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Saturday, August 18, 2012

Nerdy Birdy: Santa Cruz Island

I didn’t have anything planned today so I started searching for something fun to do in LALA land. I found a bird field trip through the South Bay Audubon group that was taking a day trip to Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the Channel Islands. I have wanted to go to one of the Channel Islands for a while now. The Channel Islands are sometimes called the Mini Galapagos because of the amount of endemic unique species they have on the various islands that have developed independently of each other. So when I found this field trip I knew it was perfect.

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SANTA CRUZ ISLAND IS THE LARGEST ISLAND TO THE RIGHT

The marina in Ventura was a little over an hour away and with a 8:30am meeting time I had to get up at 6. I knew it was going to be a long day when I am already tired when I wake up. Finally I got to the marina, I found the other birders (we all dress alike with our floppy hats, bird books and binoculars), and settled in to wait for the rest of the group. I am thankful to say that I have started to see a few familiar faces on some of these birding field trips. But it is also always nice to make new friends. Finally it as time to board our boat, the Island Adventure. I tried to find a place out of the way for myself, my camera gear and my tripod. It is always difficult traveling with that entourage especially on a boat.

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We gently pulled out of the marina. The captain was yammering on and on about this and that but I just stood at the tip of the boat and took in the beautiful scenery. It was a perfect day, not too many waves and a smooth sailing boat makes it easier to take photos. I love being on the water.

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Once we passed the marina we scooted past the rock jetty’s. These jetty’s were created to help protect the boats in the marina from over zealous waves however they also become fantastic areas for birds to hang out on.

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Mostly they are covered with tons of Brandt’s and Double Breasted Cormorants as well as hundreds of Brown Pelicans however if you look closely you can see other birds foraging for food in the rocks. This trip we were able to spot several Black Oystercatchers. They are super hard to spot because they blend in very well with the dark wet rocks. Only their bright orange bills stand out.

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BLACK OYSTERCATCHERS

We also spotted another bird that was initially thought to be a Spotted Sandpiper. With so many eyes to find and identify the bird it is nice to be able to check what someone else is looking at. In the end we all agreed that this bird was a Ruddy Turnstone; another bird with excellent camouflage on the rocks.

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RUDDY TURNSTONE

As we pulled out of the harbor we passed by several buoys with Sea Lions resting on them. I loved the contrast of the red against the body of the animal. It was a little sad to see so many crowded on these tiny little buoys, they should be resting on a beach but the beaches have all been taken over by people. Nature is constantly trying to make do with the scraps that we provide.

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Aside from being excited to finally get to one of the Channel Islands to view some of their endemic species I was also really looking forward to the boat ride. On the hour long trip across the ocean strip separating the main land from the islands I knew we would spot a good amount of sea birds. Between the bouncing of the boat, trying to hand hold a camera and trying to follow a quickly flying bird, focusing is always an issue. I am never quite happy with the clarity I achieve although I am getting better. For now I am excited that I saw so many great birds.

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BRANDT’S CORMORANT

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BRANDT’S CORMORANT

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POMARINE JAGER

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POMARINE JAGER

We had a group of about 13 on the trip and most of us chose to stand in the front of the boat. The people on the trip were fantastic, everyone calling out a potential good find and many taking time to point out or identify characteristics of birds we were seeing to me. Birders are the nicest people. It is always fantastic to be around passionate people with a love of learning.

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OUR GROUP OF BIRDERS SCANNING THE HORIZON LINE FOR BIRDS

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RED NECKED PHALAROPE

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RED NECKED PHALAROPE

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RED NECKED PHALAROPE

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RED NECKED PHALAROPE

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Although photographing any bird on a boat is difficult probably the hardest to photo of the day were the Sheerwaters. These guys are fast fliers and they tend to hug the water closely when they fly. The camera constantly wants to focus on the water and not the quickly moving bird. These guys were a challenge but at least we saw them several times so I had a few opportunities to get it right.

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BLACK VENTED SHEERWATER

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SOOTY SHEERWATER

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SOOTY SHEERWATER

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SOOTY SHEERWATER

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SOOTY SHEERWATER

The two bird highlights on the water today I think were the Pigeon Guillemot and the two Rhinoceros Auklets. I was super excited to see the two Auklets, they are the first I have ever seen. A new bird to cross off my Nerdy Birdy List!Both birds were only seen the one time and I have to just be happy with the photos that I got. Birding is hard enough without the constant rocking waves.

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PIGEON GUILLEMOT

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RHINOCEROS AUKLET

After an hour of searching the never changing horizon we finally spotted land far off into the distance. Closer and closer we drifted until finally Santa Cruz Island became less like a blue blob in the horizon and more like the island. Cliffs and hills jutting from the smooth glassy water.

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One of the best things about traveling on the water in a boat in Southern California is that you always end up encountering a pod or four of dolphins. These inquisitive guys just love love love a boat. They like circling it, they like racing it, and they especially like diving and dashing through the waves. The captain did a great job of pointing out the pods, and since we were making such good time on the schedule he even circled the boat around a few times so we could all get a better look. If you think photographing birds on a boat is hard dolphins are much harder, mostly because they just pop up at random points and they are fast. By the time I focus my camera they are gone. I did manage to get a few photos, out of the nine billion I took, these were the best.

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After a little over an hour we finally reached our dock and our destination. Our group stopped at Prisoners Harbor and the island was exactly how I thought it would be; true, mostly untouched, Southern California Scrub.

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We set up our stuff at the picnic table thinking that we would eat our packed lunches before setting off on a hike when we spotted an Island Fox. The fox is endemic to six of the Channel Islands with each Island having its own unique breed. I was surprised by how tiny this fully grown fox was. About the size of a small house cat this little guy is a product of insular dwarfism (process of a reduction of size over hundreds of generations due to a limited resources and environment). He was sulking around the picnic area, probably looking for scraps and we got FANTASIC looks and photos. Later in the group saw several other foxes that ran away once they saw us, we even saw a couple babies frolicking around in the grass. But that first fox being so cooperative for the camera was my favorite.

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ENDEMIC SANTA CRUZ FOX

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ENDEMIC SANTA CRUZ FOX

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ENDEMIC SANTA CRUZ FOX

Our target bird that we came especially to the islands to see is the Island Scrub Jay. This bird can be found no where else in the world than these tiny islands. Related to the Western Scrub Jay these guys are a much more vibrant blue. They also hung around the picnic area and we got some fantastic looks. This is the first time I have ever seen this bird, he was gorgeous! A new bird to cross off my Nerdy Birdy List!

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ENDEMIC ISLAND SCRUB JAY

We started out on our hike but it was HOT and mostly all uphill. With the camera it was difficult going. Although the islands are beautiful we really didn’t see that many birds. Sure there was the occasional house finch, some gold finches and a wren but nothing terribly exciting. Thank goodness we saw such fantastic birds on the boat as well as the fox and Island Scrub Jay.

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HOUSE FINCH AND A BEGGING BABY

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I did find several other cool things, there is always something interesting if you keep your eyes open. There were several bits of coral and someone had even left a pile of dried anemones and shells. We also spotted a pig’s skull, evidence that once pigs roamed these hills. Since they were an introduced species and since they threatened the lives of other endemic animals they were eradicated from the islands.

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On the ride home we spotted the sailboat races. Several were coming into the home stretch for the race and we were able to cheer them in. I have always loved the idea of a sailboat, it is on my Rogue Life List to eventually learn to sail one. One day. One day!

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I love taking these field trips, I always get to meet interesting people who share my passion for birds. The leader was especially patient and explained so much to me. But everyone chipped in with a fun fact that I can store away. I am going home with so much more knowledge about the islands and bird behaviour because of this great group.

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THE LEADER OF THE FIELD TRIP AND I

Our last task of the day was too curl up on the grass and go over the birds we had seen for the day. Everyone chipped in and then we all went our separate ways. What a fantastic adventure, right in the back yard of my home. FUN!

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2 comments:

Jess said...

LOVE the dolphin photos!!!!

paul peggy zeus said...

You are fortunate to be able to do all the things you do, you see so many cool things with these groups.

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