Picture of the week

Feb 5, 2017

Santa Cruz Island

Santa Cruz Island

Arriving at Scorpion Harbor of Santa Cruz Island.  This is one of the Channel Islands located about 20 miles off shore west of Ventura, California.   I camped there and explored the island via various hiking trails with three friends (Tucker, John, and Randy) last week after being dropped off by boat at this harbor.   The eastern third of the island is a national park (where we camped), while the western portion is owned by the Nature Conservancy and only accessible by special permission.  These islands have quite a history and have been a sanctuary for certain species that are found nowhere else on the planet.  The pristine nature of this land and careful management to minimize further introduction of invasive species is reminiscent of Galapagos off the coast of Ecuador.  The scenic beauty of this island during the late winter and spring is also surprising, with breathtaking views along some of the trails that follow along the top of the cliffs overlooking the Pacific.

Ahead of the boat trip out, we spent the previous day exploring the Ventura region, including the harbor.  While there, a couple of tall ships were also present, with one going out for an evening cruise (see the first two images).  The boat ride to and from the island was also quite scenic, seeing a number of birds such as common murres and rhinocerous auklets, along with hundreds of bottlenose dolphins, and a few gray whales.  I was impressed by the efficiency and comfort of the boat service run by Island Packers, taking about 1 hour and 15 minutes from Ventura Harbor to the Scorpion Anchorage.  During the warmer season, this boat service is popular, so reservations a few weeks ahead of time are a must.

With this particular visit we had changeable weather, with a mix of rain, clouds, and blue skies.  This ended up being quite favorable for photography, but taxed our gear, given the wetness and mud.  Given the amount of rain that has been hitting the California coast this year, the Channel Islands picked up a lot of precipitation.  Based on the amount of mud and debris strewn about, our campsite closer to the normally dry creek looked like a flash flood had passed through it a couple of weeks earlier.

One of my other goals while on this island was to photograph some of the endemic species such as the island fox and island scrub jay.  To aid with this, I brought along my  Canon EF 100-400L f/4.5-5.6 mk2 lens and ligher weight cropped sensor 70D camera body.

The island fox was almost being driven to extinction by golden eagles, after an earlier die-off of bald eagles by DDT poisoning during the 60's and 70's that tended to keep their brethen away.  With the park service trapping and relocating all the golden eagles off the island, and with the reintroduction of the bald eagles that do not hunt the fox, the island fox population has rebounded.  I found these foxes quite tame and plentiful nearer the campground and visitor center, where unfortunately they have learned to be a bit too habituated by humans that may be illegally feeding or in general not guarding their food.  As an example, after eating dinner at our campsite and during the cleanup after nightfall, we noted a fox had jumped up on our picnic table within a few minutes of temporarily stepping away.  So without proper precautions, it is easy to lose your meal and go hungry to one of these cute, by sly animals. In a separate situation while busy capturing some landscape images, a fox walked up the hiking trail between myself and John, not seeming bothered in the least about our presence.

The island scrub jay was harder to find and photograph, as they tend to be concentrated in the more oak studded terrain near Prisoner Harbor, close to 10 miles away.  But following up on a tip, we got lucky while taking a loop hike from the Smuggler's Cove trail down Scorpion Canyon, spying one that landed on top of a nearby toyon bush adjacent to a small grouping of oaks near the top of the canyon.  This bird and its partner hiding nearby ended up being the only sighting the entire trip, and lasting less than 60 seconds. It was fortuituous to have my 100-400mm telephoto lens ready to get some reasonable shots.  I also got lucky with some captures of a fairly elusive loggerhead shrike?.  From the image the hooked bill looks more like that of a northern shrike, but according to the NPS birding list of the Channel Islands, only the subspecies of the loggerhead shrike endemic only to this island is documented here.

Based on the scenic terrain along the coast, including numerous sea caves and some secluded beaches, I would like to return here with my sea kayak, camping at Scorpion Cove again, and potentially spend 3 or 4 days exploring the coast.