A Wildlife Climate Refugee
They are both refugee and rescuer. Island scrub jays have been hit hard through the years. Living solely on Santa Cruz island, off of the coast of California, they have survived habitat destruction and invasive species, only to now face their biggest challenge of all, climate change.
Climate change has brought West Nile carrying mosquitoes to their doorstep. Drought, fire, bark beetle and sea-level rise are coalescing into a catastrophe for the birds, whose numbers already number at just a few thousand. On one hand they might need to be reintroduced to a neighboring island in the Channel Island chain in order to have a chance, and on the other it's their abilities as ecosystem engineers that could help restore impacted forests on both islands.
Being landlocked on a small island makes these birds a harbinger for other systems, a natural experiment, though one with high stakes for the birds.
These images are from two assignments, one for Nature Conservancy Magazine, the other for Audubon highlighting two chapters of this bird's story.
For The Nature Conservancy, researchers study the population dynamics of the birds as part of a larger effort to understand past and present, including evidence that the birds once inhabited nearby Santa Rosa Island. It is this island, existing in a cooler microclimate that could give a sub-population of scrub jays a haven from climate change impacts.
For Audubon, (These students are partnering with corvids to replant a forest after fire), I returned to the island as scientists explore the bird's forest restoration capabilities. After a fire, ignited by an out-of-control prescribed burn, scorched a section of the scrub jay's habitat, researchers endeavor to study whether the jay's seed planting behaviors could regenerate the burned landscape. If what they suspect proves correct, the jays could not only help impacted habitat on Santa Cruz Island, but bode well for needed forest restoration in their proposed haven of Santa Rosa.