California – Day 9 (August 3): Out to Santa Cruz, down to San Diego

Everyone that follows this blog is well aware of my passion for Florida Scrub-Jays. After all, they’re my favorite bird, a species that has brightened many outings in Florida, creating last memories that I’ve looked fondly upon ever since my first encounter.

Although Florida Scrub-Jay is certainly my favorite, my interest extends to all members of the genus Aphelocoma, including Mexican Jay and Western Scrub-Jay, both of which I’ve had the privilege of seeing.

Island Scrub-Jay has long been on my list as a species I’ve longed to see. Like Florida, but unlike Western and Mexican Jays, Island Scrub-Jay, is restricted to a single geographic area, in this case the 97 square mile Santa Cruz Island, off the coast of Santa Barbara County, California.

Santa Cruz is one of famous Channel Islands of California, dubbed the ‘Galapagos of North America’. The Channel Islands are home to numerous endemic flora and fauna, including the Island Scrub-Jay, Island Gray Fox, and Island Deer Mouse.

The islands are also home to numerous endemic subspecies of birds and other organisms, long considered to possibly represent distinct species, and thus could be split in the future.

Our goal for our first visit to Santa Cruz was (of course) to see the endemic Island Scrub-Jay, as well as to attempt to view as any endemic races of birds as possible.

Before boarding, we ran into fellow birders Chris Harbard and Mari Cea, whom we ended up spending our entire outing with. It was an absolute pleasure to be able to enjoy such a terrific trip with such great people. I had a blast swapping stories and talking birds with Chris while keeping an eye out for pelagics on the journey to and from the island. Chris, a native of the UK and a long-time contributor to the popular UK-based Birdwatch magazine, has traveled throughout the world to lecture on cruises, and has visited such terrific locales as Borneo and Peru. (Chris has posted an excellent summary of the day on the Birdwatch’s team blog).

As we departed Ventura Harbor, Chris and I stood at the bow ready to intercept any birds that crossed our path on the journey over. More specifically, we were both hoping for Scripps’s Murrelets (recently split from Xantus’s Murrelet), a species that breeds on the Channel Islands. Unfortunately, Scripps’s have already completed their breeding cycles and moved away from the islands by early August, so we’d have to get lucky and intercept a lingering individual.

It was not to be on the way out, however, although we did pass through impressive numbers of Sooty Shearwaters (over 300), and also noted a few Red-necked Phalaropes, Cassin’s Auklets and Pigeon Guillemots, among others.

One of the highlights of the boat trip out came when a young Brown Pelican flew right at the front on the boat, and into one of the other passengers! Amidst the unlucky passenger’s screams, we watched as the pelican dropped out of her arms, and began to waddle about, passing right by myself and Chris and continuing into the rear of the boat! Luckily, the crew was able to secure and release this bird, which provided numerous laughs and memories for those lucky enough to witness it.

Once we had reached Scorpion Anchorage (arguably better for Island Scrub-Jay than nearby Prisoner’s), we were greeted by one of the Channel Island’s most beautiful and regal endemics, the Island Gray Fox. Much smaller than the closely related Gray Fox of the mainland, this adorable creature showed absolutely no fear of humans, walking right up to our group, seemingly undaunted.

Island Gray Fox

Island Gray Fox and friends

After spending some time with the fox, we headed away from the anchorage to look for our primary target here, Island Scrub-Jay.

It didn’t take long to connect with this stunning species, and we ended up recording a total of four (a conservative count, obviously) in the vicinity of the Scorpion by the time we departed.

Island Scrub-Jay

What a bird!

While we spent the majority of our time enjoying the Island Scrub-Jays (recording HERE) we were still able to note a number of individuals of endemic subspecies, including Orange-crowned Warbler (sordida), Pacific-slope Flycatcher (insulicola), Bewick’s Wren (nesophilus), Allen’s Hummingbird (sedentarius).

Other highlights while birding the island included Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Bushtit, and Hutton’s Vireo.

On the boat ride back, we added Red Phalarope, Rhinoceros Auklet and Pink-footed Shearwater to the day list, but were never able to pick up Scripps’s Murrelet.

Once back at Ventura Harbor, we said our goodbyes to Chris and Mari, before starting on our long drive down to San Diego, but not before stopping for some great seafood in the Malibu area :).

All in all it was a fantastic day, filled with terrific birds and shared with awesome company. Finally seeing the Island Scrub-Jay was an absolute thrill, and it certainly ranks up there with Florida Scrub-Jay as one of my all-time favorite birds.

-Alex

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