Santa Cruz Island is home to the island scrub-jay, which has evolved to exist only on this Channel Island off the coast of California. Now, the scrub-jay is at risk, with its habitat shrinking and a deadly virus just 20 miles away on the mainland. Photo © Morgan Heim
Santa Cruz Island is home to the island scrub-jay, which has evolved to exist only on this Channel Island off the coast of California. Now, the scrub-jay is at risk, with its habitat shrinking and a deadly virus just 20 miles away on the mainland. Photo © Morgan Heim

Outtakes: A Photographer Searches for Scrub-jays

October/November 2016

Colorado-based photographer Morgan Heim has always had a passion for wildlife. So when she set off to document work on Santa Cruz Island to protect the island scrub-jay for Nature Conservancy magazine, she was especially excited for a chance to work closely with the birds.

Nearly 3,000 island scrub-jays exist today, endemic to Santa Cruz Island, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of southern California. The Nature Conservancy has worked to restore habitat on the island for nearly four decades. A changing climate threatens the jays’ survival: The island is getting drier and increasingly susceptible to fire, and the mainland, just 20 miles away, harbors mosquitoes that carry fatal diseases like West Nile Virus.

Heim traveled to the Santa Cruz to document the efforts of the Conservancy, the Smithsonian Institution and other partners to closely monitor the birds. If any jays show signs of disease, the group will mobilize a vaccination program. The Conservancy has also suggested establishing a second population on another Channel Island, says Scott Morrison, who directs science programs for the Conservancy in California.

“We know these threats are coming, we just don’t know when,” Morrison says. “It’s a really interesting question: When should you be proactive, and how do different scientists and land managers evaluate urgency?”

Heim followed Morrison and other researchers for two days as they captured island scrub-jays, recorded their vital signs, and released them into the wild again. The birds were so calm and comfortable being handled, she says, that they often wouldn’t fly away once freed. After handling one herself, Heim says, “It was more comfortable with me than I was with it.”

She attributes the jays’ comfort to the island receiving few visitors, even though it is just miles off the heavily populated California coastline. “It’s like stepping into another world,” she says. “I could’ve stayed there easily the entire summer.”

See some of the photos from her trip that didn’t make it into the magazine below and read more from Nature Conservancy magazine’s special climate issue here.

Heim followed Morrison as he scanned the Santa Cruz Island skies for banded scrub-jays. The colorful bands wrapped around the legs of the birds help researchers identify individuals they’ve previously studied. Photo © Morgan Heim
Heim followed Morrison as he scanned the Santa Cruz Island skies for banded scrub-jays. The colorful bands wrapped around the legs of the birds help researchers identify individuals they’ve previously studied. Photo © Morgan Heim
Some island scrub-jays live in pine forests on the island. On Heim’s trip, researchers pointed out sites like this one where drought and bark beetles have devastated Bishop pine trees, which were healthy just a few years ago. Photo © Morgan Heim
Some island scrub-jays live in pine forests on the island. On Heim’s trip, researchers pointed out sites like this one where drought and bark beetles have devastated Bishop pine trees, which were healthy just a few years ago. Photo © Morgan Heim
In order to monitor the birds, the researchers must first find them. Here, research technician Preston Duncan (left) looks for signs of scrub-jays, while researcher Michael Hague (right) patiently sits, ready to pull the string on a makeshift box trap. Photo © Morgan Heim
In order to monitor the birds, the researchers must first find them. Here, research technician Preston Duncan (left) looks for signs of scrub-jays, while researcher Michael Hague (right) patiently sits, ready to pull the string on a makeshift box trap. Photo © Morgan Heim
Heim joined researchers in luring scrub-jays to box traps with peanuts. “You throw a peanut or a pine cone or a rock,” Heim says. “The birds will hear that and they’ll fly in.” The wire boxes are propped up with a stick tied to a string, that someone nearby can pull to close the box. Photo © Morgan Heim
Heim joined researchers in luring scrub-jays to box traps with peanuts. “You throw a peanut or a pine cone or a rock,” Heim says. “The birds will hear that and they’ll fly in.” The wire boxes are propped up with a stick tied to a string, that someone nearby can pull to close the box. Photo © Morgan Heim
Once the researchers catch the birds, they weigh them (left with researcher Michael Hague) and take various body measurements, which help to show how the birds are faring over time. The island scrub-jays were so calm during the process, Heim says, that they often wouldn’t fly away once released (right with research assistant Elena Daggett). Photo © Morgan Heim
Once the researchers catch the birds, they weigh them (left with researcher Michael Hague) and take various body measurements, which help to show how the birds are faring over time. The island scrub-jays were so calm during the process, Heim says, that they often wouldn’t fly away once released (right with research assistant Elena Daggett). Photo © Morgan Heim
Despite the threats to the birds and pine forests, the restoration of Santa Cruz Island has come a long way. With the removal of several non-native species and other conservation efforts over the last two decades, island foxes have bounced back from near extinction, and native coastal scrub have replaced non-native grasslands. “You would not think a place like this existed right off the coast,” Heim says. Photo © Morgan Heim
Despite the threats to the birds and pine forests, the restoration of Santa Cruz Island has come a long way. With the removal of several non-native species and other conservation efforts over the last two decades, island foxes have bounced back from near extinction, and native coastal scrub have replaced non-native grasslands. “You would not think a place like this existed right off the coast,” Heim says. Photo © Morgan Heim
The birds are currently healthy (seen here on Daggett’s hand), but should any show signs of disease such as West Nile virus, the researchers will launch a vaccination effort to protect the other birds. Photo © Morgan Heim
The birds are currently healthy (seen here on Daggett’s hand), but should any show signs of disease such as West Nile virus, the researchers will launch a vaccination effort to protect the other birds. Photo © Morgan Heim

— NCM

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5 comments

  1. Beautiful pictures and fascinating article. I will be passing it along to birding and other friends.

  2. Such an awesome job the researchers are doing and thank you for the beautiful pics, Morgan. I’ve hiked Santa Cruz Island and it definitely holds a beauty of its own. Protecting the wildlife it possesses is crucial to our survival as well.