Saturday, February 27, 2010

A tale of two cities - Tuesday - The Channel Islands

Tuesday promised to be the highlight of the LA leg of our short holiday. We made advanced reservations for a boat trip to Santa Cruz in the Channel Islands, off the coast of LA. It's fair to say we were properly excited about the trip. First we had to get to the harbour in good time to sign-up, pay, fill in our liability waivers, etc.

In the queue we bumped into Ann and Rob Simpson ( who were both loaded down with even more kit then we were carrying. It turns out that they are nature photographers who specialise in photography in America's National Parks. I want that job...

We bumped into them on and off during the day, lovely people and we hope to have the opportunity to bump into them again in the future. Spookily the Wimberly head (photo geek territory here) was designed in their house when an engineer friend of theirs designed something to hold Rob's kit without risk of his hand being crushed, very cool.

We completed the registration formalities in good time, giving us some free time which we used to wander around, spotting our first new species of the day, a Great-tailed Grackle:

Once the journey started (ten minutes late) we headed out onto the ocean and towards Santa Cruz. We've never really done a pelagic birding trip and I know this doesn't count as we were shuttling between land based locations but still... first new bird of the trip was this Thick-billed Murre:

About two-thirds of the way across we finally encountered some marine mammals, dolphins to be precise. The crew explained that these were the kind of dolphins likely to try and keep up with the boat, which provided some good photo opportunities:

They weren't wrong. Beautiful animals to watch and pound for pound they have greater brain capacity than humans...

Also on the trip out we saw Pigeon Guillemots and Brandt's Cormorant, two new species. The boat pulled into its first stop; as it approached the jetty these starfish were visible just above the water line:

Having dropped off the majority of the guests, taking a good twenty minutes, it became apparent that our day trip would end-up with us having around three and a half hours on Santa Cruz, which was disappointing. The waiting was also frustrating. We headed off to our stop, 'Prisoners', on Santa Cruz. A Brown Pelican flew by very close to the boat:

We passed a group of Surf Scoters, I'll never forget that bill:

We reached the jetty for our stop at 11:00am and got off the boat. We were asked to wait until our guide was ready to give us an orientation speech. We waited. First they had to unload the campers and supplies, etc. So Helen and I wandered down the jetty first to photograph this Western Gull:

And then to enjoy watching a displaying Raven, something we'd not witnessed before, and an amazing spectacle:
Magnificent bird. We were still waiting so decided to have an early lunch. Our group waited thirty minutes, by now feeling like 2nd class citizens compared to all the other groups who were going to have much more time on the Island and had been looked after first, this despite us all paying $48 a head.
Eventually we were invited to listen to the talk, at which point we were advised that the naturalist couldn't lead the walk (hence the wait) and that we had the fleet captain instead. He informed us that he had to follow the rules, those being that he was first in and last out of the nature conservancy area, with his mobile phone on as he couldn't turn it off. As if to emphasise the point it then rang, a further delay.
We decided to walk off at this point as the trip was descending into farce. A Black Phoebe was flycatching from the fence along the walk to the canyon:
Eventually the walk started though we let them get ahead of us. It was amazing how loud they were being, further diminishing our chances of seeing anything so we told them we would walk but significantly behind them, figuring this was our best chance.
As they headed on we got to see the number one target of the trip, an Island Scrub Jay:
This species of bird is only present on Santa Cruz Island, hence the precautions they take to protect the habitat for the species to survive. We were delighted.
Also in the shrubbery around the base of the canyon we spotted the local Island species of the Orange-Crowned Warbler:
and Ruby-crowned Kinglets:
Having given the group a good fifteen minutes head start and having not heard them for a couple of minutes we decided to strike off on the path. At this point it became clear how limited access is if you don't take the trail, literally 20 metres from the shore to the fence that you cannot pass without trespassing. So up the trail we went. We walked to the tenth way-point, seeing on the way, Spotted Towhee, more Orange-Crowned Warblers and Anna's Hummingbirds and one less common (for the Islands anyway) Allen's Hummingbird:
The Hummingbird display really is something:
As we had about ninety minutes left we turned around and walked back, to spend a little more time down at the lagoon, getting further views of the Island Scrub Jay and seeing both Killdeer and Spotted Sandpiper, which in winter plumage look very similar to the Common Sandpiper and had us confused at first.
We hung around the jetty for a bit as the time to depart approached and were treated by this sealion swimming alongside, then having a good look at us:

Before beaching himself to have a scratch in the sand on the shore:

It continued to watch us while we watched it:

Then it headed back out to the ocean, leaving a small group of humans smiling a lot :)
Also on the jetty, a pair of Mew Gulls:
The boat approached but as we were about to board the group that had set off on the trail called in to say they were running twenty minutes late. It turned out to be half an hour of waiting.... grrr....
We did have time to watch a flock of gulls further down the shore, spotting our first Heerman's Gull in amongst them, look for the darker gull with the pale head and red bill:

On boarding we were asked if we'd enjoyed ourselves. I was honest and said not really.
In truth we had enjoyed our own birding but didn't feel we got what we paid for or expected which was a nature/bird oriented trip and didn't want to just pass it off with a glib response. The leader looked taken aback as clearly the only response they ever get is 'good job'.

It turns out the gamble of telling the truth paid off...

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