August 21st Island Scrub-Jay Pelagic
Updated: Aug 1, 2019
Island Packers hosted another Pelagic trip on August 21st 2016. This trip departed from Channel Islands Harbor and headed for Anacapa Island, then up to Santa Cruz Island with a stop a Prisoner's Harbor to look for the Island Scrub-Jay. From there the group headed across the SB Channel towards the Hueneme Canyon and back into the Channel Islands Harbor for a 9hr day of birding.
We had a total of 59 passengers on board the 64 ft Vanguard, including an outstanding list of highly experienced pelagic birders and leaders. David Pereksta, Todd McGrath, Jon Feenstra, Bernardo Alps, and Matt Victoria.
We departed at 0800 and started to tally shore birds, gulls and terns as we left the harbor. This trip itinerary emphasises the local birds and specialties of the area. We started off strong with a number of gulls and terns, and a few shore birds. This was one of two Long-billed Curlews foraging along the harbor entrance.
Here one Surfbird eyes another coming in for a landing.
After we left the harbor we ran along the deep water Hueneme Canyon towards Anacapa Island. Only a few miles off shore we began to see good numbers of Black-vented Shearwaters.
These small Shearwaters are brown to black on top and mostly white underneath with an indistinct border between the dorsal and ventral sides. Typically the head and other transitional areas are smudgy. The "Vent" is the area between the legs and as the name implies it is black unlike the much sought after Manx Shearwater that would show white in this area. Black-vented Shearwaters can vary greatly in appearance, both naturally and due to lighting. They are also notorious for producing leucistic individuals, lacking pigment in major feather groups, making them look piebald or even pure white. Their flight characteristics stay the same though, rapid wing beats with wind dependent glides and arcs above the horizon. Generally the greater the wind the more effortless the flight.
Black-vented Shearwaters nest almost exclusively on Natividad Island off of Baja California, Mexico with a few other colonies on the San Benito Islands and Guadalupe Island. This is what makes them VERY special. Limited sites for nesting and local distribution after breeding. They are typically only seen around these islands, and north to maybe central California, with concentrations along the Southern California Coast. They are a near coastal species but have in recent (2014-16) years been seen far off shore, 40 plus miles. This is not outside their playbook when you consider how far some of them travel when nesting on Guadalupe Island.
This species showed up very early this year, some individuals as early as July 1st but numbers dropped off and only picked up again in August. They more typically arrive in late summer and persist through the winter. We saw hundreds of them along with a few Pink-footed shearwaters and a lot of gulls, terns, and a nice group of Long-beaked Common Dolphin. A humpback whale was there too but did not really stay near the surface for long.
On we motored to the nearest island in the Channel Islands National Park, Anacapa Island. This little beauty of an island stacks up at 1.1 square miles of land with about 4.1 miles of length. So yah it is a thin island. We took in the stunning arch and searched the cliffs for Boobies. No boobies were to be found despite over 100 of them using this area this past winter, instead we saw a great many Brandt's Cormorants and a few Pelagic Cormorants.
We decided to go south of the island hoping for murrelets but only managed to find more shearwaters, including these two Pink-footed Shearwaters and some Red-necked Phalaropes.
The birding party then motored through the Anacapa Passage and headed west along the north shore of Santa Cruz Island. We stopped for a spell at Scorpion rock and saw a few more west coast species.
Black Oystercatchers, nearly a half-a-dozen including a trio that flew right alongside the boat before settling back onto the volcanic rock.
We had some brief views of Pigeon Guillemots as they scurried away from the rocks. They are mostly done nesting, but there are still a few around. Soon they will revert back to their basic plumage and be more white than black.
After a good morning on the water we landed on the island just after noon. Our stop over at Prisoner's Harbor, Santa Cruz Island was a great opportunity to eat some lunch, relax under a tree, or strike off to find some of the rarities only found in the Channel Island National Park.
The first sighting of bonafide Island Scrub-Jay!
The recent split of Western Scrub-Jay into California and Woodhouses took place this year, 2016, but an earlier split that happened in 1995 made the above bird famous, and got me into birding. The main difference between a California Scrub-Jay and an Island Scrub-Jay is that the latter is larger all around. Bigger feet, bigger body, bigger bill, darker yet more vibrant blue, darker mask on the face and darker back. A hard to see feature is the slightly blue tinged under tail coverts. Not always that obvious and perhaps not a deal maker/breaker as this is variable from my personal observations. This bird is banded, part of an ongoing study through the Smithsonian. Interestingly there have never been any Island Scrub-Jays found on the mainland, and no California Scrub-Jays on the island.
We were also graced with the presence of the Island Fox. These little buggers were nearly wiped clean from the Islands in the mid to late 90's by Golden Eagles. On Santa Cruz Island there were less than 80 individuals left at that time. Some of the other islands like San Miguel were down to just 15 animals. By 2004 they were placed on the Endangered Species List. These days, the Island Fox has happily recovered from the brink of extinction with some successful conservation efforts and the population on Santa Cruz Island now sits around 2100. The species has sustained a satisfactory level of recovery and has just been delisted as of August 2016.
A few folks managed to see the Island Scrub-Jay, the Island Fox, and a Bald Eagle for the Island trifecta.
The next stretch of water was fairly devoid of bird activity. The wind had kicked up and we only saw a handful of Red-necked Phalaropes and a couple of Shearwaters. Things picked up again though when we made it back to the Hueneme Canyon just a few miles from the harbor.
This was one of 3-4 whales that were working the area. At one point we were surrounded. Soon these whales will start heading south to spend the winter off of Mexico and Central America.
Sometimes it can be hard to get close to Shearwaters as they rest on the surface. Generally as the boat approaches they start to taxi along paddling with their feet like this Black-vented Shearwater is doing. In stronger winds they can take off with ease.
As the day came to a close a beautiful young Brown Pelican came in for a close pass. Thanks to all of you who joined us this day, and we hope to see you on the next one. October 8th.