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Bismarck-Mandan Bird Club

Having birded for decades, one does plateau in the endeavor of adding birds to one’s life list. This is certainly true for me, providing motivation to travel to new and far-flung places. It was a great delight, when traveling recently to southern California, where I’ve spent little time, to discover that I would have the chance to see a unique bird.

It was a completely serendipitous opportunity originating in a goal to visit every national park site in the United States. Channel Islands National Park, an archipelago off the coast of California, was one of the destinations on this extended road trip. The string of islands, five of the eight islands along the coast make up the national park, are accessible only by a ferry-ride or flight across the Santa Barbara Channel of the Pacific Ocean.

When we arrived at the Channel Islands National Park Visitors Center in Ventura, next to the ferry headquarters, orientation for the upcoming expedition revealed a delightful surprise: Santa Cruz Island is the only place in the world where the Island scrub jay is found.

While the weather was fairly rotten with record cold in southern California in February and the wind was biting on the exposed deck of the ferry, I spotted numerous open ocean species along the way, including pelagic cormorants and Pacific loons. 

Channel Islands National Park is home to an abundance of birds — 387 species have been recorded. Black phoebes and brown pelicans were particularly numerous. The hiking guide presented many options, but I honed in on the route on which the Santa Cruz Island scrub jay would be present, Scorpion Canyon. The day ended with no sighting.

Drinking coffee at the beach at sunrise, a California sea lion popped his head up in the surf and gray whales spouted as they passed nearby in the Santa Barbara Channel. A chat with one of the sea kayaking guides revealed that he had already seen four jays that morning from his campsite. After breaking camp and hiking more than a mile in Scorpion Canyon, a Santa Cruz Island scrub jay was sighted. 

The jay is larger, heavier, and more richly blue than the ordinary scrub jay, and is the largest and darkest of all of jays. It also has a longer bill than its relatives by about 20 percent. A pair was observed perching in the scraggly trees along Scorpion Creek, and three others scattered throughout the chaparral by the end of what was, for me, a 12-mile hike from sea level to El Montanon Peak, at 1,808 feet the highest point of Santa Cruz Island.  

An endemic species is one restricted to a particular location. According to the Islands’ checklist, the scrub jay is “the most distinct” endemic species on the islands. The estimated total population is about 2,300.

The Island scrub jay is the only continental bird species to not have ranged to the mainland and is one of the most range-restricted songbirds, a superb example of island biogeography, a field that examines the facts that effect the species of isolated communities. The California scrub jay has never been seen on the Santa Cruz Island. 

The Island scrub jay’s call does not have the “advertising song” as is found in many jays, yet it is unmistakably jay-like in its distinctive squawk. The great American writer Mark Twain said this about jays: “You never saw a bluejay get stuck for a word. He is a vocabularized geyser.” He also wrote a jay “is human; he has got all a man’s faculties and a man’s weakness. He likes especially scandal; he knows when he is an ass as well as you do.”

Not much I can add to what Twain has to say except to urge fellow birders to visit enchanting Santa Cruz Island.

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