by Mike Baker
On Saturday, March 9, 17 intrepid RRAS members climbed aboard the Island Packers boat “Vanguard” for a voyage to find the Island Jay and near shore pelagic birds in the Santa Barbara channel and Santa Cruz Island. The trip began by heading out of Channel Islands Harbor, Port Hueneme, CA, into the channel and over the Hueneme canyon. Weather and sea conditions in the Santa Barbara channel during the Spring can be at times a challenge, but we were especially fortunate this day, escaping the previous days gale force winds and the following days approaching winter storm. Saturday’s voyage provided the perfect weather window and, the birds and mammals responded!
We began our 56 mile, 8 ½ hour journey by leaving the harbor’s shelter and traversing in a roughly SSW direction over the Hueneme canyon. One of our first birds was an immature Rhinoceros auklet that kept a cautious distance from the boat.
Other birds in this area included the omnipresent Western gull, Brown Pelican, Brandt’s cormorant, Western and Clark’s grebes, and a pair of skittish Scripp’s murrelets.
The captain then wheeled in a more westerly direction towards the east end of Anacapa island. From a distance one could see massive rookeries of cormorants and nesting gulls dotting the island. Close into the shore’s cliff faced, Brandt’s and Pelagic cormorants could be seen along with a few Pigeon guillemots.
The waters were tested around the arch and light house area of North shore Anacapa Island but proved better along the south shore. Rounding the eastern point to the south side of the island, we encountered huge flotillas of Surf scooters numbering in the thousands, where they continued until reaching the western end of the island.From the western tip of Anacapa we crossed the inter-island channel towards Santa Cruz island made a westward transect over a 400’ deep ridge off the island’s northern shore.
We approached Prisoners Harbor from the north, passing small groups of grebes and gulls in route. Santa Cruz island was bright green from the recent winter rains, punctuated by flowering Coreopsis, Chaparral pea and Monkey flower. Upon landing, Common yellowthroats were heard singing in the marshy area at the end of the dock, an American kestrel perched high in a Blue Gum Eucalyptus and a Loggerhead shrike skulking along the willow lined creek. Also in these willows was our first Island jay greeting visiting ocean farers. Farther up the trail we encountered a California towhee, Hutton’s vireo, more Island jays. Zane and Tom had a close encounter with an Island fox, taking pictures with a smartphone and the fox’s face. Troy and Andrea viewed a Bald Eagle combing the shoreline before the ship’s participants were loaded back onto the Vanguard to resume searching for pelagic birds. Returning to the Santa Barbara channel we again followed along the 400’ deep ridge off the north shore of Santa Cruz Island but eastward.
Along this transect, Common Murre, Scripp’s Murrelet, Black-vented shearwater, Cassin’s auklet, Pacific, Red-throated and a Common loon were observed.
We were intersected by a huge pod (more than a thousand) of Common Dolphin. Later along this line we were joined by two pods of White-sided dolphin. Approaching the harbors breakwater we were greeted by a Peregrine falcon perched on a beacon and willets in rocks.
Overall a very eventful day, with all expected island and pelagic species viewed in addition to numerous cetaceans.
Species counts are from the collective eBird lists. See the segmented checklists, linked below, for more details.
Segmented checklists were kept throughout the pelagic trip to put species in their representative habitats. You can click the blue links to see each list. Under the associated trip lists are species viewed the day prior around Ventura harbor.
Associated trip lists:
A huge thanks to everyone who made this trip possible — from the participants that had faith the birds would show themselves, to our guides and to the weather God for a beautiful day on the sea, sandwiched between some trip killing days of wind and rain! I’m very grateful for Dave Pereksta for keeping accurate counts in our eBird lists and Joel Barret for his observations and expertise on the mic. , knows these waters and animals better than most and added so much to this trip. Plus, thanks to captain Jason and crew of the Vanguard for getting us out there and back to the harbor safely. Thank you everyone!