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Thursday, March 14, 2019

Santa Cruz Island Scrub Jay

My article on the Island Scrub Jay appeared in this morning's Bismarck Tribune. Here is it below, with my photographs, including one of the Island Scrub Jay. There are much better photographs of the jay by professional photographs easily found in a simple Google search so do check that out if you are interested.

Having birded for decades, one often plateaus in the endeavor of adding birds to one’s life list. This is certainly true for me, hence, motivation to travel to new and far-flung places. Thus 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 our goal as a couple to visit every national park site in the United States. Channel Islands National Park, an archipelago off the coast of California, was one of our 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 NP Visitors Center in Ventura, next to the ferry headquarters, orientation for our upcoming expedition revealed a delightful surprise: our chosen destination, Santa Cruz Island, is the only place in the world where the Island Scrub Jay is found (also known as the Santa Cruz Island Scrub Jay).

I dug out my old birding field guide in which I’ve kept records of sightings, and, sure enough, there was an easily overlooked mention of the Island Scrub Jay. I hadn’t given it any thought when we chose what island to visit and our selection was mostly motivated by the fact that potable water is available at the campground. Indeed, we did camp, packing the minimum gear given that one must hike a half mile from the pier to the campground. Tucked into my day pack was a newly purchased bird checklist for the islands (which can be found at their website at

While the weather was fairly rotten (record cold in southern California in February), and the wind was biting on the exposed deck of the ferry, I spotted numerous pelagic (open ocean) species along the way, including Pelagic Cormorants and Pacific Loons. Most of the people on the ferry were day-trippers, including a sizeable group of Road Scholars. Once we had pitched our tent, we set off, hiking to a high point to get a magnificent view of the island and the ocean.
Channel Islands National Park is home to an abundance of birds – 387 different species have been recorded. Black Phoebes and Brown Pelicans were particularly numerous during our visit. The hiking guide presented us with many options, but I honed in on the route on which the Santa Cruz Island Scrub Jay would be present--Scorpion Canyon. We ended the day with no sighting of said. In the night, an exceptionally cold and long night, two very loud Northern Saw-whet Owls called right above our tent for an extended time.

Sunrise found us drinking coffee at the beach where we spotted a California sea lion popping his head up in the surf and gray whales spouting 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. As soon as we broke camp and stowed our gear near the pier, we set off up Scorpion Canyon, only hiking about a mile and a half before Eureka! The Santa Cruz Island Scrub Jay.

The jay is larger (at 13”), heavier, and more richly blue than the ordinary Scrub Jay, and is the largest and darkest of all of the jays. It also has a longer bill than its relative by about 20 percent. We were fortunate to observe a pair, perched in the scraggly trees along Scorpion Creek, and three others scattered throughout the chaparral by the end of what was, for me, a twelve-mile hike from sea level to El Montanon Peak, at 1808 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, Aphelocoma insularis, is the only continental US 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 word Jay is from “the Old French gay and iay, descended from Latin, gaius, gaia, imitative words” according to the book Words for Birds: A Lexicon of North American Birds with Biographical Notes. Aphelocoma is Greek for “smooth hair,” referencing the lack of a crest in Scrub Jays. Scrub suggests its preferred habitat in scrubby places. The Island Scrub Jay, belonging to the Corvidae (Crow) family, is listed as a vulnerable species. It was first identified in 1875 by naturalist Henry Henshaw.

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.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Jan Swenson, BCA Executive Director, to Retire

This past Wednesday, Badlands Conservation Alliance, a grassroots group of which I am a founding voice, announced to its membership that longtime Executive Director, Jan Swenson, is retiring at the end of March. Jan has been at the helm for the past twenty years. In fact, BCA would very likely not exist were it not for Jan's leadership from the get-go. She has been a stalwart in defending wild North Dakota places and inspiring countless folks to step up & speak out for lands we love, tirelessly organizing us and fearlessly speaking out on myriad issues.

I have so many Jan Swenson stories, which I will save for another day. Do come to the reception we will be hosting in her honor on April 7th at 3:30 in Bismarck at the Capital Gallery. I'll share some stories at that gathering and we will all wish her a well-deserved and happy retirement.

If you are inspired by the work that Jan (and BCA) does, do consider applying for the job. We are hiring & that info appears on the BCA website.

A message from the founder and current President of BCA, Lillian Crook.
For twenty years, Jan Swenson has put her shoulder to the plough for BCA, birthing the organization from its initial days, growing it to be the force it is today, a well-respected grassroots voice for the wild badlands. She has decided that the time has come for her retirement. While it is difficult to imagine BCA without her leadership, know that the board of directors is endeavoring to seek a new executive director to be at the helm going forward. Please see the following release for more information, and, if you know anyone who might be a good fit for this position, do let them know we are hiring. 
Please join me in wishing Jan all the best in her retirement years. A reception will be held to honor Jan on April 7th at 3:30 p.m. at the Capital Gallery in Bismarck. 
For more information:
Connie Triplett
BCA Board Member
(218) 230-4160
Bismarck, ND, March 7 2019
    Jan Swenson, longtime executive director of Badlands Conservation Alliance (BCA), will retire at the end of March.
    BCA is a North Dakota-based grassroots organization dedicated to the restoration and preservation of the North Dakota Badlands and rolling prairie ecosystem comprising western North Dakota’s public lands, both state and federal.
    According to the organization’s website, BCA “provides an independent voice for conservation-minded North Dakotans and others who are appreciative of this unique Great Plains landscape and want to ensure that the public lands management agencies adhere to the principles of the laws that guide them and provide for wise stewardship of the natural landscapes with which the citizens of the United States have entrusted them – for this and future generations.”
    The organization said it will immediately begin a search for a new full-time executive director, to be located in Bismarck. Information on the position will be posted shortly on the group’s website,
    Swenson, a lifetime Bismarck resident, has served on the staff of BCA since its founding in 1999. Her organizational skills, combined with a propensity for volunteer activism at the grassroots level, led her to BCA and her current staff position.
    “Jan is probably the most knowledgeable person in North Dakota about threats to public lands in North Dakota, especially the Little Missouri Badlands,” said Lillian Crook, BCA founder, and current BCA president. “We’re going to miss her ability to explain problems with development encroaching on pristine areas, and to reason with public officials about how to minimize impacts to the land, water, air, and wildlife in western North Dakota.”
    In 2018, Jan was named one of the Conservation Communicators of the Year by the North Dakota Wildlife Federation for her work in presenting the movie “Keeping All The Pieces,” an award she shared with Mike McEnroe, past president of the Wildlife Federation. The movie is a 15-minute outreach film illustrating both the beauty of our Badlands and the threats Bakken oil development brings to landscape, wildlife and traditional uses, and was co-produced by Swenson, McEnroe, along with Allyn Sapa and created by Makoche Recording Studios. 
    In 2017 she received the North Dakota Award from The North Dakota Chapter of the Wildlife Society, the organization’s highest award, given annually in recognition of outstanding contributions to the profession of wildlife management, and she has also received a Special Service Award for conservation work and leadership from the Sierra Club.

    A special reception to recognize Jan for her work will be held April 7 at 3:30 p.m. at the Capital Gallery in downtown Bismarck.

Friday, March 1, 2019

WildDakotaWoman takes a trip to new wild places

Every few years, my husband and I embark upon an adventure outside of our beloved Bad Lands and North Dakota, seeking to fulfill our mutual goal of visiting all of the national parks. Thus, my blog has been on hiatus since the end of January. Because we garden, we find it necessary (for the most part) to travel in the months of January and February. Hence, we decided to travel to the warmer areas of the US, the southwestern states. We had a plan but feared the government shutdown would in turn shut down our plan.

The moment we got the word of the end of the shutdown, we snapped into action, retrieved our passports from the safety deposit box, arranged for a house-sitter, and loaded much of our camping gear and a bunch of books into our SUV (we have an abundance of camping gear and books). From our closets, we dug out our short pants, t-shirts, and flip-flops.

Departing on a day when the wind-chill was 33 below zero, I overheard my husband, Jim, tell many of his friends that in a few days we would be where the temperature was in the 70s. Best laid plans. Although we did camp some, we didn't rough it as much as we had hoped.

National parks & monuments visited. At each one, Jim takes great delight in securing a stamp for his Passport Book.

Exhibition Island National Historic Park (WY) - sorta, a driveby as we crossed the Green River
Great Basin National Park (NV) - first for both of us
Zion National Park (UT) - we've been there before but never can resist its breathtaking allure
Cabrillo National Monument (CA) - first for both of us
Channel Islands National Park, Santa Cruz Island (CA) - first for both of us
Joshua Tree National Park (CA) - another first and kudos to the people who had cleaned up the govt shutdown mess before we arrive
Organ Pipe National Monument (AZ) - long-awaited first for both of us, a wonderful place of solitude and beauty on the border
Saguaro National Park (AZ) - first for Jim
Tumacacori National Historic Park (AZ) - first for Jim
Coronado National Monument (AZ) - first for both
Chiricahua National Monument (AZ) - first for Jim (I went there as a child living in El Paso)
Pecos National Historical Park (NM)
Fort Union National Monument (NM)

Zion National Park

When we arrived in our oceanside hotel room in La Jolla, CA, the surf on the Pacific was pounding as a result of the howling winds generated by the big weather fronts hitting the coastline. I opened the deck door and settled in to ponder the horizon as long as I was able, thus avoiding the "state of the union" speech in my own Zen way. We took a walk along the beach and I reflected upon the fact that very few things put our lives in perspective as time spent near an ocean.

The view from our deck
The weather was rotten all across the country, including southern California and Arizona. Because of the cold and rainy weather, we added a visit to the Nixon and Reagan Presidential libraries and to the gobsmacking Getty Museum.

Jim at the Nixon library

Lillian at the Reagan library

Making plans on the fly, we booked the ferry to Channel Islands National Park, another first for us, located across the Santa Barbara Channel from Ventura, CA. We chose Santa Cruz Island because there is water available for campers and it is a relatively short ferry ride (I am prone to seasickness). This decision was a wonderful fluke I realized when we visited the Channel Islands Visitors Center to prepare for the expedition and discovered that the Santa Cruz island is the only place in the world where the Santa Cruz Island Scrub Jay is found, a distinctly different bird from the ordinary Scrub Jay, bigger and bluer. I bought a birding checklist for the Islands and we packed up what we could carry the 1/2 mile from the pier to the campground.

Santa Cruz Island is one of five of the eight Channel Islands that make up the national park, located across the Santa Barbara Channel from Ventura, CA. It was a majestic and windswept place, inhabited by only a few NPS staff, a handful of fellow campers, and dozens of day-trippers. We hiked to a vista on the first day and hunkered down for a very cold night. It didn't take long until we saw numerous Santa Cruz Island Foxes which are not at all shy, trotting through our campsite and alongside us on the trails. In the night, a very loud pair of Northern Saw-whet Owls called above the tent for quite a long time. The next morning, we took our coffee down to the beach to watch the sunrise where a California Sea Lion popped his head up once or twice and Gray Whales spouted in the Channel. In spite of the cold wind, the day's sea kayakers were gearing up for their foray into the world's largest collection of sea caves. After we had packed our gear and deposited it by the pier for the late afternoon return ferry, we set off on the Scorpion Canyon hike, determined to see the Santa Cruz Island Scrub Jay if nothing else (better picture at the link here than anything I took with my phone). About two miles up the trail, to my great delight, I spotted one, a new life bird for me. We spent quite a bit of time watching several of the jays and then Jim headed back for a swim and a relaxing afternoon on the beach while I continued upward from sea level to the highest point on the Island, determined to be able to see the wide Pacific ocean from that vantage point (the developed area of the Island faces the Santa Barbara Channel). I powered through a 12-mile hike to El Montanon Peak, gaining more than 1,800 feet in elevation, saw only one other hiker until I got close to the pier and it was sweet. I took as many photos as I could with my waning phone battery and I made it back to the pier just in the nick of time. On the return ferry ride, the boat was surrounded by hundreds of bottle-nosed dolphins. Channel Islands National Park is an enchanting place to which we hope to return -- perhaps when the NPS list is complete. It was bittersweet to leave the Pacific coast and I was not impressed with our last night which we spent on the Santa Monica Pier -- too raucous for my taste. I'll take wild beaches and islands any time.

Loading up for the ferry ride to Santa Cruz Island

Santa Cruz Island fox

Old ranch, now NPS buildings

Jim is down there waiting for me at the pier

Bottle-nosed dolpins accompanying the ferry, San Miguel Island on the horizon

Last sunset on the Pacific coastline
The highlight of next-up Joshua Tree National Park was the campground neighbors we befriended, a trio of young men from LA, first-generation Americans of Armenian descent, who insisted we join them for tequila shots and Armenian kabobs. They visit national parks to escape the craziness of LA - sound familiar? 40 MPH wind gusts on day two drove us off to seek shelter in Palm Desert having sustained some damage to our tent's wind fly.

Other highlights were Organ Pipe National Monument, visits with Tucson friends, a day at The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, and several days in Santa Fe, where we stayed at The Inn of the Turquoise Bear, in the Ansel Adams Suite, a place we learned of from one of our favorite travel guides, Literary Destinations. We can never get enough of Santa Fe and all of its charms. Our arrival there was pushed up because of another huge storm that brought snow to Tucson and Nogales and closed Petrified Forest National Park. We will have to try to get to Petrified Forest on another expedition. New Mexico and Arizona have a lot of national monuments and the like, but we pretty thoroughly explored southern Arizona this time. We finally had to accept that we couldn't get to all of these on this trip.

An impressive saguaro at Organ Pipe National Monument

The eponymous Organ Pipe cactus, the only place it is found in the US

The cacti are endlessly fascinating

Our visit to The Desert Museum including an awe-inspiring raptor show featuring five Harris Hawks

Mission San Xavier del Bac

Tumacacori National Historic Park 


Southern Arizona has many traces of General George Crook's time there. Naturally, I wanted to track these down, including visits to the Cochise County courthouse in Tombstone and Chiricahua National Monument. 

Cochise County courthouse in Tombstone, AZ

We couldn't resist, choosing to spend the night in the TR Room on President's Day in the historic Copper Queen Hotel in Bisbee, AZ 
A find at Chiricahua National Monument

We squeezed in a Rosanne Cash concert in Tucson at the stunningly restored Fox Theatre.

Inn of the Turquoise Bear

Lobby, Inn of the T. Bear

St. Francis Cathedral Basilica, Santa Fe

San Miguel Chapel interior, Santa Fe

San Miguel Chapel, Santa Fe

Our last morning at the Inn of the T. Bear

New Mexico State Capitol, the only round state Capitol building in the US

Everywhere in New Mexico and Arizona one finds details such as this door to the NM state capital building

NM state capitol

Inn of the T. Bear, Santa Fe

Inn of the T. Bear
St. Katera in front of St. Francis Cathedral

Scrumptious breakfast every morning at the Inn

We awoke to snow in Santa Fe, threw our stuff into the car, and powered through in two days to our nice, warm Red Oak House, never having worn flip-flops, t-shirts, or shorts but rather most all of our fleece garments and Sorel boots over and over, with far more trips to the laundromat than we had scheduled. Oh, and my valiant attempts to see a Green Kingfisher at Patagonia Lake State Park were to no avail. Guess it is not meant to be. I also didn't eat nearly enough tamales (even had tamales for breakfast one day), but I did score several new life birds. Next time. Driveway to driveway, 5391 miles was enough. All along the way, we made a point to tell federal employees how grateful we were that they were back at work, and, to a person, they were delighted to be doing their work.

What a gorgeous and diverse country is the U.S. and we've only begun to explore it in our two lifetimes. We intend to continue!