Friday, October 30, 2020

Blue Waves

Today we close out our 3rd and final trek to Ventura, California.  The whole purpose of our trek was to escape the Arizona heat, enjoy the ocean and learn about the Yellow-billed Magpie.  This was a bird I remembered back in the 90's when I lived in the south bay of the San Francisco area. Now as a birder, it was time to go back and have some wine with a friend and rediscover this magpie I first discovered in my backyard when I lived in San Jose. 

And while we had the magpie on our lists, we couldn't stay too far from the ocean.  For an Arizonan, the closest place to find a Yellow-billed Magpie is in the Ventura area.  This is the southern most range for this species.  About 60 miles east of Ventura in the wine country of Los Olivos at the famous Zaca Station Road, we had a lovely time birding along this beautiful road of oak scrub and vineyards. We stopped at one of the places to do some wine tasting.   

The weather was perfect and the wine was great.  And oh yeah, the magpies were a blast!  They reminded me of the Common Mynas that dominate the Hawaiian landscape.  

After we had a lovely time in wine country with great views of the magpie, we headed back to the ocean to enjoy the cooler temps and of course, the beach. 

What a thrill!  Our return trek took us to Santa Barbara.  And it was the last part of our fun California adventures in Ventura. 

Turnstone numbers were great and wonderful views of these 2 species were fantastic!

During our treks to various beach spots, we noticed more Black Turnstones than Ruddy Turnstones.  All the turnstones were mixed in together running around "rock piers" and the sandy beaches not caring that people, pets and kids were also sharing the beach. 

Our missions to the beaches, island and vineyards were a success. 

Any time I bird California, I break down the treks to certain areas.  San Diego and Imperial Beach are wonderful for lots of great birds while Orange County is great for the exotic parrots and a trek out to Catalina Island for the Spotted Doves.  LA is another trip with a trek to the LA Gardens and surrounding areas. Spotted Doves, in smaller numbers, can also be found there, but they are much more enjoyable to find on Catalina Island.  Plus you get a pelagic with that boat trek out of Dana Point, also a great spot to bird. Then there is the Ventura area that we just covered. And all along the coast, there are other great places with specialty birds during certain times of years like in Monterrey.  California is HUGE and it's always fun birding this state.  If you plan well, you won't find yourself on the road all the time and instead, you'll spend most of your time enjoying some quality birding.  

That's how I have dealt with California over the years.  Living in the Bay Area in the 90's, I discovered it was frustrating to try and do too much over a larger area because the traffic killed a lot of precious day outings.  So my attitude is to divide and conquer.  Take it all in over mini vacations over time.  That way you get to enjoy California for everything it offers. So like our trek out to the vineyard, one needs to let that wine breathe. California is wonderful when you slowly enjoy the moments.  Don't rush through it. 

We did try for an unexpected rarity in Santa Barbara, the Curlew Sandpiper.  We had a lot of great birds along the beach, but we often had a lot of distractions.  We didn't find the Sandpiper due to runners flushing the peeps but we did see so many wonderful ocean birds. Plus the beaches there were really really nice. 

The drive was fun as it usually is from Phoenix to Ventura.  It's like a racetrack and always seems to fly by quickly. We wanted to stay a little longer.  The cool ocean temps were so nice.  We're back in Tucson now but I see blue waves happening again very soon.  

The year 2020 has been an incredible year here in Arizona.  The devastations that have happened around us environmentally have driven birds into our state from other places.  That report will be coming.  I also hit another landmark for Arizona.  While it hasn't been the year of the lifer, it has been a solid year of birding in Arizona and specifically for Pima County.  Until next time.....

Monday, October 19, 2020

Strides of Blue

This week's adventure takes us to the beautiful Channel Islands for some in depth study on a part of the Santa Cruz Island I had never been....Prisoner's Harbor. I'll also have some updates for people who have been thinking about visiting these amazing islands. 

I was feeling trapped inside with this terrible Tucson heat over the past several months and I very much needed something new and different to study with friends Celeste and Cheroot.  Originally, I had planned to stay in Antigua, Guatemala during my fall break for a very much needed Spanish retreat at this sanctuary in the hills, but Covid changed that plan.  Instead, within a safe 6 hour drive from Tucson, we headed to Ventura for specific wildlife studies. 

Cheroot brought his squirrels.  We brought our coolers for day lunches out on the beaches and parks. We contacted Island Packers for a mini pelagic out to Santa Cruz Island.  I was hoping for some whale and dolphin action in much needed cooler weather.  It did not disappoint.  In fact, for most of our stay, we were on the water. 

The boat ride is a little under an hour and a half.  Birds were on our itinerary but really it was all about the whales. 

Every time I've gone over to those islands, we've seen something special like a pod of Orcas, dolphins and a variety of whales. This trek would be no exception.  On this day, we observed 3 incredible Blue Whales up close. I cannot describe the excitement that we felt by seeing this incredibly large sea creature.  In fact, it's the largest mammal on the planet. 

Then there's the beauty of birding around the islands. We caught up with birder Eric Heisey below who also had similar plans to bird in the cooler temps.

It is as magical as it looks.  Complete wilderness and now free of human developments.

Once we arrived at Prisoner's Harbor we began to hike uphill onto Nature Conservancy land to study vegetation, birds, lizards and insects.  In some parts it was rather steep, but the views overlooking the island and ocean were incredible. 

 Back in 2014, Micheal and I went to camp at Scorpion's Point which was on the other side of the island. A storm a couple years back destroyed the pier and since then, the campground has been shut down.  BUT I have good news!  It will finally be opened up this November.  I highly recommend this camping trek.  It's a lot of fun and quite different from the experience at Prisoner's Harbor. 

We are birders and for Celeste, she had never seen the Island Scrub-Jay, one of the endemics only found on this island. People say that Prisoner's Harbor is the best place for this jay and it was.  We had many birds right at the entrance of the port. For me it was a better opportunity to study them up close.  Their numbers have grown over this 27 mile stretch of island.  In fact, Channel Islands National Park is a success story in conservation. 

Since our visit back in 2014, the Island Fox, yet another endemic, had a small number of reintroduced fox around Scorpion's Point. Today, this species has succeeded in repopulating Santa Cruz Island. They now number in the thousands. At one point, they almost went extinct due to predation by Golden Eagles, but thanks to great conservation plans and practices, I'm happy to report that this fox is back in business.

Celeste was hoping we'd see one so we backtracked from the tourists when they weren't around.  After our little hike up Pelican's Point, we turned around and headed to the picnic area for lunch.  The secret to finding one of these foxes?  Find stupid tourists who leave their food out.  And find vacated areas were stupid tourists were eating.  Celeste was talking to me when I noticed that one of the foxes came from out of nowhere to check out a recently vacated picnic area. The look on Celeste's face was priceless.  Yes, these foxy foxes are one of the many reasons to explore Channel Islands National Park. 

Not happy with ANY of the leftover food choices, this fox decided to find their own. 

And not too far away, a fresh meal was waiting to be found. A mouse!  Yum!

Another species that doesn't mind human food is the clever Common Raven.  Number 62, more on that in a bit, was watching a couple stupid tourists who were distracted by yellowjackets. True they could have been stung, but 62 had his eye on the turkey sandwich in the flailing male's hand.  As the yellowjackets overcame this unsuspecting tourist man, the raven took the opportunity to snatch the sandwich out of his grasp.  He brought it back to his "friend" and together they shared THEIR turkey sandwich.  And we, the birders, secretly scored the match between raven and man.  Corvid 1 Man 0

Now onto a TAGGED COMMON RAVEN!!!!  This species of bird is plentiful.  So why tag a raven?  Well, they are studying how these Common Ravens interact with the rare nesting Ashy Storm-Petrels on these islands. These Storm-Petrels already have a small population with about 10,000 in the world.  Their nesting grounds, the Channel Islands, are home to at least 50 known breeding pairs.  They are nocturnal and can be difficult to find on a nest as they choose cracks and crevices.  The pic below is not mine but it's an artist's recreation of where this secretive Storm-Petrel hangs out. 

This pic is from a trek I did several years ago during a Storm-Petrel study out along the California Coast.  Within their limited range, they are quite common, but if there ever was an oil spill, etc, it could have a devastating impact on this species. 

Unfortunately, we didn't see any storm-petrels on this trek, but I did learn about how some Common Ravens can raid these storm-petrel's nests. Hence the tagging.  I reported the tag to the banders. You can read that information here. In fact, the Channel Islands are all about restoring balance.  At one point, the Island Foxes almost went extinct due to Golden Eagles hunting them.  There had been Bald Eagles on the island but when they died from DDT poisoning, the mammal hunting Golden Eagles took over.  Today, the fish and duck hunting Bald Eagles are back on the island and the Island Foxes are back:)  It has taken years for the Nature Conservancy and National Park system to restore the balance to these islands.  And to see them today in their full glory is really quite something!

We had a successful trek out and I didn't want the day to end.  I think the California Coast is full of so many amazing wildlife opportunities. 

All good things have to come to an end, but we have one more adventure coming up....the wineries of Los Olivos and a certain magpie. 

Until next time.....

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Blue Dreams

I sat thinking for a month what I wanted to do for my fall break.  Originally, I had wanted to do a spiritual retreat at a monk sanctuary in Guatemala, but that will have to wait.  October is a very special month for me.  It's the month of beginnings and reflective work.  If I couldn't lose myself to chants and birds in Antigua; I would have to think about the next spiritual place that makes me feel whole as a person.....and in the US.  Oregon and Washington were too far to drive.  But the coast of Southern California was close enough to spend some quality time with birds that I don't often get to see. 

Celeste and Cheroot joined me for the second time this year to do some very special birding in another part of Southern California.  And it wasn't just birding.  My only expectations were to find the endemic Yellow-billed Magpies and get photos of them.  Each day was meticulously crafted for maximum ocean use. We stayed in Ventura near the beach in a very questionable hotel. However, everything was within a mostly 10 minute driving distance.  

We arrived on Sunday in the early afternoon. Our Sunday and Monday rules were to have fun on the beach.  Tuesday was a trek out to the beautiful Santa Cruz Island.  Wednesday was a short drive to wine country and magpie land.  And then Thursday, we needed to get home.  It was so fast!

Perfection?  Coffee and fresh clam chowder on the beach. Or how about a misty coastal fog that blankets the beaches?  We walked the beach for miles.  Sometimes we sat and observed people.  Other times I got up close and personal with some shorebird favorites. There were so many birds along the Venturan coast.  

During our stay, we met birders who also had similar ideas about escaping the Arizona heat and it really was refreshing to bird all day long. But unlike the other birders, we weren't really chasing any new birds.  If fact, there weren't any lifers on the list.  I just needed the ocean and a magpie shot which really makes the birding stress free. 

Birds are incredible.  While we have Long-billed Curlews in Arizona, this species makes for a better observation here along the coast. 

People walked the beaches, but the birds didn't seem too concerned.  Sometimes they would just come within a foot of us if we stood or sat still.  It was here that we were able to witness a little courtship display between the curlews below.  It was very beautiful.  Their wings half raised and flutter beat at the same time in a tight formation.  

We watched these birds forage around the beach for sand crabs and fleas. There were plenty of insects as well zipping around the seaweed. 

Meanwhile Cheroot was discovering sea weed on the beach.  There were piles of them. Sometimes he'd pick a kelp branch up and run with it.  Never have I seen him so happy running along the waves.  Being that he's also blind, he was shocked when a wave went a little too far and wet his paws. I don't think he minded too much.  

In fact, much of our sightings were quality bird observations.  Often, we'd just sit and watch the birds up close. Our rare bird sighting happened in the gardens of the Channel Islands Tourist center on the beach.  There we spied a Black-and-White Warbler.  I can NEVER find them here in AZ but if I go to Ventura, I magically will find one.  This was my second rare Black-and-White Warbler in Ventura.  And I've only been to Ventura twice.  So I'm a magnet for that warbler there.  Anywhere else?  Forget about it. 

 The ocean called us.  And we listened carefully. There were seals.  There were whales and foxes and deer.  And at times, we stopped at places like a fresh produce stand where we bought a huge bag of sweet oranges for 5 dollars.  I also purchased 3 punnets of strawberries.  I also learned some new English from Celeste.  She is of course from the first age of proper English speakers.  Americans are savages in every way possible and I clearly have a limited vocabulary set. A PUNNET is the little green basket that holds strawberries and other goodies. OH! And I bought a huge bag of avocados for 5 bucks!  Anyhow, I brought my magic cooler that keeps everything nice and cold and was able to get them back home in pristine condition. I wish we had produce stands like this in Tucson!  

These kinds of stands are possible thanks in part to the hard working hispanic population in and around Ventura.  It reminded me of the markets in Mexico and it was wonderful. 

Everything was dog friendly for the most part. Sometimes, you have to return to a place to absorb the things you missed the first time. Over the next couple blogs, we'll rediscover why I love birding Ventura so much.  But we'll be visiting new locations that I had never visited before.  We'll stop at Prisoner's Harbor on Santa Cruz Island.  Several years ago we camped at Scorpion Campground.  Then we'll have some wine with a magpie outside of Ventura.  Until then, stay safe.