyon trail and requires a more strenuous hike generally. Prisoners is Nature Conservancy property and the flat trail here holds more Island Scrub-Jays closer to the launch along a gentle / easy trail.

Travis aboard the Island Adventurer in Ventura, CA

Travis aboard the Island Adventurer in Ventura, CA

The main purpose of the trek was to see the Jay and common logic generally causes most birders to choose the path of least resistance at Prisoner’s Landing, where the bird is a slam dunk, no-miss affair. However, much like Tina Turner in “Proud Mary”, Travis doesn’t like things “…nice & easy…” so it was all aboard to Scorpion Anchorage! The “Island Adventurer” was packed to the gills with many children on a school trip and campers heading out to spend the weekend on the island. There were no other birders onboard (likely would have been on the trip to Prisoners though).

Brown Booby with Cormorants & Western Gull at mouth of Ventura Harbor

Brown Booby with Cormorants & Western Gull at mouth of Ventura Harbor

As we motored out of the harbor there were many Brandt’s Cormorants and Western Gulls, Western and Eared Grebes, and a bonus Brown Booby perched on the channel marker at the mouth of the harbor. Apparently, this is a local rarity that has been in the area for a while now, but it was an unexpected birding surprise for me as we broke into open water.

gulls & shearwaters lift off the water's surface as we passed

gulls & shearwaters lift off the water’s surface as we passed

The water crossing took a bit over 30 minutes and was full of birds including many Black-vented Shearwaters, some Pink-footed & Sooty Shearwaters, Northern Fulmars, Red-necked Phalaropes, and Pomarine Jaegers. There were also small numbers of murrelets breaking off the water but I was unable to ID these to species. Apparently, the most likely candidate according to locals would be Scripps’s Murrelets, one of the two new species split from what was formerly called “Xantus’s Murrelet”. Travis needs that bird for his list, but I just couldn’t identify these little birds as they peeled off the water and whirred away as we sped past. Common Dolphins & Offshore Bottle-nosed Dolphins put on a nice show along the way as well!

Approaching Santa Cruz Island

approaching Santa Cruz Island

Unlike a true pelagic birding trip where the boat slows for views of the birds, ferry crossings almost invariably result in a higher percentage of unidentified birds as you speed past (cruises can be even tougher yet), but it was still a beautiful day with great birds and in short order we’d arrived at Scorpion Anchorage.

NPS personnel meet you at landing and see you off again when you leave

NPS personnel meet you at landing and see you off again when you leave

Friendly National Park Service employees (fresh off of furlough) were on hand to greet the boat and give all visitors their introduction to the island, plus review the trails, the facilities, and a few rules. After this short orientation, however, you were free to explore on your own. Travis and I headed out in search of whatever, just soaking up the stunning views and everything else there was to absorb here. The first thing we noted was the clear blue water with rich Kelp forests, teeming with schools of fish. Many kayaks were on the shore here, and Common Ravens croaked overhead as they chased after a soaring Red-tailed Hawk. All this combined to create a gorgeous & memorable spectacle for the senses!

View of Scorpion Landing from the east

View of Scorpion Landing from the east

After loads of camping and diving gear were unloaded, the campers began trudging toward the campground heavily laden. Travis and I had slowly began climbing the hillside trail to the east and were surveying the scene from above. An Osprey sailed across the ridge where we stood heading east high above the landing. From a birding standpoint, it seemed more peaceful to trudge this path less traveled, even though I was knowingly moving away from the best Scrub-Jay areas.

The view to the north from on high

The view to the north from on high

As we climbed there were many migrant songbirds (passerines) in the low brush all around. Many White-crowned Sparrows mixed with Song Sparrows, “Audubon’s” Yellow-rumped Warblers were here as well, with a variety of different looking Orange-crowned Warblers. Bewick’s Wrens chirred, and an amazing number of Allen’s Hummingbirds mixed with lesser numbers of Anna’s Hummingbirds. Black & Say’s Phoebes called and sallied from small bush tops as we climbed toward the top. A Golden-crowned Sparrow here and a Hutton’s Vireo there. On top an oddly marked male American Kestrel seemed to lack all back barring. Could this be another one of the unusually-plumaged, resident, island endemic subspecies?!?… I’d have to check. A single Western Meadowlark sailed across the short scrubby plateau giving it’s distinctive rattle, and I was really surprised to see a Lapland Longspur perched in a bush here.

Lapland Longspur - Santa Cruz Island - Leica V-lux 4 camera 10/18/13

Lapland Longspur – Santa Cruz Island – Leica V-lux 4 camera 10/18/13

From above it was plain to see that the majority of the island was dominated by this low scrub habitat with weeds and small bushes. A small stand of pines sat atop and stood out as wholly different, but the majority of the cover was clearly in the wooded ravine which shaded the upper and lower campgrounds below. This would be the best bet for many different birds and possibly even a Scrub-Jay.

view of Historic Scorpion Ranch and the trees that shade the campgrounds

view of Historic Scorpion Ranch and the trees that shade the campgrounds to the left

So I wound my way back down the trail keeping track of various birds along the way Lesser Goldfinch, Hermit Thrush, Tree Swallow… After a quick view of the interpretive displays, I followed the roadway past the ranch toward the Campgrounds recording more of the same species along the way, House Finches, Hutton’s Vireos, and Bewick’s Wrens.

Travis and a picture of an Island Scrub-Jay… now he knew what to look for

Travis & Island Scrub-Jay image… hopeful…

The tree cover of the campgrounds held many birds including some new species like Red-shafted Flickers and an immature Sharp-shinned Hawk that was being mobbed by literally dozens of Allen’s Hummingbirds. The “Pacific” form of the Hermit Thrush here was notably different and more gray than Eastern birds and there were so many that it was hard for them to hide.

Hermit Thrush in a Sycamore Tree

Hermit Thrush in a Sycamore Tree – digiscoped with iPhone 4s, thru Leica APO Televid 65 mm scope

I was thoroughly enjoying the opportunities to study these and the many other birds in the Sycamores here, but my favorite island wildlife species by far was the adorable Santa Cruz Island Fox.

Santa Cruz Island Fox, Leica V-lux 4 camera

Santa Cruz Island Fox, Leica V-lux 4 camera

These miniature foxes are the size of a small house cat, on short “Dachshund-esque” legs, with a short bushy tail that looks like it belongs on a squirrel… these little critters were utterly amazing and really stole the show! Like the Island Scrub-Jays the Santa Cruz Island Fox is also endemic to this island.

Santa Cruz Island Fox - Leica V-lux 4 camera

Santa Cruz Island Fox – Leica V-lux 4 camera

Despite having a wonderful time watching the antics of these foxes and the hoards of birds seeking refuge in the campground trees, I realized I’d have to focus and make tracks as I had just over one hour left before my boat ride back to the mainland and still hadn’t hit any good Scrub-Jay habitat – namely Oak Trees (I hadn’t seen a one). Apparently, Jays are occasionally found in the campgrounds, but today was not one of those days. So I put on the blinders and pushed past the upper campground and up into the scrubby habitats beyond in the Scorpion Canyon loop trail.

after a rapid hike from the upper campground I finally spot low oak trees up the rocky canyon ahead

after a rapid hike from the upper campground I finally spot low oak trees up the rocky canyon ahead

I passed fantastic photo opportunities with large flocks of Lesser Goldfinches & House Finches. Turned a blind eye toward the large sparrow & warbler flocks and stopped only briefly to admire one of the unusual resident Loggerhead Shrikes, Rufous-crowned Sparrows, and Rock Wrens here. Pushing on until I finally found what I’d been looking for, Oak Trees. Oaks produce acorns, the Scrub-Jay’s favorite food. I scrambled up into the canyon doing a bit of bouldering with my spotting scope tripod doubling as a hiking stick, finally positioning myself on a small hogback ridge that would allow me to see up and down the two canyons that split left and right here. My thought was that from this vantage I would be able to see which direction looked like better habitat, but as it turned out there was no need. Directly across the narrow canyon, some 50-60′ away, was a Scrub-Jay gathering fallen acorns on the shadowed slope beneath the partially dead oak.

Island Scrub Jay digiscoped with V-lux 40 through Leica APO Televid 65 mm spotting scope

Island Scrub Jay digiscoped with V-lux 40 through Leica APO Televid 65 mm spotting scope

I was still a long way from the harbor but I’d timed my trek out and knew I could afford to spend 5-10 minutes with these birds and still make it back in time to meet my boat. After getting a few images, I broke out my water bottle and drank up. It was hot and I’d worked up a good sweat power-walking the last 1/2 mile or so and doing a bit of rock scrambling to boot. As I watched, a second Island Scrub-Jay joined the first. The lighting was not ideal for imaging as the entire opposite bank was shadowed. None-the-less, it was still fabulous seeing these birds and  a bit of a relief as I was starting to panic thinking I’d enjoyed too much along the way and was possibly going to cost Travis his bird!

Island Scrub-Jay, Scorpion Canyon Trail, Santa Cruz Island, CA

Island Scrub-Jay caching acorns, Scorpion Canyon Trail, Santa Cruz Island, CA

The Island Scrub-Jays are big & dark compared to the coastal birds on the mainland. They showed larger bills and had very dark gray mantles (triangle on the back). I posed a couple victory images with Travis in the foreground and the Oaks behind.

Travis conquers Scorpion Canyon trail!

Travis conquers Scorpion Canyon trail!

There may wave even been a Jay or two in the background, although they would be hard to see in these shots!

 

Travis & the spotting scope that doubled as camera lens and walking stick!

Travis & the spotting scope that doubled as camera lens and walking stick with oaks & jays behind!

I downed the last sip of water in my bottle and began power-walking back toward the dock. As before, I ignored the Towsend’s Warbler in perfect light, the loads of finches, Hutton’s Vireos and Allen’s Hummingbirds all along the way. I stopped in the campground just long enough to fill my water bottle and watch one last sneaky, little fox looking for food. I arrived back at the dock just as the “Island Adventurer” pulled back in and began slowly loading the school kids aboard. I paused  just long enough to take a final celebratory image of Travis and the idyllic scene. It had been a grand adventure indeed!

Travis prepares to leave Santa Cruz Island - Leica V-lux 4 camera

Travis prepares to leave Santa Cruz Island – Leica V-lux 4 camera