Wednesday, January 8, 2014

An Ocean Between Us

Each year, Las Aventuras decides to spend the holidays somewhere strange and mysterious.  I needed to jump start this big 2014 year with lots of new discoveries.  And thus it was decided.....a camping trip to Santa Cruz Island off of the coast of Southern California.  My heart lately has been drawn to the great mysteries of the ocean.  I needed a break from the desert and a change of pace.  It is now time to leave my beloved Arizona and discover more of the US.

We took a trek across the Pacific Ocean to find the Island Scrub-Jay on Santa Cruz Island.  The only place in the world to find the Island Scrub-Jay.  With our gear packed and batteries charged, we crossed over to Channel Islands National park where we would spend two days exploring part of the nearly 22 mile long island.

Western Gull
And so we left the beaches of Ventura, California and headed away from the overpopulated coastal cities of LA towards the isolated and quiet islands of this fantastic national park!  Had it not been for the Island Scrub-Jay, I may have never known about this place!  The lure of an endemic bird is very attractive, but one doesn't need to twist my arm to head towards the great and vast ocean.

As we left port, we prepared for the pelagic part of our trip.....that is......searching for birds only found in the ocean. What an amazing show!  So many life birds were found on that day!  As we approached shore, we prepared our gear for set up.  And so the tent went up.  The food locked up.  Santa Cruz is home to its' own endemic island fox.  It didn't take long before these cat sized animals found their way into our campsite at Scorpion Ranch Campground.

I have to tell you the story of the Island Fox because I think it will make you smile.  It's not often we hear success stories in the wild so I'd like to share something positive for a change.  In the 90's, this fox almost went extinct.  I know I doesn't sound like a happy story, but give me a chance to explain:)

In the 70's, DDT had been wiping out birds to near extinction.  This chemical got into the water supply poisoning fish and other creatures. The birds ate the fish which made bird egg shells very brittle. When the parent birds sat on the nest, the eggs were often destroyed.  Bald Eagles were once a common bird on this island until DDT wiped out the entire population.  When these fish eating eagles disappeared, the Golden Eagle took over the areas that the Bald Eagles used to inhabit. And the Golden Eagles eat small mammals.  The fox became prey and their populations were almost wiped out.

An intervention happened with the fox in the late 90's to save it from extinction.  The remaining few were then captured and captive breed.  DDT by this time was banned in the US and the Golden Eagles relocated. With the threat eliminated, the fox was released back into the wild.  Today their population numbers are healthy and growing. And so are the Bald Eagles:)  However, the fox is not shy around people.  People are not supposed to feed the wildlife, but I saw a person throwing food into another person's campsite to take pictures!!!!  I wonder how he'd like it if someone put food around his tent?!!!

The hiking around the island is epic with sweeping landscapes and wonderful trails.  But we still couldn't find our Jay!!!  When I asked Park Rangers if they had seen the Island Scrub-Jay around Scorpion Ranch, they all just shook their heads.  Even the guides told us that it was unlikely we'd find the Jays around the campground.  I was a little frustrated.  We had gone all that way to find this bird!  But with all the birding experience now, my eyes have gotten better at spotting critters.  I had to believe that we could find this bird even with impossible odds. I'll leave specific tips below this photo essay at the end of my report in case you are interested in visiting this amazing island.

We hiked into a grove of Blue Gum Eucs.  The smell was wonderful.  The trees full of Allen's Hummingbirds and Townsend's Warblers. The white flowers were so calming as they swayed in the ocean breeze.

We walked in the shadow of the great Eucs along a dry wash.  The guides told me the Jay was secretive and liked to hang in the shadows.  So I kept my eyes open for any slight movement.  Of course this could have been all so much easier had we gone to Prisoner's Camp for the day trip 16 miles away.  Apparently they are very easy to spot in this location with their brilliant blue feathers along the picnic tables. But somehow this felt much more exciting......

Townsend's Warbler
From the corner of my eye, high up in the shadows of a Euc, I spotted something watching us from behind a branch.  American Robins, Fox Sparrows and Yellow-rumped Warblers were everywhere! Even a Sage Thrasher!  But this bird was acting differently.  The moment we spotted the bird, the Island Scrub-Jay revealed itself from the shadows and dazzled us with a brief and brilliant blue sparkle in the sunlight......much brighter in color than the Western Scrub-Jays. I cannot describe in words how brilliant that blue was in the sunlight other  The picture does not do justice because as you can see, the Jay went back into the shadows.

Island Scrub-Jay
It was a high five moment for both of us as we achieved what seemed the impossible.  We were not successful locating the bird again during the last part of our stay.  Luckily, we spotted the bird early on during our island trip that we could explore other canyon areas and overlooks.  We climbed a steep hill and watched the whale migration from the cliffs.

While most of the US was/is under a freeze, we were able to enjoy the beautiful California sun.

On our trek back to Ventura, we spotted these amazing Orcas(CA 51 Matriline-the mammal eating kind:) It was incredibly cool to watch these creatures chase after a pod of dolphins.

This group had 5 individuals.  There was a mother with two calves.  Unfortunately I could not ID the other two.  I posted these shots on Facebook and a researcher excitedly contacted me on our sightings.  She gave me the family history and I could feel her emotion in the email.  That was very special and I'm glad I could help out the people protecting these beautiful creatures.

But like all good things........
With vacation almost over and my job starting up, it was time to grow up and settle down again until our next big adventure.  For my AZ birder friends, I will put some info below that hopefully will help with this trip if you are interested.

Information for the Island Scrub-Jay

Island Packers is the company you need in order to visit Santa Cruz Island from Ventura Harbor. The people were great and the boat trip was a one hour ride full of Cormorants, Murres, Shearwaters, Northern Fulmars, Jaegers, Grebes and Auklets!  We stayed overnight the night before our trip around the Ventura Harbor finding lots of great birds like the Black Oystercatchers, Willets, Marbled Godwits, Plovers(Snowy and Black-bellied), Sanderlings, Brown and American White Pelicans, a million Gulls (Western, CA, Ring-billed, Heerman's) and finally Whimbrels to name a few!) The road trip from Phoenix or Tucson is relatively quick.  It was full of active driving.  I liked this trip much better than the one to Bosque Del Apache in New Mexico because there was lots on the road to keep the mind active:)

Finding the Island Scrub-Jay.  This is a great trip to take with your other half.  If you are interested in just a day trip and an almost guaranteed sighting of the Jay, Prisoner's Harbor is where you need to go as they are quite common there.  If you want to camp(highly recommend!), reserve a campsite at Scorpion Ranch Camground.  It's super quiet after the day trippers leave and the campground wasn't full which made it even more special.  A reservation has to be made online for 15 dollars but there is no charge once you are at the campground.  Everything is packed in and out.  Bring a lock to protect your food from the Island Fox. Lock boxes are provided.  The fox got into everything. The camping option is great because there are a lot of amazing birds around the campground.....especially along the dry wash! It is there that we spotted one, possibly two, Jays. They are a little more difficult to find. There are pit toilets stocked with lots of toilet paper and excellent clean running water.  Happy birding!


  1. Such a total change from the desert. That Jay is WAY more blue than our Scrubs. Camping on an island sounds divine. Nice to hear another wildlife success story, and such a little cutie. You had a marvelous distraction from work.

  2. Kolejna wspaniała przygoda, chociaż celu nie osiągnąłeś. Były inne ptaki, lisy których istnienie uratowano i delfiny, które uwielbiam. Pozdrawiam.
    Another great adventure, although the purpose is not achieved. There were other birds, foxes whose existence was rescued and dolphins, which I love. Yours.

  3. What a cool trip, Chris! The orcas as wonderful and I love dolphins.. Congrats on your Scrub jay sighting and photos. Great report..

  4. What a wonderful trip and some great photos - the island looks beautiful. What a great start to the year :)

    It so good to hear of the success story about the Island Fox too :) We hear so many negative stories about wildlife that its inspiring to hear of a positive outcome :)

  5. Hi Chris. what a wonderful trip and great news that you saw the Jay. Great shot of the whales.

  6. That appears to be an excellent place for a short trip, Chris. A super selection of wildlife - not just birds.

    I've really enjoyed reading your very nicely illustrated account.

    Thank you!

  7. Sounds like a great spot to a short break away. The fox seems rather special. The ancestors of those Blue Gums would have come from Australia and create the smell we are used to in "the bush"!

  8. Congratulations on spotting the Island Scrub Jay. The Fox was a delight to see as well as the Wales and dolphins.
    Thanks for sharing another awesome adventure, Chris.

  9. An incredible trip, and i love that shortened story about the DDT. After a few decades, there will be emerging stories again, maybe this time about the GMO! I also love those marine mammals jotting out from their playfulness!

  10. Hi Chris, nice to see you again. I always love to read about your adventures.. Just been catching up on last post that I've missed and see that you are still avidly searching for your life birds. I enjoyed you oceanic diversion here in this post, living by the sea I'm also lucky to see the whale migration so I can totally relate. Si it's back to work hey, what a pain :)

  11. Chris, what an amazing trip to take and what a way to start your New Birding Year! I'm glad you got the jay!

  12. Wow! I am loving all of this. The fox is beautiful!!

  13. What an amazing, wonderful trip! I love all that it yielded for you! And, the story of the fox was the perfect nature success story! I am a huge anti-Monsanto person, and they invented DDT. The damage they did then, and continue to do now with Roundup, etc. is appalling! There is such a delicate balance that has to be maintained...for animals AND humans alike. Great photos, Chris!

  14. Marie, it's so good to hear from you! I'm sorry things have been rough and I'm hoping they will get better. Thank you for stopping by! Wishing you my best. Chris


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