There is only one place in the world to see an Island Scrub-Jay and that is on Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the Channel Islands off the Santa Barbara/Ventura Coast. Unless you have your own boat or the wherewithal to pay for a helicopter or seaplane, the best way to get there is on the high speed catamaran ferry cruise with Island Packers Cruises. I wanted to see the Scrub-Jay so I signed on with Island Packers for their December 1st trip to Scorpion Harbor on Santa Cruz Island.
As stated in my initial blog post on the California trip, the Island Packers operation was first class – efficient and fun. The crossing is about 30 miles and depending on stops for marine mammals etc it takes something around 90 minutes. On this day, the weather was beautiful – no wind and calm seas. In addition to the birds on the Island, the crossing provides opportunities to see pelagic birds and in addition to the Scrub-Jay I had high hopes of seeing a Black Vented Shearwater – an ABA Lifer. While I had been told that the shearwater was almost guaranteed, I had not seen any included in Ebird reports for this time of year so I was of course a bit apprehensive.
Our High Speed Catamaran
Island Packers offers daily service to Santa Cruz and less regular service to some of the other islands. There are plenty of campers, kayakers and casual tourists. At least on this day, I was the only birder. Our Captain, Dave Corey, was excellent and knew quite a bit about birds. I had great visits with him on both legs of our trip. There were also three volunteers on board who led hikes and provided background on the Island’s history, flora and fauna. The Santa Barbara Channel is renowned for an abundance of marine mammals and in addition to general crossings, Island Packers offers whale watching trips and even an occasional birding trip. Birder or not, I would highly recommend a visit to all.
We started seeing birds immediately as there were gulls, cormorants and Brown Pelicans on the rocks and flying about as we departed. Not too much later, my fears about seeing Black Vented Shearwaters were proven unfounded as several flew by at first in the distance and then much closer to the boat. Not the same as the up close and personal experience I am used to with Westport Seabirds where Captain Phil stops for the birds or chums them in and get us real close, but definitely good looks. Our first marine mammal was a California Sea Lion basking in the sun on a buoy not far from shore.
California Sea Lion
I don’t know how many shearwaters are usually seen on these trips, especially in late November or early December but my best guess is that there were more than 500 seen on the round trip. It was really nice to be able to take photos on calm seas and on good light, even if no effort was made to get close.
Black Vented Shearwater
While the diversity of species was not as high as on the Westport trips, and it is probably higher at other times of the year, there were more species than I expected. In addition to the many Brown Pelicans, other species seen were Cassin’s and Rhinoceros Auklets, Pacific and Common Loons, Horned and Western Grebes, one Pomarine and at least one Parasitic Jaeger, Bonaparte’s, Western, Heerman’s and Glaucous Winged Gulls and some Royal Terns – the latter as we began our return from the Island.
I am also about 90% sure I saw another alcid – most likely a Scripp’s Murrelet but it was too distant to get a photo.
We had other marine mammals as well – many Common Dolphins often bow riding on the boat as well as several Humpback Whales. Yes, whales are amazing animals but they have never really had great appeal to me. After seeing a couple of humps and maybe a fluke or tail, I am ready to move on. However, that opinion was not the general one and we spent a lot of time chasing whales. They were a nice add on for me but I wanted to get to the Island.
There has been off shore oil drilling in the Santa Barbara Channel for over 100 years. It continues today despite the near complete disaster of the Union Oil spill in 1969. This halted new leases and imposed restrictions but it was shocking to me to see the many oil rigs/platforms in the channel.
After the pleasant crossing we made it to Scorpion’s Harbor on the Southeast side of the Island. There is another point of disembarkation on the west side called Prisoner’s Harbor. Visitors have to bring all of their own food and gear but there is potable water available at numerous camp areas, a small visitors center and rest rooms. The Island is hilly and quite dry with varied native vegetation. It is part of the Channel Islands National Park and you are not allowed to leave anything on the Island nor to remove anything. They try hard to prevent the introduction of any non-native flora or fauna.
There are many trails leading up into the hills and back away from the shore. I spent my time within a couple miles of our landing point but I can see how the hiking would be very good.
The Island Terrain
My objective of course was to find an Island Scrub-Jay. There are estimated to be about 2300 Scrub-Jays scattered over the almost 100 square miles of the Island. I just needed one. Birders I know had seen them in the picnic area near our landing spot. One of the naturalist volunteers suggested hiking through the campgrounds and up into Scorpion Canyon. I found my first one in the first campground and all told on my various hikes I counted at least 10 some seen flying up the hillsides, some closer and some heard only.
Although very similar to the California Scrub-Jays found throughout the West, this species appeared a much deeper and brighter blue with a longer tail. A very handsome bird. There are Steller’s Jays on the Island but no other Scrub-Jays. I was very pleased to see and photograph this bird for many reasons. Foremost of course was that it was an ABA Life Bird but after adding the Florida Scrub-Jay this spring, it had been the only one of the 11 ABA jay species that I had not seen. Now it joins the California, Florida and Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays, Gray Jay, Steller’s Jay, Brown Jay, Mexican Jay, Blue Jay, Pinyon Jay and Green Jay on my “Jay” list. I have photos of all except the Brown Jay which I saw at Falcon Dam State Park in Texas in 1975. My photos of all for comparison are below.
Blue Jay – Florida
Mexican Jay – Arizona
Gray Jay – Washington
Florida Scrub-Jay -Florida
Pinyon Jay – Colorado
Wodehouse’s Scrub-Jay – Colorado
Green Jay – Texas
Brown Jay – Texas (Not My Photo)
Steller’s Jay – Washington
California Scrub-Jay – Washington
Another good birding reason to visit Santa Cruz Island is that there is a resident population of Allen’s Hummingbirds. No Rufous Hummingbirds are ever on the Island which is a good thing since the two can be very difficult to tell apart. Any hummingbird found on Santa Cruz Island with any rufous coloring is always an Allen’s. I had a photo of what I believed to be an Allen’s Hummingbird from Southern California that I took earlier this year but with this photo I was now sure that I had one.
There are also several endemic subspecies on the Island. Maybe someday they will be recognized as species of their own just like the Island Scrub-Jay. These include Spotted Towhees, Dusky Orange Crowned Warblers, Loggerhead Shrike, Channel Island Song Sparrow, Island Horned Lark and Santa Cruz Rufous Crowned Sparrow. I saw all but the Rufous Crowned Sparrow and Horned Lark. If either becomes a species on its own I guess I will have to go back.
There is one other endemic on the Island that was hard to miss, the Santa Cruz Island Fox. I saw at least 5 while I was there. They are not in the least people shy. One looked for food in a small tree right over my head as I sat and rested. It was often just a couple feet away.
Santa Cruz Island Fox
The boat loaded for the journey back at 3:00 p.m. The seas remained calm and we had a following tide making for a very smooth journey. We had more of the same birds as on the way out except there were a few Royal Terns at Prisoner’s Harbor. I would have much preferred an Elegant Tern as they did not make an appearance in Washington this year, but it is too late and they are now further south.
Back in Ventura we had a beautiful sunset and then not too much later a good view of the near “Mega-Moon” the phenomenon when the moon is closest to the earth and thus appears quite large. The next day was the mega-event itself.
It had been another memorable, enjoyable and successful day. I had my two target species and added an unequivocal photo of an Allen’s Hummingbird. I also added another dozen plus trip birds. I now headed off to Pasadena where I hoped to find my next targeted bird at a roost site the next morning. Traffic was horrendous and although I was only going 65 miles. almost all on freeways, it took over two hours. And I thought Seattle traffic was bad…
(Postscript December 20, 2017)
Due to some user error separating Countable and Non-Countable species on my Ebird ABA lists, when I found one, I thought that the Island Scrub-Jay was ABA species #699. Correcting the error, it turns out that the Island Scrub-Jay was actually #700. I was thrilled to see it without knowing that it gained me membership in the ABA 700 Club. I wish I had been aware of it at the time – I am sure I would have come up with an appropriate celebration of sorts. And I will be making a change to my next blog post as well as the Red Crowned Parrot that I saw the next morning was actually #701. Somehow the endemic Island Scrub-jay seems more appropriate than the introduced but now established Red Crowned Parrot – as special as that next morning was.
New ABA Life Birds: #699 Black Vented Shearwater and #700 Island Scrub-Jay
New ABA Photos: Same
NEW ABA Year Birds: Same
My trip list was now at 94.