Birder Interrupted, Ch. 29, Wishing for California Birds

Wishing for California Birds

The drive to California was indeed difficult. On the way were saguaro, sand, and Yuma, Arizona. My last remembrance of being in Yuma was while still licking my wound of disappointment from having to end my big birding tour of the country. It was late March 1963 when arriving on a Greyhound for a rest stop. It was especially hot that day as I stepped into the oven air. I was wearing a western style shirt, brand new cowboy boots and a straw western hat that my favorite uncle gave me. Who knew that the sunburst design on my boots was similar to the logo of my alma mater that the Smithsonian Institution later adopted. In the 1960s trip, I traveled hatless, mostly laced-up boots, jeans and t-shirts. I had suffered a bad case of self-pity when I knew the trip was over, and, feeling sorry for myself, decided to change my appearance. Pretty silly, but it seemed to work. The boots, sans several new heals and half-soles, got me through college and beyond. They now reside in the back of my closet, but receive a dusting and polishing now and then. As luck would have it, during the bus trip back to Oregon while wearing my boots, my trip list grew with window sightings of Prairie Falcon and Yellow-billed Magpie.

Another recollection of Yuma was years later when working with my friend and mentor Richard Banks on the taxonomy of Clapper Rails. I spent hours meticulously preparing specimens collected from the brackish marshes along the Colorado River. I was re-learning how to prepare study skins, and Roxie Laybourne was determined to teach me. Joining what she called her skinning class was a learning experience and badge of courage. When I, or any of the students, made mistakes, she would frequently and loudly announce the error, snatch up the unfinished specimen and show everyone how it is done. Everyone loved her for decades of teaching and friendship.

The lower Colorado and parts of the Imperial Valley had fostered a distinct subspecies Clapper Rail known since 1923 as Rallus longirostris yumanensis. The endangered subspecies range, the lower Colorado River, has rates of extinction and endangerment that are higher than anywhere on the continent. It is tough being a water bird in a region warring over water, and science was required to prove, again, that the subspecies was unique. The specimens, compared to others of the species, proved taxonomically different, something some people had hoped would be otherwise.

Linda and I did not stop to look for rails, and traveled west on Interstate 8 through the southern end of the Imperial Sand Dunes Bureau of Land Management Recreation and Wilderness Area. It took a while to realize that was where we were; when traveling 80 mph, it is hard to read nine words, not counting the “of” and “and” on the sign on the road. Too many words, to paraphrase Salieri when commenting on a note filled piece by Mozart. The mountains of sand, also known as the Algodones Dunes, sometimes rise as high as 300 feet, average five miles wide and extend 40 miles along the eastern edge of the Imperial Valley. BLM permits off-road vehicle drivers to play in a large part of the giant 118,000-acre sandbox. A lawsuit produced closure of 48,000 acres of the vast dunes to protect an endangered plant, a species of locoweed. I wondered how many plants and animals was ground to smithereens after my colleagues and I studied damage of off-road vehicles in the Mojave decades ago.

Strong blasts of wind blew the sand and us from side to side, as we pretended to be motoring across the Sahara. In several more westward miles, we slumped to El Centro for a welcome respite.


7 May 2005

A deep 12-hour restful sleep readied us for our next big day. We had lots of ground to cover before San Diego.

Leaving El Centro, we traveled east, picked up highway 111, drove north to Calipatria and west out-of-town. At the corner of Sperry and Eddins roads, just as Guy McCaskie told me, we found Ruddy Ground-Doves. We hurried back to Calipatria, partly to beat the clock and rising temperature and partly to find a restroom. Water is scarce in Calipatria and finding a used coffee department was becoming desperate. A women in a laundromat told Linda, in broken English, that she was welcome at her house. Finally, at a crowded store, relief was in sight. That is, it was possible behind a closed door where no one could see. Where is a bush when you need one? Certainly not near the Salton Sea.

Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge headquarters was closed. Our wish species there were Clark’s and Western grebes. During the 60s trip I saw plenty of Aechmophorus grebes, then under the singular name, Western Grebe. Because I could not be certain which species I saw during my 1962 journey across North America, I needed to see these birds again. We looked toward the lake, but if there was a grebe out there, I could not say. The water seemed miles away.

In 1963, I would have visited Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. Sonny Bono’s name was added in 1998, in recognition of his efforts to save the Salton Sea. The early 1960s was when it was realized that the salinity of the water had been increasing since the lake accidentally began in 1905. I would have taken a swim in 1963. I survived dunking in polluted Lake Erie, but now, in the Twenty-first Century, I would hesitate even wading in the Salton Sea. The salinity is now 25% greater than that of the Pacific. Soon it will be possible to walk on the water. The shallow sea, about 228 feet below sea level, receives too much water drained from farms and hydrated cow patties for my taste. The 500,000 acres watershed has resulted in flooding habitat in the refuge. In 1996, birds started dying from botulism. Presently there are plans to, and I quote, “restore” the lake. Meanwhile, thousands visit the stinky lake for boating, fishing, water-skiing and, of course, birding.

We were still looking for grebes and banking on a slim chance to find a disoriented Yellow-footed Gull or Blue-footed Booby. Our timing could not have been more imperfect; we were too early for most of our target species. We did find a few species new to our travels: sentinel Burrowing Owls stood along weedy edges of fields and a few Gull-billed Terns were picked from more loud Caspian Terns. Not willing to give up on the grebes, we drove to the road’s end at Obsidian Cove. Barren, hot and almost unearthly, Obsidian Cove was a place to melt away sunscreen. The one positive aspect of the visit was when we drove back to the main road. Half way there, we met a car. Our respective windows powered down enough for me to recognize that the driver of the car was Guy McCaskie. A few months earlier, when we talked on the phone, he said to call when we were in the region of the Salton Sea. No phoning necessary at the edge of the salty water, and no hot birds reported by the sage and pioneer of modern California birding. I thanked him for the doves near Calipatria and asked about grebes. He saw them in a pond but it was too far east. Linda and I had hurried from El Centro this morning, skipping Ramer Lake, a location on our itinerary for the grebes. Guy said it was a different lake. Haste had not made waste in this instance.

Linda and I were getting hotter by the minute, said goodbye to Guy, and negotiated our way south, then west, to Poe Road at the lonely south end of Salton Sea. A section of the refuge is west of the road. This was where we decided to eat lunch and it was where, for the first time today, we were rewarded by the infamous foul odor of the lake. Linda took it quite well. Lunch was ok, despite the smell. Birding was not good, but we tried getting closer to a flock of Western Sandpipers foraging in the simmering distance. Maybe something else was out there. Somehow, we managed to get too far into shorebird territory and sunk a couple of inches into a gray stinking mud that only a dog would love to roll in. The sun quickly baked the ooze to a crust that could be scrapped off our boots. A nearby Horned Lark erupted into song as we pulled away from our last attempt to bird Salton Sea.

During our whistle stops, we checked off a paltry 32 species out of 384. A refuge checklist I would have used in 1963 included only 239 species, my arrival would have been in May, and I probably would not have seen the boobies and Yellow-footed Gulls. If I had seen an Aechmophorus grebe, it would have been counted as a Western Grebe.

Finding the two species of these grebes now would have to wait until we reached the Pacific, and that was very soon.

First, we needed to traverse most of the breath of California. Anza-Borrego State Park was on the way, as was a chance at Le Conte’s Thrasher. The park, its 600,000 acres making it larger than some national parks, was daunting, beautiful and windy. Our attempts to find our target species at three different places came up thrasherless. About thirty minutes of searching for Lawrence’s Goldfinches at Tamarisk Grove was fruitless. We headed west, leaving Yaqui Pass Road, straddled California 78, crossed Lizard Wash and Plum Canyon, and on through beautiful green mountains and misty rain to Julian, a small remnant of a mining town. Beautiful Julian sits at about 4200 feet in elevation and 50 miles from San Diego, our destination for the night.

We had to move on, and pointed south, traversing part of the Cedar Fire, the largest in the history of California. Fires are generally named for some geographic point of origin; in this case, the inferno began near Cedar Creek Falls in October 2003. Before the fire was out, 280,278 acres burned and 2,820 buildings, including homes, were destroyed. Remarkably, a hunter, who claimed to have started the fire because he was lost, faces only 10 years in prison and $500,000 fine for a blaze costing $400 million in damages and 15 lives. In silence, we marched south through the funeral of blackened snags, gutted canyons and parks, skeletal buildings and dreamed homes turned to ash. The western shore of Cuyamaca Lake lay in cold heavy moisture hovering between fog and clouds. Wildflowers filled the bare ground with yellows and reds among the emerging green grass as a memorial to nearby Cuyamaca, a town that disappeared in the fire. It would take far more than 10 years before the landscape would look anything but burned to hell.

Merging on I-8 was almost a welcome scene. We stopped for gas at Alpine, where the proprietor related his fear when the fire threatened to burn the city. Not far beyond lay the metropolis of San Diego. I had not been there since 1967. Not wanting to be an officer, I first spent an inglorious time at boot camp and later attended a school to learn navigation. Typically, I did not see the world and my navigation skills were used to commute to the Pentagon and its offices. I did manage some weekend birding in San Diego once I completed my boot camp sentence. The end of the line for some of the city buses brought me my first California Thrasher and Black-chinned Hummingbird. California Gnatcatchers were subspecies of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers then, and thus were not on my radar. Tomorrow California Gnatcatchers would be a trophy species.

It was late, and our reservation at the south end of San Diego was held. Our trip list stood at only 337. We had about a week of West Coast birding to drive up our total. Tomorrow, we worried. It would be our first full day driving in legendary southern California traffic. Thus far, it was beginning to measure up to expectations of dread.

8 May

Phil Unitt  had earlier sent detailed instructions for finding Elegant Terns and California Gnatcatchers. Phil had also provided me, over many years, superb editorial advice on papers I wrote for Western Birds, the journal he edits for the Western Field Ornithologists. We once wrote separate papers on Willow Flycatchers. I recognized a subspecies he did not but that never frayed our relationship. Such is science and scientist, most of the time. Once I provided data showing why a subspecies that Allan Phillips named was not recognizable. In his later works, he followed my taxonomy, even proposed the name browningi for a vireo, and we remained friends to the end. On another occasion, I boldly pointed out to Ripley, then the Secretary of Smithsonian, that he had made a mistake in naming a southeastern Asian kingfisher. He corrected the error naming the subspecies of kingfisher browningi. However, there may be genuine and sometimes public differences among ornithologists and birders. Two that come to mind concern investigative methods in the Canadian Archipelago on Thayer‘s and other gulls and controversies surrounding recent Ivory-billed Woodpecker observations. Most of the time, we taxonomists get along famously, or at least attempt to bury any hatchets. Once I named a subspecies after a person since he brought to my attention some of the characters of the new taxon even though I did not particularly respect him.

Not far down the road from our motel, Phil Unitt related, was where we would see Elegant Terns. Not unlike my fantasy of Spotted Owls dripping from the trees in Scheelite Canyon, I had envisioned a chaotic swirling jumble of Elegant Terns churning the overhead sky. Instead, after driving a residential street, we parked, looked north toward the city, and saw nothing. Minutes ticked as Mother’s Day revelers walked, cycled and skateboarded along the trail between houses and marsh at the south end of South San Diego Bay. As a couple with children chortled by, I heard a raspy sound scratching the sky. A Caspian Tern raced in and out of view, but it was followed by a smaller and gentler call of our first Elegant Tern. The endangered Elegant Terns nests on protected dikes in the bay and breed only at four other sites in southern California and northwestern Mexico. Most of the population, 90 to 97% according the Audubon Society, breeds on Isla Mira, Mexico, where the terns are unprotected from egg harvesters, guano mining and other disruptive human visits. We were glad that the Elegant Terns we saw today had a chance of mothering their chicks.

Before leaving our vantage point, we found a Savannah Sparrow. Of course, we had seen Savannah Sparrows many times during the journey, but the sparrow in front of us looked different. It was not a typical Savannah Sparrow. It had a large bill, plain unmarked back, and was late for a very important date, the time it should be breeding in northwestern Mexico. The sparrow, twenty feet away, was either a distinct subspecies or a species. Missing was the familiarly thin “sip” or “seep” call of typical Savannah Sparrows. What we heard sounded similar to “zink,” ironically as if calling out the last name of Bob Zink, who along with three others presented mitochondrial DNA evidence showing the bird to be genetically distinct from other Savannah Sparrows. That was in 1991. If specifically distinct, the bird would probably be known as Large-billed Sparrow, but today the jury or the committee is still out.

We left the Elegant Terns, stilts and a singing Marsh Wren and drove north along the Silver Strand, sandy land between the bay and the Pacific Ocean. Weekenders were everywhere. We kept going and soon crossed the almost two-mile long Coronado Bay Bridge. I liked bridges in the 1960s and liked them today. However, in the Twenty-first Century, my tolerance for heights was not forgiving. This bridge, built in 1969, curved, had guardrails only 34 inches high, which was low enough to see water 200 feet below. My palms were sweaty. What happened between the virtual fearlessness where I experienced literal, not literary, cliffhangers? Hopefully, a bird would not fly by during the crossing. If one did, I would have to look, or would I?

We followed directions in our birding guide to the San Diego River and Shelter Island near the entrance of the Bay. People far outnumbered any birds we saw and parking was almost impossible. Nonetheless, we quickly picked up Western, California and Heerman’s gulls. Going south to Point Loma seemed pointless. What right-minded shorebird would be sharing sand with so many humans?

Somehow, we circled back to northbound I 5 and exited at La Jolla. I had birded the area during my Navy days, but for fear of theft from my fellow bunk mates, did my birding without benefit of optics. Today, I was well armed but the ocean sky was empty and the beaches clear of birds. Further up the beach, we witnessed hundreds of hang gliders jumping from the cliff and sailing up and down the shores. There were so many we expected to see a mid-air collision. From the cliff top, I scoped the horizon for an avian glimmer, but the view was interrupted by colorful gliders passing by. The wide flat beach below was heaving with unleashed dogs, bikinis, bare feet and surfboarders coming and going in the cool waves. A disheveled man, stomped from a pickup camper at the cliff top parking lot, ranted and cursed at the noisy throng of people and cars milling over his domain. Only yards away, a dark California Thrasher popped up, possibly to check out the racket. As luck would have it, and when we were about to leave, eight to ten Black Swifts flew south along the cliff. In an instant they disappeared, the man continued to gesture at the inflow of vehicles and we departed.

California Gnatcatchers were target birds at San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve, a California Department of Fish and Game sanctuary of 885 acres protecting fresh and salt marshes, riparian and coastal scrub and open water. More than 90% of coastal wetlands in California have been destroyed since 1850. Destruction of wetlands and other habitat greatly accelerated in the 1970s and 1980s when California‘s population grew twice as fast as that of the rest of the country. San Diego has gone from the round figure of 573,000 people in 1960 to 1,223,000 in 2000. Los Angeles proper grew by only a million in the same time frame. Only a million? The LA metropolitan area, hundreds of square miles, is now around 17 million humans. Add up the cats and dogs and there is little room for birds.

We were grateful that the lagoon was protected from urban blight, and hopeful that we would find California Gnatcatchers. We hiked from a parking area adjacent to expensive looking houses down into the reserve. The trail descends a steep hillside to the gentler slopes of the west basin of the lagoon. The habitat looked perfect and an uniformed warden walking back up the trail told us she had heard them today. We hiked, listened, hiked and search to no avail. Our San Elijo list included first Hermit Thrush and Wrentit for the trip, but no gnatcatchers. Bushtits kept us alert to the point of being annoying. They became the nemesis species on this hunt. Our last-minute ace was what the warden told us as she was walking away. “They’re near the office across the lagoon.” Back on I-5, we did the quarter-mile to the next exit in record time. In 15 minutes, the office gate would be locked. We hurried more. The path split. Linda struck out to the right; l took the lower path around a set of bushes. Linda, in classic fashion, spotted the quarry, or at least I thought so by her anxious if not demanding come-hither gestures. A small, dark gnatcatcher flicked its wings and was out of sight. We stalked, and I soon was afforded a full California Gnatcatcher vista.

Onward and northward, we were followed and pushed forward by the evening traffic toward mighty Los Angeles. We left the madding, crowd, ignoble or not, for a peaceful night in Temecula. Our modern motel was within earshot of the interstate that throbbed for hours as if a giant artery with vehicular sized cells grinding down a cholesterol choked tube.


Birding often brings surprises. The surprise in San Diego was what appeared to be a Large-billed Savannah Sparrow, a bird I had seen back in the late1960s while serving in the Navy. By then, I had dabbled with subspecies of Savannah Sparrows. I was happy to see the large-billed birds. The surprise sparrow this May Day should not have been there. Philip Unitt emailed me later that nonbreeding Large-bills occur in San Diego from 8 August to 10 March. Unfortunately, we were not able to take a picture, and no one was around to confirm our unusual sighting. Could the bird have been a subspecies other than prostrates, the Large-billed bird? During my museum days, I was always reluctant to believe sight records of subspecies. However, rostratus differs sufficiently from the other subspecies to permit field identifications. Nonetheless, studying thousands of specimens of different species has taught me that individual variation may make many field identifications impossible and render some identifications of specimens difficult. Many years ago,

John DuPont and I laughed at the difficulties one might encounter in sorting out the taxonomy of the subspecies of Yellowthroats and Savannah Sparrows. Neither one of us wanted to wrestle with such a task. The question remains, did Linda and I see an unseasonable Large-billed Savannah Sparrow or an extreme version of some other subspecies? The sparrow today certainly resembled birds I witnessed during the 1967 winter in San Diego. Without collaborating evidence, the jury is still out.

9 May

We waited for the Monday morning rush hour vehicles to flush from the scene before embarking on our ride to La Cañada Flintridge north of Los Angeles. Unfortunately, getting there meant three different interstates to take, hundreds of exits not to take, thousands of drivers to avoid and millions of frazzled nerves to sooth. I could hear Johny Carson giving directions to the fork in the road. Linda warned, “We better not be going to downtown LA!” I could not agree more. If there was a bird along the way, we did not dare to see it. Miraculously, we kept up with the 70 to 80 mph flow and turned north on California Highway 2 to the San Gabriel Mountains.

Just north of La Cañada Flintridge a dump truck was blocking the road. The driver sat motionless. I got out, fearing that the road was closed, but hoping that it was a momentary delay. I was told it would be a few minutes and returned to the car to wait. A fine mist had begun to drift down with the cool mountain air. Finally, the trucker motioned us around the truck, and in less than a mile, we had ascended from the inferno into something utterly delightful. The San Gabriel Mountains were not on my 1960s itinerary, but I might have changed my mind when I saw them. Actually, the first time I saw the range was in 1953 at age seven when I did not know the difference between a sparrow and a dove, but the mountains had a power about them even then. I saw them again in the late 1960s during my Navy daze; I bused up from San Diego to see Everett Dirksen in the Rose Parade. Of course, I saw the San Gabriel Mountains on the weekly episodes of “LA Law,” but I did not see the range today. When it might have been possible, I did not dare risk the glance. It would have been a moot peek since the mountains were completely enveloped by a shroud of clouds. Now, we were in them, driving up the winding two-lane path in visibility less than perfect.

Leaving the main road, we turned down a steep paved lane to Switzer Picnic Area at 3300 feet in an oak, alder and sycamore canyon where the mist evolved to a cold steady rain. Our first Oak Titmouse for the trip called over the water falling from the sky and down the narrow rocky creek. Dark-eyed Juncos picked at something on the only dry ground under the umbrella of a leafy sycamore.

Black-chinned Sparrows, Pygmy Nuthatches and others missing from our trip list now were on the must see in California wish-list.  Hiking the trail from Red Box Station might have helped fill in a gap or two but the fog, cold drizzle and time, really our greatest nemesis, dictated us to move on. We passed Charlton Flats and slowly meandered to Chilao Visitors Center. At 5200 feet, the air was cooler, and it had stopped raining. The center was closed; the only sign of people was someone in a forest service pickup left abruptly. Perhaps one day after the weekend was not enough time to decompress. We had the place to ourselves, ate lunch and searched the area for birds. Red Crossbills, possibly ten, paraded from one tree to another. This is a bird, at least in my experience, which belonged not to rare, occasional, or uncommon, but serendipitous. Having crossbills aligning with my birding effort was an astrological event. White-headed Woodpeckers, I had been told, were easy to find at the centers’ feeders, but the feeders were picked clean. An Empidonax flycatcher stopped on its way into the fog long enough to for a glimpse but not long enough to sing.

We could have driven up the mountain highway to the snow, but the dark weather persuaded us to start our return to Los Angeles. A stop at Charlton Flat Picnic Area held promise, but when we pulled into the deserted parking lot a thick bank of fog began to envelope the area. A loud and hard taping broke the silence. We followed the sound into the fog-shrouded branches of a conifer a mere 20 feet above our peering eyes. Visibility at first revealed only size. Color and pattern were impossible to discern until a weak breeze swirled the translucent fog that revealed a White-headed Woodpecker. Then, taping on a different limb, ever so quietly, drew our attention to a different woodpecker. By straining, whipping, and rewhipping the moisture from our binoculars we could see that the two birds, both White-headed Woodpeckers, were male and female. We strolled around the picnic area enjoying the solitude. Only six cars and four rangers were seen during our journey in the San Gabriel Mountains. The cool air was quiet, clean and peaceful. On the way down, the fog became thinner and disappeared, the tires singing on the wet pavement sounded dry again, and the acceleration lane took us back to millions of people careening down the highways.

Ventura was just ahead, but we had entered rush hour traffic. I called up all my best rush hour moves learned repeatedly during the days treading pavement from the museum in Washington, D.C. to Arlington, Virginia. A gull, a starling and a crow drifted in and out of my peripheral vision as I kept vigil on bumpers, signal light and lack thereof, road signs, and the exit lane to Ventura.

10 May

After an early-microwaved breakfast, we headed south of the harbor and Island Packers, a company whose boat would take us to Santa Cruz Island, largest of the five main islands in the 249, 353-acre Channel Islands National Park. Because we had passed the entrance to the harbor, we were worried about being late. Luckily, there was ample time before joining the crowd on the 60+foot catamaran. There were four groups of people on the 20-mile cruise. First, was a cheery crew working to keep everyone happy and safe. Second was a small gathering of women who were docents for the Nature Conservancy and would spend the night on the island. The third group was a larger mix of excited women and men tourist from Poland. The fourth group was Linda and I, the only birders on the trip. As we roared from the harbor I did discover some of the crew, although not laden with binoculars and field guides, knew their birds. Dave, called out the few seabirds as we came to them once we were over deeper water. Sooty and Pink-footed shearwaters glided low over the waves on stiff narrow wing, occasionally dipping into the water and drifting away at our approach. Dave identified a tight flock of Red-necked Phalaropes rocketing north. Later, another flock was close enough for me to identify. Alcids splashed from the surface and, with stubby wings, whirred away. Dave called them out, but I was not comfortable about names until the second group we encountered. Cassin’s Auklet were familiar birds, a species encountered in the mid-1960s when Bill English, a classmate, and I surveyed birds breeding on coastal islands of Oregon. The white-throated Xantus’s Murrelet was a life birds.

A few white caps and the boat bouncing and pounding the water also punctuated the ride across the channel. Linda and I were determined to stay out on deck. We stood sideways on the port side adjacent to the wheelhouse. The up and down motion required one hand on the rail and the birds required one hand on the binoculars. The method of not going sailing into the air or hitting the deck was similar to riding a bucking horse sans binoculars. About every fourth or fifth trough and wave was large enough to smack the bottom of the boat loudly then send water over the bow. Most of the time the shelter from the wheelhouse prevented being drenched.

The first stop on Santa Cruz Island was at Scorpion Cove in the eastern National Park end, where the Polish contingency went ashore. The island is 24 miles long and about 6 miles wide, or, as the park service equates, it is nearly three times larger than Manhattan. The Nature Conservancy owns 46,000 acres; the Park Service administers the remainder of the 60,645-acre island. Although we were on the island to see the Island Scrub-Jay, we kept our eye out for any of the four endemic mammals. The island has 1,000 species of plants, with varying habitats from sea level to its 2,400-foot summit, geological and archaeological wealth ranging from the igneous and sedimentary rocks, and evidence of Indians dating from 10,000 years ago to adobe ranch houses built in the 1900s. Although most of the Channel Islands were protected, first as a national monument in 1938 that became a national park in 1980, private ownership of Santa Cruz Island remained in effect from 1839 to 1985. Privatization, mainly in the form of sheep, cattle and wine endeavors left the island with introduced plants, feral pigs and sheep. The pigs have rooted up and eaten many plant thus reducing foliage cover for native animals including the tiny domestic cat-sized fox. The pigs have attracted Golden Eagles that now forage on the pigs and the foxes. There are ongoing efforts to root out and eradicate the pigs.

The rest of the boatload cruised about eight miles west to Prisoners’ Cove at the boundary between the park and Nature Conservancy properties. While the crew unloaded the docents’ overnight luggage and huge ice chests, Linda and I walked to the end of the dock. We were soon joined by Katey, a member of the crew who gave us directions to the trail to Pelican Bay. Jays had been seen along the trail, but we did not have to go past the restrooms a few yards from the dock. The birds, large and deep blue counterparts to the Western-Scrub Jay on the mainland, were tame beautiful beggars. The voice of Island Scrub-Jay is hoarse. We found more jays in a wooded canyon about half way to Pelican Bay, but these birds were more secretive. We looked for other species with breeding ranges confined to the islands of southwestern California including a subspecies of Horned Lark appropriately named insularis and a subspecies of Loggerhead Shrike, Rufous-crowned and Song sparrows. Even a subspecies of California Quail unique to the Channel Islands was introduced to Santa Cruz. Three subspecies of Bewick’s Wrens bred on the southwestern islands, possibly including one on Santa Cruz Island. Of the other subspecies of the wren, one is now extinct, and the other, along with the Santa Cruz subspecies may be recognizable. That is, in a study by Amadeo Rea published in Allan Phillips’ volume one of “Known Birds” in 1986, the specimens of the two subspecies appeared similar to a mainland subspecies. Although Orange-crowned Warbler, Spotted Towhee and House Finch have subspecies breeding in the Channel Islands, the subspecies of the three species breeding on Santa Cruz Island also breed on the mainland.

The Island Scrub-Jay is presently the only species with a breeding range limited exclusively to the southwestern California Islands where it is found only on Santa Cruz Island. Birds entering our field notes during our hike to Pelican Bay as Pacific-slope Flycatcher may be the next island species. It differs genetically and I thought it sounded different from the mainland birds. Can we add Channel Islands Flycatcher? Maybe someday.

We hiked toward Pelican Bay until it seemed there would not be enough time to be at the pier for the trip back to Ventura Harbor. A hummingbird was buzzing in and out of our mind. Following Katey’s suggestion that Allen’s Hummingbirds should be near the trailhead, we found a few spent agaves and waited. Leaning up against a fence in the shade of a eucalyptus made a comfortable hide. By the time the docents started to come down the steep trail, a hummingbird darted around the dried flowers of the agave. It steered to and fro with a rufous tail, flashed a brilliant orange-red throat, and identified itself with its shining green back. Trip hummingbird number 13 was also trip species number 374.

Back at the pier, we waited as park service staff unloaded more equipment from the boat. That gave us time to get our notes written and have a much-needed water, peanut butter and cheese snack. Linda and I waved good-bye to the docents and boarded as the sole passengers of the cruise until we picked up the Polish tour group at Scorpion Cove. They boarded quietly, looking tired and ready to depart. A pair of Surf Scoters, number 375, swam a few yards from the shore. The trip back to the mainland was speeded by a tail wind. Linda and I stood on the blustery deck of the afternoon sun. Hanging on was not as difficult during the smoother ride east allowing a few jerky looks at more Xantus‘s Auklets and shearwaters. During the slowed approach as we entered the harbor, I spotted a few Surfbirds foraging. They were number 376.

Linda and I waited for the boat to dock, and admired each other’s wind and sunburned faces. We smiled, thanked the crew and climbed up the pier to our waiting car. The western sun was behind Santa Cruz Island. As with so many places we had been, we missed being there the minute we left.

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