Rough start at sea didn’t sink island birding experience
As soon as we left the harbor, I had a sinking feeling about how the day was going to turn out. We were heading straight into the swell and the waves were big. There were a number of first-timers on the boat, and as a leader, you feel responsible about the impression the seas make. We saw very few birds on the way out to Santa Cruz Island, and the ones that did cross the bow were difficult to get on to because of the bumpiness of the ride.
I was expecting whales, too, but not a one did we see. The forecast called for winds to come up in the early afternoon, so we wanted to dock at Prisoners Harbor as soon as possible.
The event was the annual trip run by Island Packers to look for the island scrub-jay, a bird found on Santa Cruz Island and nowhere else on Earth. Actually, last Saturday’s excursion was the second of the year. The one that was offered a couple of months ago sold out, and there was sufficient demand to warrant a second trip. As we cruised along the lee side of Santa Cruz Island, the ride was a lot smoother and we saw such birds as Scripps’s murrelets and pigeon guillemots. The island was more beautiful than I’ve ever seen it. Broad shoulders of green tapered down to the cliff tops, and swaths of yellow giant coreopsis bloomed on the steep slopes. Skipper Joel Barrett spotted a 20-foot-long basking shark close to the boat. We circled back around but we must have spooked the shark as it was nowhere to be found.
We finally docked at Prisoners, and I led the first group ashore. We waited by the swiftly flowing creek, the first time in years I’ve seen it running, and we soon saw a pair of island scrub-jays, one high in a tree while the other came in to bathe. The jays are lovely birds. They are closely related to our coastal scrub-jays, but are larger, with proportionally bigger bills, and the blue on the back is vibrant.
There are a number of birds found on the island that are endemic subspecies, and we heard and saw a few of these: Bewick’s wrens, orange-crowned warblers, song sparrows and Pacific-slope flycatchers were much in evidence. We spent an idyllic couple of hours wandering the trails close to the dock. A few people saw an island fox, and I came across a scorpion while looking under logs for salamanders. I later learned that the scorpion is an endemic and has been placed in its own genus.
Back on the boat, we cut through the Anacapa gap and motored along the south side of Anacapa Island. The expected winds had failed to materialize, and the seas had flattened out. We had nice looks at rhinoceros and Cassin’s auklets. To the east of the island, we spotted a huge mass of gulls and other birds circling a small area, so we hurried over to investigate. As we approached, it was obvious there was a lot going on under the surface of the ocean judging by the leaping dolphins and whale spouts. We stopped close to the frenzy and were treated to a sight we won’t soon forget. There were at least five humpback whales, and they were bubble-netting. This involves a whale blowing a circle of bubbles underwater that serves to corral bait fish at the surface. We watched the bubbles breaking on the surface, and then a pair of humpbacks rose in unison to lunge through the trapped fish with open mouths. We witnessed this incredible sight again and again.
The birds were going crazy cleaning up after the whales. Besides the gulls, three species of shearwaters — sooty, pink-footed and black-vented — careened through the feeding mass. A day that had seemed a lost cause turned into one that had hearts a thumping.