Friday, March 31, 2023

Santa Cruz Island Fox

The island fox, also known as the island gray fox, Channel Islands fox, coast fox and short-tailed fox, is found on and endemic to six Channel Islands off the coast of California. Each island contains a separate subspecies: (1) San Miguel Island; (2) San Nicolas Island; (3) Santa Catalina Island; (4) San Clemente Island; (5) Santa Cruz Island; and (6) Santa Rosa Island. Each subspecies can interbreed, but each has genetic distinctions that make it unique, such as differing numbers of tail vertebrae. 
Scientists believe the foxes initially went to the three northern islands: San Miguel, Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz between 10,400 and 16,000 years ago when the ocean was much lower and the four northern islands (additionally Anacapa) were part of one island and the distance to the mainland was reduced. Native Americans then introduced foxes to the southern islands as pets or hunting dogs. 

The island fox is much smaller than the gray fox, even smaller than the kit fox. The largest of the subspecies is on Catalina and the smallest is on Santa Cruz. It has gray fur on its head, back, sides and tail, ruddy red on its neck, legs and sides and white on its belly throat and the lower half of its face and a black stripe on the tail. The coat is darker and duller than that of the gray fox. 

I visited Santa Cruz Island in March as part of a pelagic bird tour by Island Packers, which included a short one hour stop on Santa Cruz to look for the island scrub-jay which is endemic to Santa Cruz Island. I saw two foxes, likely the same fox twice, and it walked along seemingly oblivious of the people walking around near it. I was struck by how dark, dull and thick the coat was.  

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Black Oystercatcher

The black oystercatcher is found along the Pacific coast of North America, from Alaska to the Baja Peninsula of Mexico. There are an estimated 8,900 to 11,000 of them, so they are pretty sparsely scattered. 
Range map of the black oystercatcher from Wikipedia.
The black oystercatcher is a beautiful bird that is entirely black with a long red bill, yellow iris, red eye-ring and pink legs. The plumage is darker in the north and gets lighter to the south. 
Note the dark brown back, illustrative of the letter color as it gets toward the southern part of its range.  
It feeds in the intertidal area very close to the water's edge, feeding on mussels, limpets, chitons, crabs and barnacles. 
Standing above a bed of mussels. 
I saw several black oystercatchers in my pelagic bird tour with Island Packers. The only photos I got were on a rock outcrop just west of Scorpion Ranch on Santa Cruz Island. 

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Island Scrub-Jay

The island scrub-jay is endemic to Santa Cruz Island, the largest island of the eight islands in the Channel Islands archipelago and one of five islands in Channel Islands National Park, directly west of Malibu, California, but usually reached by boat from Oxnard or Ventura, California, which are closer. It is the only endemic landbird found on an island in the U.S. or Canada. It is also known as the Santa Cruz jay and island jay. 
This map, from Wikipedia, shows the Channel Islands and Santa Cruz Island, where the island scrub-jay lives, is highlighted in red-pink. 
Santa Cruz Island is 21.7 miles long, 2 to 6 miles wide and covers 97 square miles. It is privately owned, with the National Park Service owning 24% and the Nature Conservancy owning 76%, the largest privately owned island off the contiguous U.S. 
The east end of Santa Cruz Island.

The northeast end of Santa Cruz Island. Scorpion Cove is up the small valley just right of center. 
The island scrub-jay is closely related to the California scrub-jay which we have near our home, but it is larger, more brightly colored and has a stouter bill. Those found in pine habitat have a longer and shallower bill than those found in oak habitat. DNA studies show that it has been isolated from the California scrub-jay for about 151,000 years. Up to about 11,000 years ago the nearby islands of Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Anacapa, along with Santa Cruz, were one large island. They were separated by rising sea levels. So the island jay must have been present on all four islands after they were separated, but it has only been observed once anywhere else in modern records, on Santa Rosa Island, 6 miles away, in 1892. 
The island scrub-jay

I took a pelagic bird trip in March with Island Packers, which included about a one hour stop at Scorpion Cove, near the east end of the island. I hiked inland up a small valley and found it near a small campground in some trees. 
Scorpion Cove from the boat.

Our boat.

On the dock.

Hills near the harbor green from recent rains. 

The small valley we walked up - a little beyond where I saw the island jay. 

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Long-Tailed Duck

The long-tailed duck is a bird I'd noticed in a northern California eBird listing and had the impression it was not seen often in California. That is all I'd ever seen or heard of that species. 
Forward several months to March 2023 and I was on a pelagic bird cruise with Island Packers near Anacapa Island in Channel Islands National Park. The primary bird spotter noted two long-tailed ducks with some surf scoters some distance ahead. We tried getting closer to them and they flew several times. We were on our way to get closer to them again when the spotter said they were flying our way off the port side of the boat. They came by fast at some distance and I put up my camera and started clicking. I got several blurry photos of them. 
I already had the impression that long-tailed ducks were not common in California and the time we spent on our trip trying to get close to them was further evidence that they were an unusual sighting. 

The long-tailed duck, formerly known by the politically incorrect oldsquaw, breeds in the arctic (Alaska, northern Canada, northern Europe and Russia) and winters along the northern coastlines of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and from Hudson Bay down to the Great Lakes. 
They are unusual looking and beautiful and my photos don't give justice to other photos I've seen. The male has a pointed long tail from 4 to 6 inches long and a gray bill with a pink band. In winter the male has a dark cheek patch on a mostly white head and neck, a dark breast and mostly white body. The female has a short pointed tail, a dark head and a brown back. In summer, the male has a dark head, neck and back with a white cheek patch. The female has a white head and neck with a dark crown.

Now that I've been introduced to them I'd really love to get a closer look.  

Monday, March 27, 2023

Surf Scoter

The surf scoter is a sea duck that I first saw in January 2022 at Bolsa Chica in Huntington Beach. I had no idea what it was and only found out after submitting a photo of it to iNaturalist. I'd never heard of it before. A sea duck is a duck "adapted to a life at sea [w]ith most spending a considerable portion of the year along our coasts, the majority of these...breed in northern areas such as the Canadian Arctic and Alaska." 
Surf scoter at Bolsa Chica - my only photo there.
I took a pelagic bird trip in March 2023 with Island Packers Cruises and we saw flocks of them at very long distances near Anacapa Island in Channel Island National Park. 
Males (left) and females (right).

The male surf scoter is black, with white patches on the forehead and nape, a large bill that looks orange at a distance but is patterned with white, red and yellow and a black spot near the base that looks like a hole in the beak, sort of like the round rings that some people put in their ears to create large holes (that black spot is what really stood out on the first surf scoter I saw at Bolsa Chica). The female is brown, a little darker above than below, with paler patches on the cheeks below the eyes and sometimes a white patch on the nape, and the bill is black with green or blue coloration. 

They breed in northern Canada and Alaska and winter along the Pacific (as far south as the Baja Peninsula in Mexico) and Atlantic coasts of North America. 
Orange is breeding and yellow is wintering - from Wikipedia.
They eat a lot of mussels, a bird after my own heart, but I prefer mine cooked with a nice white wine sauce and some sourdough bread to dip in it. 
The first description was in 1750 by George Edwards who called it the "great black duck from Hudson's Bay." 

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Rhinoceros Auklet

The rhinoceros auklet is closely related to the puffin and is also known as the horn-billed puffin, unicorn puffin and rhino auklet. It has a relatively large bill that is brown on top, orange on the bottom and has a 'horn' protruding from it in breeding season that gives it its name. It also has white plumes above the eyes and behind the bill in breeding season. The iris is yellow and the plumage is dark gray above and lighter gray below. 

It is found in the North Pacific from the Channel Islands of California to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska on the eastern side and from Hokkaido and Honshu, Japan to Sakhalin Island on the western side. Most of the North American population breeds on a small number of islands in British Columbia and adjacent parts of Washington and southeast Asia. 

They feed on fish as well as some krill and squid. 

I first saw one when we took a long boat trip into Kenai Fjords National Park off the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska in 2016. Then I took a pelagic bird trip with Island Packer Cruises in March where we basically circled Anacapa Island and visited Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands off California. We saw some of them relatively close to Anacapa Island, but most where quite a ways offshore. They were usually quite a ways from the boat and quite small, so getting a good photo was difficult. I got one decent photo and a few poor but recognizable photos out of about 45 photos taken. It was not helped by the fact that the water was quite choppy at times. 

Saturday, March 25, 2023

Jamaican Owl

The Jamaican owl was high on my list of want-to-sees, but I figured virtually impossible to see. At Rocklands Bird Sanctuary, outside Montego Bay, I asked Fritz early on if he ever sees Jamaican owls? He said he did. At the end of a couple of hours, when I had to get back to the hotel for further activities, he motioned me over toward the front of the house and a bushy small tree. Underneath the canopy he pointed me toward the top and asked me what it was. I couldn't see it for the longest time. Finally I saw it and he asked, what is it? Of course it was an owl, he'd saved one of the best for last (the one I'd asked about and he knew I wanted to see). 
Later I went with a different birder to San San, very early in the morning while it was dark, and he had recorded owl sounds. One responded nearby, but we were never able to see it. 
The owl has long ear tufts; dark brown eyes, a rufous facial disk rimmed in black-flecked white; rufous upperparts, a rufous tail with dark brown bars; a rufous breast and belly with narrow dark brown streaks. 

Friday, March 24, 2023

Jamaican Tody

The Jamaican tody is an unusual bird endemic to Jamaica. With my declining eyesite I really struggled to see them. They are very small, but extremely beautiful and interesting. I saw them at Hotel Mockingbird Hill near Port Antonio, San San a little further east, and high in the Blue Mountains. I did not get a good photo, all are blurred. 

There are five species in the genus, Todus, all found in the Greater Antilles. 
These very poor photos from the Blue Mountains show the backside, a completely different perspective from the slightly better photos later that are from the front and side. 

It is even smaller than the Jamaican pewee, 4.25 inches, compared to 6 inches. Shocking to me, their average flight distance is 5 feet and their maximum flight distance is 85 feet (28 yards - just 28% of the distance of a football field). 
This tody was found in San San. From this angle the bill looks pink and Pinocchioish. The throat looks like the dewlap on an anole. 

From this angle, the bill and throat look completely different, like a sticky attached to a line on a deed informing the seller where to sign.  

It has a bright green head, back and wings; a red throat; a very unusual long, broad and flat pinkish-red bill; a white breast blended with green which is slightly yellow toward the bottom and under the tail-coverts;  and reddish brown feet and legs. 

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Jamaican Pewee

The Jamaican pewee is endemic to Jamaica. It used to be classified with the Cuban pewee and Hispaniola pewee as one species, but they have been separated. 
It is only 6 inches from bill to tail and proportionally the wings are short, the tail is long, the head is large and the body is round. The top is dark-olive, with the wings and tail darker still and the stomach paler. 
It only eats insects, which it dives down to grab in the air, from its perch, and returns to the same perch. It eats no seeds. 
I saw one, high in the Blue Mountains.  

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Greater Antillean Bullfinch

As a matter of geographical reference, I had to go back and focus on terminology. The Greater Antilles are a grouping of larger islands in the Caribbean Sea, including Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. The Lesser Antilles are also a group of islands in the Caribbean Sea, most part of a volcanic island arc going, between the Greater Antilles to the north-west and the continent of South America which form the eastern boundary between the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. Together, the Greater Antilles and the Lesser Antilles make up the Antilles. The Lucayan Archipelago, a name I'm not really familiar with, is the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands, which are north of Cuba and the other Antilles and east and southeast of Florida. Although not part of the Caribbean, the Lucayan Archipelago, the Greater Antilles and the Lesser Antilles are collectively known as the West Indies. Those are distinctions I've never understood. 
With this terminology, the Greater Antillean bullfinch is a different species of bird than the Lesser Antillean bullfinch, which also exists. However, the Greater Antillean bullfinch is found in the Lucayan Archipelago countries of the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands, but not found in Cuba or Puerto Rico which are part of the Greater Antilles. There are five subspecies, one of which is only found in Jamaica. 
I assume this is a female. 

The male Greater Antillean bullfinch has a dark gray to black body with orange-red eyebrows, throat and vent. The female is duller black or gray and duller red-orange. 

I saw one at the Rocklands Bird Sanctuary outside Montego Bay in Jamaica.