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sbcoBIRDING Santa Barbara County Birding

Channel Islands & Pelagic Birding

E1 Pelagic Birding & Channel Islands National Park (map >>) (fee)   Hotspots: (ebird >>) (ebird >>)

    Seasons: Sp | Su | Fa | Wi

Directions: Whale watching and pelagic birding trips are available through the following charter companies: Condor Cruises: (805) 882-0088, Island Packers: (805) 642-1393, and Truth Aquatics: 805-962-1127. Channel Islands Aviation (805) 987-1301 offers chartered flights to Santa Rosa Island. Camping is available to Island visitors in the Channel Islands National Park but reservations are required and transportation is only available through authorized park concessionaires. Scheduled boat trips depart from Santa Barbara Harbor, Oxnard and Ventura Harbor in Ventura County. Channel Islands Aviation has flights out of Camarillo and Santa Barbara Airports. Photo: Santa Rosa Island - Jeff Birek

Visit Joel Barrett’s website for more information on Pelagic and Island birding: >>

Pelagic Birding

CONDOR CRUISES (link >>) offers whale watching and trips to the Channel Islands aboard their modern, fast 75' Condor Express catamaran. This vessel departs from Santa Barbara Harbor at SEALanding (map >>). Check their current schedule of upcoming whale watching trips, adventure cruises to the Islands, and pelagic birding in the Channel, including deep water trips beyond the Islands.

ISLAND PACKERS (link >>) an official concessionaire to the Channel Islands National Park, offers trips for whale watching, pelagic birding, and guided hiking excursions with an Island Packers Naturalist or National Park Service Ranger. Day trips can be scheduled for hiking on Santa Cruz, San Miguel, Santa Rosa and Santa Barbara Islands, as well as overnight camping. Island Packers boats depart from Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard, and Ventura Harbor in Ventura.

TRUTH AQUATICS (link >>) has a fleet of three dive-boats and offers trips designed for day hiking and camping on the Channel Islands. Truth Aquatics is an official park concessionaire. Boats depart from Santa Barbara Harbor at Sea Landing. Check their current schedule of Island trips.

CHANNEL ISLANDS AVIATION (link >>) is also an official concessionaire to the Channel Islands National Park. Channel Islands Aviation offers half day excursions and flights for camping to Santa Rosa Island in the Channel Islands National Park. Flights are scheduled year round. A flight to Santa Rosa Island is only 25 minutes away.

Rewards: Pelagic birding in the Santa Barbara Channel is best during the spring, mid-summer  and fall passage of ocean birds. Birding trips are targeted during these seasons for optimal rewards, but taking a relatively close to shore whale watching trip will also provide a variety of birds with the added bonus of close-up views of migrating Gray, Humpback, and occasionally Blue Whales and Orcas. Birds closer to shore are those species usually visible from land such as scoters, Brandt's and Pelagic Cormorants, loons, grebes, gulls and terns. Arctic Tern is frequently encountered in flocks just a short distance off the coast where they are seldom found on shore. In summer, Sooty Shearwaters are common and number in the thousands. They can be easily seen from shore. Black-vented Shearwater is fairly common in fall and winter, and Buller's and Short-tailed Shearwaters are rare but regularly encountered in county waters. Photo: Ringed Storm-Petrel -  Cornelia Oedekoven SFSC                                                                                                                         

Birds regularly found in the Santa Barbara Channel include: Black-vented and Pink-footed Shearwaters, South Polar Skua, Parasitic, Pomarine, and Long-tailed Jaegers, Sabine's Gull, Scripps's Murrelet, Cassin's and Rhinoceros Auklets, Red Phalarope, Black, Leach's and Ashy Storm-Petrels, and Northern Fulmar (irregular in winter). Black-footed and Laysan (rare) Albatrosses are found well offshore. Among the more spectacular sightings in offshore county waters; Mottled Petrel, Cook's Petrel, Stejneger's Petrel, Red-tailed and Red-billed Tropicbirds, Magnificent Frigatebird, Brown, Nazca, and Masked Boobies, Tufted and Horned Puffins, and Parakeet Auklet. In August 2005 a first northern hemisphere record of Ringed Storm-Petrel occurred SW of San Miguel Island.

Land bird rarities recorded on the islands (and thus far missing on the mainland list) include Emperor Goose, Pyrrhuloxia and Gray Vireo. There are a number of other interesting sub-species that breed on the islands including races of Allen's Hummingbird, Orange-crowned Warbler, Loggerhead Shrike and Pacific-slope Flycatcher. These differ from mainland populations. The Channel Islands area is recognized as an Audubon Society Important Bird Area. You can order the latest Channel Islands Bird Checklist (pub. 2015) through the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History museum store website:

Channel Islands Checklist >>

Island Scrub-Jay

It goes without saying that if you wish to see the Island Scrub-Jay it is absolutely necessary that you spend a few dollars to reach its home- Santa Cruz Island. It is found nowhere else in the world. It is characterized by its darker blue plumage, heavier bill and larger size compared to its mainland relative, the California Scrub-Jay, which is not found on the Channel Islands. The Island Scrub-Jay is reliably seen around the two common landing points and while hiking nearby trails at Prisoners Harbor and Scorpion Harbor. Check the eBird Explore Species tool to find the most recent sightings. Photo: Island Scrub-Jay - Brad Schram


Sibley Guides >>

Island Scrub-Jay NPS >>

Island Scrub-Jay BNA >>

Santa Barbara County Line - Offshore Boundaries

It has long been determined by the California Bird Records Committee that for the purposes of reviewing rare bird records in the state, the review area offshore shall extend to the 200 nautical mile limit. The CBRC has also adopted "the nearest point of land" rule for determining where to assign records to a specific county in California around the Channel Islands. In short, it has been generally agreed that pelagic species are assigned to the county with jurisdiction over the nearest point of land. Determining the political boundary of Santa Barbara County offshore is a bit tricky when projecting a county line into the ocean around the Channel Islands. It is somewhat subjective since county jurisdictions only extend three miles out to sea.

Using this "nearest point of land" rule, the midway point between neighboring counties around the southern Channel Islands can be theorized and mapped. Since Santa Barbara Island is under the jurisdiction of Santa Barbara County but in reality is closer to Los Angeles County, this creates a circular area in the ocean surrounding the island when mapped to the nearest point of land at the mainland and adjacent islands. This area is known as "the donut hole" and many extralimital bird records attributed to Santa Barbara County are from this island and surrounding waters as determined by this rule. eBird uses a “nearest point of land” algorithm to calculate county values for offshore locations and does a very good job assigning checklists to the correct county which are accurately plotted on maps. Detailed information on offshore boundaries is available at the CBRC website as discussed by Don Roberson who wrote on this subject some years ago:

Discussion of County Lines Offshore >>

Maps of the approximate offshore area can be seen here:

map 1>>

map 2>>


Offshore County Boundaries >>  

CA Pelagic Mapping Tool >>