We didn’t originally plan to visit Santa Cruz Island. We–my friend Ian and I– decided that it would not work out. Our time in Southern California being limited, we wanted to squeeze as many life and Western birds out of each day as was possible, and with the boat leaving Ventura Harbor at 9am and not returning till dusk, it seemed to us that this would mean spending an awful lot of time on an island with limited birding opportunities. Of course, there was the almost certain opportunity of seeing the island’s bird star, the endemic Island Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma insularis . But, this one Life Bird seemed small potatoes compared to a pelagic trip, an all-day birding trip at sea, promising oodles of sea birds we would never see on land.
Fate being what it is, the pelagic trip out of Santa Barbara was cancelled due to lack of participation (hey, Santa Barbara birders! what’s the deal with that?), and luckily I was able to get tickets on the Island Packers boat to Santa Cruz Island (above) for the same day, Saturday, September 21st, right before they declared the trip full. Yes, apparently people would rather be on a 1.5-hour boat ride to a pretty island where they can hike and picnic than on a 9-hour boat ride where they might see jaegers and shearwaters and….might not.
It was fun waiting to get on the boat at Ventura Harbor and observing our fellow passengers, who included a boy scout troupe in a mix of scout and play garb, a local Nature Conservancy major donors group wearing name tags and carrying field guides, and some very healthy, athletic twenty-somethings, carrying guitars and storing kayaks in the boat’s hold. This Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, impassively watched too, comfortably settled right below the walkway to the boat, and wearing the last vestiges of breeding plumage. (California Brown Pelican,P. o. californicus, I’ve discovered, is more colorful in breeding plumage than our own Eastern Brown Pelican.)
The fun started on the way out of Ventura Harbor, passing these Sea Lions on one channel marker, and, very quickly, the resident rarity, a Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster), on channel marker 3. The photo below was taken a week later, from Marina Park. The Brown Booby is the bird on the right. Apparently, Blue-footed Boobies were also being seen on the Ventura Harbor breakwater, but we didn’t see them that day. We did see many Blue-footed Boobies at other locations on our trip.
Island Packers boats sail to Santa Cruz Island daily May through September (and, it looks like,from their web page, October too). I was surprised that the boat ride was 1.5 to 2 hours long, but the time goes quickly. Unless you’re like me and get slightly seasick even if you’ve taken anti-seasickness medicine. Ian and I were entertained by a pod of dolphins and periodically tried to identify seabirds and gulls. At one point, we were surrounded by acrobatic Black-vented Shearwaters, a life bird for Ian. Other people who have taken this boat ride have seen whales and Pink-footed Shearwaters (what I was hoping for). But, the goal of the boat is to reach the island, so there is little time for pausing to identify and observe sea life.
Here’s a map of the island, from the Island Packers web site. They, in turn, seem to have borrowed it from the U.S. National Park Service.
Santa Cruz Island is owned by the U.S. National Park Service (24%) and a group of nonprofits–The Nature Conservancy, the University of California Field Station, and the Santa Cruz Island Foundation (76%). It has a complicated history, which is nicely encapsulated by Wikipedia (and maybe by the National Park Service, but I cannot access that website today, while the U.S. government shutdown is in progress, though why the website must be shut down is a mystery to me). The island was originally populated by the Chumash Indian tribe, and then taken over by Mexico, which briefly used it as a home for convicted criminals (thus “Prisoners Harbor”), and then granted to a Mexican army captain. There was then a series of owners and litigation over ownership worthy of a mini-series or a big fat book, like the kind Michener used to write.
More importantly, the island was home to a thriving sheep ranch and then a cattle ranch. It was also used for hunting, fishing, smuggling, and military operations. By the time the majority of island land was sold to the Nature Conservancy, introduced species like sheep and feral pigs, and invasive species like the Golden Eagle were destroying native island ecology. Endemic species, notably the Island Scrub-Jay and Island Fox, were in danger of extinction. The Nature Conservancy to the rescue! Seriously, they (and I assume the U.S. Park Service, though I can’t research that part of it with their website down!) have done an incredible job here, removing the sheep and pigs, relocating the Golden Eagles and re-introducing the Bald Eagle, replanting bare hillsides with native plants, and more.
There are two places to land on Santa Cruz Island. If you’re a boy scout or a kayaker or an athletic young person, then you probably want to get off at Scorpion Anchorage, where you can kayak and hike and camp and play the guitar. If you’re a birder or a Nature Conservancy person, then you probably want to disembark at Prisoner’s Harbor, because that is where the Island Scrub Jay hangs out.
Scrub-Jays are members of the Corvid family, and they were considered one species till 1998, when they were split by the AOU into three species–Western Scrub-Jay, Island Scrub-Jay, and Florida Scrub-Jay. The Island Scrub-Jay looks very much like the Western Scrub-Jay (which itself is a candidate for being split into coastal and inland species), only it is darker and larger, with a heavier bill. The bird is on the Yellow list of the American Bird Conservancy, which means that it is in need of conservation attention, but not to as great a degree as those species on the Red list. However, Birdlife International has uplisted the species to the Vulnerable list because (1) it exists only on this island and can be wiped out by a catastrophe, like a super-storm, and (2) it’s vulnerable to West Nile disease. Also, while it had been estimated that there were 9,000 scrub-jays on the island, more recent counts indicate there are far fewer–less than 3,000 individuals and less than 1,000 breeding pairs. The Nature Conservancy is on the case, and has a program to vaccinate the birds. It involves peanuts on a stick, a box, and a vaccine.
Ian and I were, of course, most anxious to see the Island Scrub-Jay, and it didn’t take long before we heard it. Another few minutes later we saw the bird! And then another. And then another. The birds had a maddening habit of appearing just beyond the distance needed for good photographs or in the middle of a tree or vocalizing very near us and then flying away before we could aim our cameras. Still, we were very happy to see so many Island Scrub-Jays; both for conservation reasons and because they were Life Birds! I wondered whether, like their cousin, the Florida Scrub-Jay, they could be coaxed closer with peanuts. Alas, I had no peanuts with me, for a reason only Ian knows, and probably would not have tried this even if I did, out of respect for the rules of the organizations that own the island.
The other endemic creature living on Santa Cruz Island is the Island Fox, a small creature the size of a small house cat (so they say, Ian and I think it’s a pretty large cat). In fact, “there are six subspecies of the island fox, each of which is native to a specific Channel Island, and which evolved there independently of the others” (thank you Wikipedia). The Island Fox population had fallen to less than 100, mostly due to the arrival of the Golden Eagle, when the Nature Conservancy and its partners started its Island Fox Recovery Program in 2002. The program included captive breeding, close monitoring in the wild, and vaccination, and has been so successful that the captive breeding program could be discontinued. There are now more than 1,300 Island Foxes on the island.
We spotted our first Island Fox down the hill, right after our first Island Scrub-Jays flew away. And, then, like the scrub-jay, we saw another! And another! We were so excited, we ran after them (at a distance) and took photograph after photograph. Let me tell you, it was really hard not to go up to this totally adorable and almost cooperative fox and remove those grasses by its face. Later, we found the Island Fox pictured at the beginning of this post, hunting the picnic area. The Park Service provides fox-proof bins where visitors can store their lunches, and they are definitely needed. Every fox has the most trusting expression on its face, doesn’t it? Even when it’s scrounging under a Park Service jeep or trying to open a large cooler on a picnic table.
A pair of Common Ravens also frequented the picnic area, first calling to one another, and then coming down to seek out goodies. I wished they had stayed up in the trees. Seeing these majestic birds poke around like, well, crows, really took something away from their mythic stature.
It turned out that the island was very birdy, that you didn’t need to hike very far to see birds (we had decided not to go on the 4.3 Nature Conservancy hike), and, as one of the naturalists on the boat told me, anything could show up. This Clay-colored Sparrow was a very good find, both for the island and California. It was foraging on a dusty path with a stripey western Savannah Sparrow and a western Chipping Sparrow (I found that many of familiar sparrows looked very different in California).
Finally, at 4pm, it was time to board the boat for the trip home. The boat was delayed by about 20 minutes, which gave us an opportunity to sit by and dock and simply enjoy the beautiful view. A trip to Santa Cruz Island is not a pelagic, but it does offer up its own unique wonders.