Pelagic/Scrub-Jay Trip Report
Updated: Aug 1, 2019
This has been a rather wet and stormy winter here in Southern California but we slipped in this trip between the bad stuff and had calm seas and gentle winds. Twenty five birders boarded the Vanguard out of Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard on Saturday morning. We had a rather slow start to the trip as we traveled along the Hueneme Canyon with only a few Brown Pelicans diving for fish and little else was noted until we neared Anacapa Island.
A few miles from the Anacapa arch we found a nicely distinguished current line and started to pick out some small birds working along the edge of the mixing waters. Cassin's Auklets were some of the participants along the current line, ducking and diving under water as we drifted closer. These small birds are very shy and can be hard to approach but we managed to get a few closer looks before they would disappear below the surface or fly off to a distant patch of water.
Cassin's Auklets have a relatively heavy, round body, and rounded wings which makes the transition into flight a bit laborious. These Auklets will often paddle along at the surface as they gain speed before they can generate enough lift to get airborne. Occasionally they can't achieve flight due to a belly full of food or perhaps they are weighted down by a developing egg or two.
Shortly after our first Alcid we spotted a second species, a pair of Scripps's Murrelets.
Late winter in the Santa Barbara Channel is probably the best place in the World to find these Murrelets. They are almost always found in pairs at this time of year, and are seemingly reluctant to fly away. Again perhaps they are too busy feeding, or weighted down by developing eggs inside the female. We were lucky to be close enough to them on this trip that we could hear their contact calls. There are suggestions that even outside the breeding season, pairs are common because they are cooperatively hunting/feeding.
A few Scripps's Murrelets nest along the cliffs of Anacapa Island, and a significant portion of the U.S. breeding population can be found further south on Santa Barbara Island.
Since we were so close to Anacapa Island it is always worth checking the Arch and surrounding cliffs for birds. Today we had Brandt's and Pelagic Cormorants, a few Brown Pelicans and many Western Gulls but none of the Boobies that were frequenting this location in the past few years.
We dodged a few lobster traps and brought the boat around to the south side of the rocky island. Here we found a nice treat, three species of Marine Mammal. We had the usual Spotted Harbor Seals, California Sea Lions, and a bonus Stellar's Sea Lion.
This was a rather young individual and was still somewhat small. A full grown female can reach over 700 lbs, about the size of a male California Sea Lion, where as a large male Stellar Sea Lion can attain a weight of 2,400 lbs. Southern California is considered the southern extreme of the Stellar Sea Lion range that extends around the north end of the Pacific and throughout the Aleutian Island chain.
Just around the corner from the Seals and Sea Lions is a small Brown Pelican Rookery. We carefully approached at a distance and watched the white fuzz balls wait on the steep slope for a parent to return with their breakfast.
As we departed the Pelicans and Pinnepeds resting on the rocky volcanic shores of Anacapa, we encountered large groups of Surf Scoters. These are one of the sharpest looking birds that we see around here and are always great to see up close. The males sport a black body with bright, contrasting orange and white highlights.
As we pushed our way through the throngs of sea ducks we had a flyby adult Brown Booby. It sailed along the cliffs and made a few dramatic dives back behind us near the Arch. Unfortunately my camera focused on the cliff in the background rather than the bird, but here is proof we saw it.
After that excitement we eventually continued on down the length Anacapa and cut through the Anacapa Passage over to the North shore of Santa Cruz Island. We picked up a few early returning Pigeon Guillemots near Scorpion Rock, a traditional nesting site for them.
We also flushed up a group of Surf Scoters that was harboring a White-winged cousin. Unfortunately they didn't land again.
We arrived at Prisoner's Harbor and disembarked for an hour and a half. We had some looks at the Island Scrub-Jay and an Island Fox. People had time to venture out on their own or sit back and eat some lunch. The weather was getting cool at this point and we boarded the Vanguard for the last leg of the trip. As we were walking down the pier to the boat I spotted an odd bird flying into the protected waters near the shore. It turned out we were looking at a Red-breasted Merganser. This was a new Island Bird for me. Red-breasted Mergansers are considered a rare winter visitor to the island and in my 13 years out there this was my first.
On our way in through the Santa Barbara channel we found a few piles of Black-vented Shearwaters, and tallied up some big numbers of Alcids. We found a single Common Murre, heaps of Cassin's Auklets, 27 Scripps's Murrelets, plus two Rhinoceros Auklets to round out the day. In fact we saw all the expected Alcids by this point in the trip, capping off another successful run.
Thanks to everyone who was aboard, we hope to see you next year, and a special thanks to our guides Gareth Jones, Dan Maxwell and the Crew of the Vanguard: Jason Wendel, Dave Newman, and Joel Barrett
Total Trip list 2017:
2 Canada Goose 4 Mallard 1646 Surf Scoter 1 White-winged Scoter 2 Bufflehead 1 Red-breasted Merganser 24 Pacific Loon 2 Common Loon 13 loon sp. 24 Eared Grebe 207 Western Grebe 571 Black-vented Shearwater 1 Brown Booby 224 Brandt's Cormorant 101 Pelagic Cormorant 11 Double-crested Cormorant 339 Brown Pelican 3 Snowy Egret 2 Osprey 1 Sharp-shinned/Cooper's Hawk 2 Red-tailed Hawk 2 American Coot 8 Black Oystercatcher 1 Black Turnstone 1 Spotted Sandpiper 1 Common Murre 8 Pigeon Guillemot 36 Scripps's Murrelet 146 Cassin's Auklet 2 Rhinoceros Auklet 75 Heermann's Gull 6 Mew Gull 2 Ring-billed Gull 773 Western Gull 186 California Gull 1 Herring Gull 1 Glaucous-winged Gull 1 Caspian Tern 16 Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon) 1 Eurasian Collared-Dove 4 White-throated Swift 1 hummingbird sp. 2 Peregrine Falcon 2 Black Phoebe 2 Island Scrub-Jay 3 American Crow 14 Common Raven 10 Bushtit 2 Bewick's Wren 20 European Starling 8 Orange-crowned Warbler 1 Song Sparrow 1 Rufous-crowned Sparrow 1 Spotted Towhee 10 Lesser Goldfinch 10 House Sparrow