Monday, January 26, 2015

Day 5 - Prisoners at Scorpion

This birding thing is really weird.

Let’s take the story of the Island Scrub Jay.  For a very long time Island Scrub Jays have been….well, scrub jayying on the Channel Islands (located just 20 miles off of the shore of Ventura, California).  A national monument beginning in 1938, this island group is now a National Park (as of 1980).  Who owns the property is of no concern to the jays as they jay their day away.    Interestingly, they don’t even know they recently became a new species of bird.

A few years ago, scientists demonstrated that the scrub jays on the island are so different than the mainland counterparts that they should be their own species.  Ta-dah. The Island Scrub Jay is born (even though they never died). More to the point, birders across the country suddenly give a damn because now they have a new species to check off their list.  (As a side note, this “splitting”of species has an evil twin – “lumping”.  Birders cry into their beers as a lump of two similar species into one species results in a lost check mark).

So, in the last few years, a significant amount of birder traffic heading to the Channel Islands has been recorded.  Naturalist-led tours even help you find this bird once you get to the island.

Our plan?  Get to Santa Cruz Island and find the Scrub Jay.

The island is not uniform.   The areas around the two dockages are completely different.  For whatever reason, the jays prefer the land around Prisoners while they generally dislike Scorpion.  All accounts tell you to get to Prisoners.  If you land at Scorpion, you need to hike no less than 6 miles to eve stand a chance.    

You know where this is going now, don’t you?

Come sunrise, with the light to my back, I killed some time before the 9am departure with photography. The sandy beaches and rocky jetties of the harbor made for some spectacular birding. Black Turnstone, Marbled Godwit, and Surfbird were the attention getters. Brown Pelican? Yeah, them too.  Natalie, feeling a bit icky, stayed in the car. 


The attendant in the office cautioned us of potentially rough seas. They declared 2 to 4 foot swells at 8 second intervals. I say nay.  1,000-2,000 foot swells at 2 second intervals was more like it.  Okay, it was not that bad, but it sucked.  Any hopes for ocean birds were completely lost.  The swells obscured vision. When we did see birds, they were too far out for these land lubbers to identify.  On a brighter note, the dolphins following in our wake were neat to see.

More seriously, vomit was flying everywhere.  Fortunately, Nat and I kept our breakfast down, but others did not.  By the end of the 1-hour ride, no less than 10 people were burping bile and bagels.  The crew did an extraordinary job of making these poor souls as comfortable as possible.

I’ll never forget this one woman.  Take a paper lunch bag and hold it in your hand so you can fill it with air and pop it. Remember that from the school lunchroom?  Now, pretend you are sitting in an office chair. With the right hand holding the bag near your mouth to catch flying fluids, grab the arm of your office chair with your left hand. Clench tightly and don’t move – not a single muscle in your entire body - for one hour. Don’t forget the green part. Yes, be sure to add the green skin tones.  That poor, poor, poor woman.

Not soon enough for some, we made it to Prisoners.  Disembarking with our gear, we looked for our tour group.  Woah, I thought – that’s a lot of people looking for the scrub jay!  50 at least? Cool!  Except that wasn’t our tour. Oh, it’s this other group around the bend! 

Nope it’s not them either. 

A friendly conversation with a Park Employee set us straight.

We got off at the wrong dock.  With no way to call the boat back (they were long gone), and no way to cover 6 miles of hiking at breakneck speeds with minimal gear, we were stuck on the wrong part of the island.

We were prisoners at Scorpion. 

Now, we are not pointing fingers here but let me be clear.  I had been planning this expedition for months.  I had researched the mission and I knew what was happening and what was expected .  But nowhere – NOWHERE – did ANYONE tell me that the boat makes two stops on the same run.  I had repeatedly asked folks to confirm that this is the boat to Prisoners.  You bet it was.  But what was not mentioned – ever – was the idea that Prisoners was the second stop. We had no reason to believe there was second stop. We thought that two dockages were run on two different schedules. In hindsight, maybe they said something over the loudspeakers, but with diesel engines and wretching people, nothing could be understood. 

Making lemonade out of lemons, as the saying goes, we enjoyed Santa Cruz Island for what it had to offer.  Beautiful hikes, neat birds including more Varied Thrushes, a Peregrine Falcon, and the Ravens who were looking for a lunch handout (we did not oblige).  I have never been so close to a Loggerhead Shrike. Realistically, I never will be again. 

Perhaps the coolest observation of day involved the Island Fox.  Found only on the Channel Islands, these portly gray fox lookalikes are amazing. How they were not cleared out during the centuries of human habitation (as limited as it was) is just beyond me. Natalie described them best - they act like fat squirrels in a city park or college campus.  They simply don’t care about your business as they go about their’s.  I literally had one walk inches from me without a care in the world.  I can tell you, however,  that a sudden and explosive sneeze will send them running. Oops.  


With the daylight waning, it was time for the vomit parade to commence. Except it didn’t.  The light winds, now to our back, basically pushed us along as we crested the waves like a surfer. Granted, the spray was much more intense than expected, I’ll take that over puking any day. At least you can find a place a hide.  The previously mentioned woman was even enjoying herself. Her smile said it all – “This is fun!”  I guess she just as easily could have been happy for another reason – “I’m not puking!  I’m not puking!”

With the better conditions, came the better birding.  BLACK-VENTED SHEARWATERS (life bird #667) were everywhere.  A Marbled Murrelet shot by on the port side.  Sadly, Nat was starboard and missed it. She, however, scored the Rhinoceros Auklet.  One of the endearing memories of this adventure will be watching a shearwater spirally-slice his way behind the back of the boat against the orange sky above the islands. Awesome.

With daylight gone, it was time to celebrate.  Not far from our hotel was the Poseidon Brewing Company.  Like many other breweries in the region, they opt out on food.  All of their efforts go to beer, not chow.  You are, however, more than welcome to bring food to brewery.

While the location was a bit odd (an industrial-like place outside of town), the beer really was not that bad. First, they named the beers with a theme.  It is a pet-peeve of mine when places are not crafty with names. Given the nautical feel of the region, the Shallow Water Black Stout and Red Beard Red IPA were perfectly named and well done.  The Poker’s Porter (named after the brewery’s dog) was good, too, but the best of the night was clearly Jack Brown Brown Ale.  I can’t recall who Jack is (or was…) but I do know this beer completely rocks. Smooth and malty, this beer easily scored  a five. Damn good.   

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