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SERENDIPITY AND THE ISLAND SCRUB JAYS

February 5, 2013

SERENDIPITY AND THE ISLAND SCRUB JAYS

I’ve written several times about our first trip “Out West” in our new Roadtrek RV in 1998 (“I’ve Got the Bird!”, Feb. 6, 2012 and “Rare Bird in British Columbia”, Sept 6, 2012). I was reminded again of that huge journey this past weekend when we finally sold the Roadtrek, planning for future adventures in something larger – like a rolling, efficiency apartment. We sure did like that Roadtrek, and it took us to some wonderful places in this country, and we’ll miss it. On that 1998 trip alone, we traveled 45 days and covered 11,000 miles

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At that point in our birding careers, Phil was ahead of me on his North American Life List at a total of 612 birds seen, with me hot on his trail at 607, and it would be tough to catch up with him, much less pass him – which was my personal goal! (Someday, I’ll share a poem he wrote when we were first birding together entitled, “The Lister”.) On this trip our “Lust List” – birds we passionately wanted to see – included the LeConte’s Thrasher (see “I’ve Got the Bird!”, Mountain Quail – the cute birds that have 2 feathers sticking straight up out of the tops of their heads, Chukars – another “chicken-like” bird that was introduced into the U.S. as a game bird, and some pelagic birds we would have to go far out into the Pacific Ocean to see.

No matter how far ahead we plan our bird adventures, and how detailed our itinerary is, there is one among us who persists in heading off in serendipitous directions at a moment’s notice. Our motto has to be: “Just try to be flexible, would you?” For example, during one of our trips to the UK (future blog), Phil said, “We need to go to the Outer Hebrides tomorrow.” And our daughter, Jennifer, and I said, “What is the Outer Hebrides?” And we went!

So after we bagged the LeConte’s Thrasher on this trip, we whiled away our time, wandering here and there back toward the coast. The plan at that point was to head north to San Francisco, where in a few days we would pick up Jennifer, who had decided she didn’t want to be left out of this adventure and took a few days off her job in Orlando to join us.

We studied the map and our bird guide books, and Phil said, “Let’s try for the Island Scrub Jays!” This was a new species that had recently been separated from the other scrub jays – and that lives only on Santa Cruz Island, 20 miles offshore of Ventura in the Channel Islands National Park. The first thing we had to do was to find out if and how we could get out there. I thought, “This is just like the Outer Hebrides!” Enroute, I called Island Packers, an educational, recreational and research company (mentioned in one of our guide books) to see if they had a boat trip out to the Island the next day. And they did! And there were spaces available for us! Yippee! We drove to the nearby Channel Islands National Park visitor center to get further information, then checked with Island Packers and learned that their boat would leave at 8:30am the next morning from the dock in Oxnard – a bit south of Ventura. So we put our names on their list and drove to Oxnard to check into a motel near the docks. Since there are limited facilities on the island, we stocked up on lunch makings, had a seafood dinner overlooking the Pacific, and went to bed early.

We were up early the next morning, put together our picnic lunches, and were off to meet the boat. The trip was pleasant – seas not too rough – and we spent the one-hour journey doing what we usually do on an ocean boat trip – watch for sea birds and cetaceans. We saw Sooty Shearwaters, Brandt’s Cormorants, a Pink-footed Shearwater, Pigeon Guillemots and Heerman’s Gulls along the way, but no cetaceans. When we approached the island, a small skiff was launched and we rode into the beach and were deposited with our backpacks for our several-hour stay.

The Channel Islands National Park consists of 5 islands, volcanic in origin, and are maintained by both the National Park System and The Nature Conservancy. Santa Cruz Island is the largest, 96 square miles, with rugged mountain peaks up to 2400 feet high. Like the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador, evolution has occurred for millions of years in isolation, and as a result there are over 140 plant and animal species living there that occur nowhere else in the world. There is evidence that human habitation existed on Santa Cruz Island for over 13,000 years before the Spanish arrived in 1542.

We had only a limited amount of time to find the jays before our boat would return for us, so we skedaddled uphill on a trail we had read about that would lead us up a dry, rocky wash, which turned out to be more like a ravine. There had been 14 inches of rain that flooded down the ravine during the previous winter, so there were many boulders and rocks scattered everywhere, which we had to climb over and around to get higher up into the canyon. It took us about an hour to hike up until we finally reached a stand of oak trees, which is where the jays were supposed to hang out and eat acorns. And there they were, waiting for us, right where they were supposed to be.

Island Scrub Jay by Tim Hauf

Island Scrub Jay by Tim Hauf

The Island Scrub Jays are very similar in appearance to our Florida Scrub Jays, but darker and a bit larger, but a new bird, nonetheless! We climbed even higher and ate our lunch under one of the oaks and saw even more jays. We were very pleased, and hating to leave, wandered slowly back down the ravine and relaxed on the beach until 3pm when our boat returned to retrieve us.
On our way back to the docks, we were at our usual post – hanging over the bow – hoping for cetaceans, but no luck – only a few sea lions. One of the great joys of birding is talking to other birders. We got acquainted on the boat with a British couple from Nottinghamshire who were in California birding for 3 weeks, and had been camping on the island. They were very excited to hear about our LeConte’s Thrasher find, so we gave them details on its location, and when the boat docked, we gave them a ride back to their car in Ventura. We enjoyed lots of bird talk with them, discussing where they would go to continue their trip, hitting many of the same spots we would, using the same guidebooks, so as frequently happens, we would probably run into them again. They were trying to get on the pelagic trip out of Bodega Bay – one we had had reservations with for several months. (Story to come.) Weeks later, after we were home, we got a card from them reporting that they had found “our” LeConte’s Thrasher and expressing their gratitude.
After dinner, lolling in the motel Jacuzzi, we thought over all the things we had seen on that serendipitous day and wondered what we would do the next day!

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2 Comments
  1. jan bloom permalink

    I’m tired after reading about your trek which sounds earth-shattering, but where are all the art museums, all the Rembrandt and the J.A.D. Ingres and the J.M.W. Turner paintings? That’s what a real holiday is all about! Seriously, though, Ann, I still remember what great fun it was sloshing through the wetlands with you and camping and hiking in the mountains. I don’t think that walking three miles every day would prepare me for the rigorous schedule you and Phil endure on your trips–you must be in great shape. I can’t wait to hear about your recent journey to Ecuador.
    Jan

    • We just can’t seem to find them out in the “bush”, but we keep looking. Just got back from Ecuador and had a great trip.
      I’m composing my blog journal report now! But, sad to say, we didn’t find any museums.
      Keep reading!
      Hugs, Ann

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