September 2018, Monthly Report
Updated: Aug 1, 2019
September was another great month to be on the water or to visit one of the Channel Islands. With fall migration underway I was excited to be on the last two Island Packers summer whale watch trips and my first run out to San Miguel Island for the year. In late September there also were two charter pelagic trips offered through the Western Field Ornithologist conference which was held in Ventura this year so between these trips that is where most of this months content comes from.
The last few weeks of summer were quite uncharacteristically windy. On one such windy day, our whale watching excursion was forced out of the Santa Barbara Channel into the calmer seas behind Anacapa Island and Santa Cruz Island. The waters south of the islands get quite deep only a few miles off the coast and can be productive for all kinds of critters. We didn't see any whales, unfortunately, but we did have a Long-tailed Jaeger, Common Tern, Black Storm-Petrel, Buller's Shearwater, and this big fish. We were able to get quite close to this Swordfish, and the water was clear and calm allowing good views of its purpley/blue upper parts and the iridescent blue stripe over its eye. From tip to tail this thing was probably 10ft long.
Due to the fact that the boat I normally work on is currently ill suited for carrying one of our skiffs, I rarely get to go to San Miguel Island these days. We use small rigid hull inflatable boats to land people ashore, six at a time, because there is no pier or dock at the island. So it was very nice to see that I was scheduled to hop ship and work as a skiff operator on one of our other vessels. Island Packers has very few trips out to this remote island, and poor sea conditions and high winds can often prevent the boat from reaching the island or safely landing passengers on the beach. Fortunately the weather was our friend this day and the conditions were about as nice as they get out there. It was sunny and warm, with almost no wind or swell. This special combination of conditions allowed us to see a variety of pinnipeds on the island which included Northern Elephant Seals, Northern Fur Seals, and California Sea Lions. I was also able to spot what looked like a booby perched on Prince Island. Again due to the amazing conditions we were able to take the boat over for a closer look and sure enough it was a lone Brown Booby just standing on rock way out in the middle of the ocean.
Brown Booby on Prince Island (rock)
California Sea Lions, and Northern Fur Seals
Each summer we also get treated to aquarium like views into the shallow waters around the Prisoners Harbor pier on Santa Cruz Island. With a little patience you can often spot Leopard Sharks and Bat Rays swimming beneath your feet.
Leopard Shark seen from the Prisoners Harbor Pier
The Western Field Ornithologists (WFO) 43rd annual conference was held in Ventura, Ca this year and Island Packers was happy to provide participants two all day pelagic birding trips with short stopovers at Prisoners Harbor to view the endemic Island Scrub-Jay. Each trip had about 60 participants and we had quite a number of great birds both on land and sea. A few days prior to this trip I had spotted a Masked Booby flying circles around the landing cove at Anacapa island so we were crossing our fingers that it would still be around for everyone to see. It was.
Masked Booby originally seen in flight days before the trip
Masked Booby at Anacapa Island
So for those not familiar with a Masked Booby it was split into two species in 2000. The result was Masked and now Nazca Booby. So far identification has been limited to bill color, with a few other supporting but non-definitive characteristics. Note on the bird above that the bill is dusky greenish yellow. I suppose in another year the bill would have a mostly yellow color. A Nazca should look more like this.
Nazca Booby seen on the July 15th 2018 pelagic at Anacapa Island
Nazca Booby from Santa Barbara Island on August 29th
All of the above boobies apear to be in a similar age range noted by the shared small brown smudges on the otherwise pure white head, neck, breast, and wings. They are not fresh out of the nest but are not yet pure specimens of adulthood. I would like to note though that the bill color seems to be identifiable in the field and can be aided with photos even in overcast conditions and under shadow or direct sunlight. I added the photos of Nazca Boobies from previous months for comparison to the Masked Booby seen in September.
A Blue-footed Booby had also been seen on the breakwall for the Ventura Harbor the day before the first WFO pelagic trip, but only briefly. With hopes of seeing it we thoroughly checked the jetties and breakwall but couldn't turn it up but found plenty of rocky shorebirds. A stop off at Anacapa for the above mentioned Masked Booby was a major highlight of the trip. After that we went south of the channel islands for several miles but didn't see high levels of activity but did turn up a couple of Long-tailed Jaegers and a very out of place female Belted Kingfisher.
When we crossed through the Anacapa passage between Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands we found some good bird activity. A South Polar Skua attacking Pink-footed Shearwaters and then later a Brown Booby fishing with large numbers of western gulls, and an accommodating Sooty Shearwater.
South Polar Skua attacking a Pink-footed Shearwater
Lastly we went ashore at Prisoner's Harbor and did some land birding. The Island Scrub-Jay is the highly sought after single island endemic species, so plenty of people picked up a lifer there. We also found quite a few good birds for the island including a Vermillion Flycatcher, Green-tailed Towhee, Greater White-fronted Goose, Vesper Sparrow, Clay-colored Sparrow, and a Nashville Warbler.
On our run back through the harbor at the end day we spotted a juvenile Yellow-crowned Night Heron and the notorious hybrid American/Black Oystercatcher. We also saw these two birds the following sunday on the next WFO pelagic trip.
Yellow-crowned Night Heron
hybrid American/Black Oystercatcher
On the Sunday WFO trip we followed a similar path but made a stop over at a strange spot in the channel that has been attracting Northern Fulmars in unusual numbers. When we pulled up to the spot there were 25 Northern Fulmars all sitting on an oil slick. You could smell the oil in the air from the lower deck. I have a theory about this spot because it has been in about the same place for over two years now. I first noted it September 3rd, 2017 when I saw a large flock of Black Storm-Petrels near these same coordinates. That species is usually found in thin numbers in the Santa Barbara Channel so to find a raft of them was noteworthy. For weeks the Storm-Petrels persisted in this area with numbers counted up to 300 one time. Here it is two years later and the fishy oil slick is still present and attracting Fulmars. I think a whale must have died and sunk to the bottom here and has been slowly decomposing on the bottom and leaking out oils that are being detected at the surface by the bird life and us.
Luckily the Masked Booby was back on his cliff at Anacapa so we did well there, and then had quite a bit of life south of Anacapa. We ran all the way down to the Pilgrim Bank which is halfway to Santa Barbara Island, and saw some Risso's Dolphin, a lot of Common Dolphin and associated birds. We had some great looks at Red and Red-necked Phalaropes seen together in a very large current line that was quite turbulent and stretch out for a mile or more.
While looking for Island Scrub-Jays again a Prisoners Harbor on this second trip, we spotted another Green-tailed Towhee and a juvenile Black-throated Sparrow. This is one of only a handful of records for the island.
Black-throated Sparrow on Santa Cruz Island
It was a full month with lots of migrants and great trips. It was a lot of fun to have so many birders in town for the WFO conference and to get to finally meet many of you in person. There is one more pelagic birding trip with Island Packers this weekend, October 6th, but last I checked there were only two spaces available.
Brandt's Cormorants in the early morning light