After a late arrival at LA International the night before, my dad and I were eager to get started on what promised to be an awesome trip. After checking out of our hotel, we headed north on CA-34 (also known as the Ventura Freeway) towards our first destination of the trip, Ventura Harbor, the port of call for our boat trip to Santa Cruz Island.
Some of you may remember snippets of last year’s fantastic trip to Santa Cruz Island, in which I was able to complete my Aphelocoma sweep with Island Scrub-Jay, nail many of the Santa Cruz endemic subspecies, and also miss Scripps’s Murrelet at a less optimal time of year for that species.
The cast of characters (both in terms of birds and people) was somewhat different this time around, but in most regards, this year’s trip was eerily reminiscent of last year’s.
Arriving at the Island Packers Office, we were immediately reminded of our changed geographic location. The cries of Western Gulls filled the air as Brewer’s Blackbirds strutted about the parking lot. In the Harbor, Brandt’s and Double-crested Cormorants and Brown Pelicans swam about, sharing the space with a noisy band of California Sea Lions.
Just glimpsing the quintessential species of the California Coast really got the adrenaline flowing, and also had me reflecting that, even though life birds are great, it’s also nice to enjoy some of the common species, as we don’t get to see them back home, where other birds fill their respective niches.
Speaking of life birds, my target for the day was set the minute we disembarked after last year’s trip: Scripps’s Murrelet. Although August is a poor time to find this Channel Islands nester, March is prime time for this globally rare species, and we were hopeful we might come across one or two on the way out.
Just around boarding time we ran into fellow Connecticut birder Annette Jablonski and her family. Annette and I both remarked on how crazy it was that two Connecticut birders had run into each other on the same trip.
Before leaving the Harbor, I enjoyed an array of firsts for the trip including Eared, Western and Clark’s Grebes, Willet and Black Turnstone. Also present was an American Oystercatcher of the Baja subspecies frazari, a rare but regular visitor to California.
Once out into the open water, Common Murres began to make themselves apparent. Passing by raft upon raft of Western Grebes, I began to scan furiously for the murrelets. It was at a major elevational drop-off that our target revealed itself, when two Scripps’s Murrelets were seen flying directly away from the boat. The show was only just getting started, and by the time we reached Santa Cruz Island, we had counted twenty-three Scripps’s Murrelets, many of which we saw extremely well.
Other notable species on the ride out included Rhinoceros and Cassin’s Auklets as well as Pigeon Guillemot. Non-avian highlights included a nice Blue Whale, as well as an impressive pod of 1,000+ Short-beaked Common Dolphins that swam with the boat for a while.
After dropping off passengers at Scorpion Anchorage, we continued onto Prisoners, adding Pacific Loon, Surf Scoter and Pelagic Cormorant to our trip list along the way.
Once at Prisoners Anchorage, we stalled briefly at the pier to photograph some confiding Western and California Gulls, before continuing onto the island.
An Island Scrub-Jay was perched up nicely in the nearby growth upon arrival, and we spent most of our short time on the island getting more looks at this fantastic bird.
Other highlights on Santa Cruz included Allen’s Hummingbird (island race sedentarius), my first Common Ravens of the year, as well as Hutton’s Vireo, Black Phoebe, Orange-crowned Warbler, and Acorn Woodpecker. A Great Blue Heron was perched atop a dead snag nearby.
All too soon our time at Prisoners was over (gotta camp there some day!), and we headed over to Scorpion to pick up passengers, before continuing to Ventura Harbor. While on the way we saw a couple of Black Oystercatchers, putting the cap on my first ever two-oystercatcher day.
On the ride back the Scripps’s Murrelets were again out in force, and we noted thirty individuals, slamming our previous total by seven. We also added Northern Fulmar to our growing trip list, as well as a beautiful Steller’s Sea Lion and a crazy look at two Gray Whales propagating the species :).
Passing through the harbor, we noted Horned Grebe, Snowy Egret, Ruddy Turnstone and Belted Kingfisher, species we hadn’t seen here before. The American Oystercatcher from earlier was still present, though, providing nice comparison with a nearby Black Oystercatcher.
Once back at the dock, we said our goodbyes to Annette before continuing south for an awesome seafood dinner in Malibu, just as we had done the year before.