|Somewhere over New Mexico|
To escape part of the winter in Detroit, we had made plans to escape to California, and on Friday, February 1 we took a flight to Los Angeles. Our flight departed late due to extensive de-icing needed, as well as a push-back truck that couldn't get any traction. As a result, our 50 minute layover in Dallas turned into 10 minutes. Luckily we made it, and so did our luggage. Once on the ground, we got through baggage claim and car rental very quickly, and were on the road to Ventura where we spent the night.
On Saturday, February 2 our objective was simple. Take a boat trip over to Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands National Park. The target bird species was the Island Scrub-Jay, which was split from the mainland Western Scrub-Jay a few years ago and so it an endemic species to California. A second target was to try and see Black-vented Shearwaters on the two-hour crossing to and from the island. The tour left on time at 9 a.m. with about 60+ people on board. Luckily, most of them were getting off at the first stop on the eastern end of the island at Scorpion Bay. We would ride another 30 minutes to the north-central portion of the island at Prisoner's Harbor where the jays (perhaps down to as few as 2000) were much easier to find.
|Santa Cruz Island|
It didn't take long and the shearwaters were seen, with greatest numbers fairly close to the island.
A bonus, seen on the short "hop" from Scorpion to Prisoner's was a pod of Gray Whales.
|Gray Whale tail flukes|
We had about 3 hours on the island to either explore on our own, or take a guided tour of the natural history on a trail open only to those accompanied by a guide. We opted to go it alone, and enjoyed the scenery and plants (especially Giant Coreopsis which was just starting to bloom). But after an hour and a half, we had seen nor heard any sign of scrub-jays, and we were beginning to think we'd made the wrong decision. But then two of them appeared and were easy to see and photograph, and another pair was around the periphery of the landing site.
The Island Scrub-Jay is larger and brighter than the mainland Western Scrub-Jays. Another bonus mammal was the endemic Island Fox, which made an appearance only minutes before we had to depart the island.
We eventually had to leave, and on our way back to Scorpion Bay to pick up the others we had fun playing with a group of at least 500 Common Dolphins.
On Sunday, February 3, while the locals were preparing for some football game, we had three main objectives. The first was to try and find a Pacific Golden-Plover. Not a life bird for us, as we'd seen a ton of them in Hawaii, it would be a new California species. The areas around Santa Maria are touted as being productive, but we failed to find one there. Instead, when we were coming back from a shoreline site, the Guadeloupe Dunes Natural Area, where Snowy Plovers nest later in the year, we found two of them in a small park (football field) in the town of Guadeloupe.
|Snowy Plover crossing sign|
Another objective was to visit a park near Los Alamos (no, not the one in New Mexico!) where the guidebooks indicated there would be "tame" Yellow-billed Magpies. We had seen the species before, but not as many or as well as we would have liked. This was a photo site, but the magpies would not come down out of the tops of the Live Oaks while we walked around (and saw lots of other birds).
But when we got back into the car, they came down and were easy to photograph using the vehicle as a blind.
Our third objective was actually intended to be tomorrow, at Pacific Grove near Monterey, but we just stumbled upon what is actually the largest winter roost of Monarch butterflies in California, at Pismo Beach. Photography was difficult, but I did manage a couple photos that show both the dangling masses of butterflies...
|Monarch Butterflies at winter roost|
And showing how densely packed they are on the branches of these trees (mostly non-native Eucalyptus).
|Monarch Butterflies at winter roost.|
On Monday, February 4, after getting breakfast at a local 7-11 and determining the outcome of last night's football game by the grumpy disposition of the locals, we headed up the Pacific Coast through the Big Sur area, which is very scenic but has some interesting natural history highlights. We had been seeing lots of gulls, and fortunately most were fairly straightforward to identify. That will change as we get farther north. Commonest was Western Gull, which were mostly in full breeding plumage already.
|Adult Western Gull|
Next most common was California Gull, with many in breeding plumage but a fair number still with winter head streaking.
|Adult California Gull|
There were a few Heermann's Gulls around, with a few nice adults in breeding plumage. But unfortunately none of those were approachable for photos, so the more numerous immatures (first winters?) had to do for photos...so far.
|Immature Heermann's Gull|
And only when we got to the northern portions of Big Sur, we started seeing Glaucous-winged Gulls in small numbers.
|Adult Glaucous-winged Gull|
We were considering taking a fairly lengthy hike at Ano Nuevo Nature Reserve tomorrow to see Northern Elephant Seals, but found information about another rookery near the (closed) Piedras Blanca lighthouse. This turned out to be much better, as the seals were down on the beach only about 15 yards away! There were lots of females and pups, and a few aggressive bulls that provided a ton of photo opportunities. To really appreciate it though, the videos I took with the raucous sounds, should be viewed but that will have to wait until we get home and I can convert the video to web friendly versions.
|Northern Elephant Seals|
Several White-tailed Kites were seen today. This one was near the Elephant Seal rookery. I think I'm starting to get the hang of this camera and lens, more than a year after I got them.
And one of our last stops was near Moss Landing where there were tons of shorebirds, mainly the larger ones including Long-billed Curlews, Marbled Godwits, and Willets. But it was the congregation of 39 Sea Otters just offshore of the parking area around the back of the harbor that we found most photogenic.
And they were quite close...
The next entry to this blog will cover a few days along the "redwood" coast, one of our favorite areas.