Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Cruickshank Sanctuary Field Trip

I have ready access to lots of great photos – all belonging to other people! When friend Wayne pointed out that those photos allowed me to experience nature vicariously, so to speak, I decided he might have a point. So off we went to the Helen and Allan Cruickshank Sanctuary , I with trusty nine-year-old camera in hand.

I have an unabashed admiration for the Environmentally Endangered Lands (EEL) Program that Brevard County voters approved in 1990 and re-approved in 2000. Its mission is to protect the natural habitats of Brevard County by acquiring environmentally sensitive lands for conservation, passive recreation, and environmental education. The property for the Cruickshank Sanctuary was acquired in 1994 and named in honor of Helen and Allan Cruickshank, master birders and photographers, long-time Brevard residents, and early supporters of anything related to nature.

The 140-acre Cruickshank Sanctuary is nestled in the middle of a Rockledge neighborhood and features a one-mile hiking trail. As you can see from the first photo, it is scrub habitat, with some freshwater marshes thrown in for good measure – just the kind of place that a Florida scrub jay family likes to call home. (It is also the kind of place developers like to call subdivisions, so scrub jay habitat has decreased as subdivisions have increased.) Florida scrub jays are very picky about where they live – they want scrub habitat that burns often enough to maintain a tree height of 3 – 10 feet tall. (The EEL Program conducts prescribed burns to keep this type of habitat scrub jay and gopher tortoise- friendly.) It does not migrate or even take vacations.

Scrub jays are such cool birds – they mate for life, wait until they are responsible adults to breed, live in cooperative family groups that may include non-married kids and birds adopted from other families, and seem to like people. Some of the family members are identified as “helpers.” Each family stakes out about 25 acres, which it defends against other families. They set up a watch system wherein the helpers stand guard against predators and defend the family territory. Their diet includes seeds, insects, caterpillars, frogs, young mice, and lots and lots and lots of acorns (from the scrub oak trees) that they bury beneath the sand to eat during the winter months.

The Florida scrub jay is Florida’s only endemic bird. Loss of habitat has resulted in continuous scrub jay population loss, and they are now legally protected as a Threatened Species. As such, is it illegal to feed them (word on the street is that the scrub jays are not crazy about this restriction – they like their peanuts and sunflower seeds in the shell).

What fun! It was a perfect day for a mild hike – 70 degrees, sunny, and blue skies. It was just us and the critters. Wayne pointed out some of the plants typical of this sandy scrub habitat – shiny blackberry, gallberry, fetter bush, broom sedge, myrtle oak, sand live oak, saw palmetto, and pine. We saw a mockingbird, some osprey, even a pileated woodpecker. Nice day, good company, interesting plants - all well and good, but where were the scrub jays? We had walked the one-mile path and were headed back towards the entrance when here they came – five lovely scrub jays that swooped in to land on hands, arms, and hats. What a rare treat to have one of these critters sitting on your finger - the only word I can think to use in describing them is “dear.” The family/helper structure was very evident – one stood guard while the other four visited with us. At some point, another took up the guard position and the first guard was free to explore. There was not the first sign of quarreling over who got to sit where – these birds had impeccable manners (tee hee).

The rest of the photos are mine, but this "glamour shot" is Wayne Matchett's - what a beautiful bird! (Be sure to click on all the pictures to enlarge.)

If you want to spend a pleasant hour communing with nature up-close and personal, without need of preparation and long drives, the Cruickshank Sanctuary is certain to put a smile on your face!


"BIG PICTURE" LOCATION: Central Brevard, Mainland, Rockledge
WHEN TO GO: Sunrise to sunset, 7 days a week.

HOW TO GET THERE: 360 Barnes Blvd, Rockledge (from US #1, go west 0.4 miles on Barnes) – right now, there is no sign, so here is a picture of the entrance. Map

WHERE TO PARK: Contrary to what the outdated brochure states, there is a nice parking lot.

WHAT TO WEAR: You’ll be hiking the one-mile path through scrub, so wear comfortable shoes and long pants. Unless it is wintertime, give some thought to mosquito repellant. Remember sunscreen and water.

PHYSICAL CONSTRAINTS: Not wheelchair accessible, and the trail is soft sand. No place to sit. No bathroom facilities.

HOW LONG TO STAY: Depending on how many photographs you take, plan on an hour to hike the trail.

WHAT TO DO: Watch for gopher tortoises and scrub jays. Listen for the “guard” scrub jays. Admire the scrub habitat and notice what it consists of. Speak in normal tones (don't yell and run around), and it is likely the scrub jays will find you.

BRING MONEY? No, like all EEL sanctuaries, this is FREE!

WHERE TO EAT AFTERWARDS: Head west on Barnes (past Murrell Road, before Fiske Blvd) until you reach the Turtle Creek Golf Club (see above Map). Jimmie’s Restaurant is in the Clubhouse – good food, friendly service, reasonable prices. (It used to be on US#1, so don’t be misled by old maps/internet information.)

HOW TO HELP? Don’t feed the scrub jays. Don’t litter. Don’t harass the birds or critters. If you are local, volunteer with the EEL Program. If you live near the Sanctuary, keep your cats inside.

A LITTLE EXTRA: I've lived in Brevard County since the 1960s, and the Cruickshank name was very familiar to me, but I didn't remember much about them. Wayne told me that Allan Cruickshank was a Scot, a master photographer, an entertaining speaker with a wry sense of humor, and a leader in the local Audubon Society. In my on-line research, I found a couple of wonderful articles about Mr. Cruickshank in the Sports Illustrated Vault, describing Cocoa Christmas Bird Count activities - one article from 1956 and one from 1971. Really interesting reading about a time past


  1. This is wonderful Marge! It reminds me of when I was a kid, spending the day at my grandfather's house. "Papa" we called him. Papa was a friend to all Blue Jays and squirrels and always had a bag of peanuts at the ready. "Here Pete!" he would call to them. I took great delight in holding a peanut high in the air as a Blue Jay came down from high in the oak tree and plucked it from my fingers. I never knew what a scrub jay was until I was about 11 years old and discovered these friendly birds at Oscar Sherer State Park, south of Sarasota.

  2. Two of my memories that you have sparked with this blog.

    One, I knew the Cruickshanks as a teenager, my father was a member of the Indian River Audubon Society. Allan was a big man and Helen a small woman, I can still see his white hair and she wore her hair in braids across the top of her head. I remember being very impressed with the admiration and respect they held at those gatherings. Helen and Allan knew everything about Florida flora and fauna, Allan was an amazing birder; Helen knew extremely knowledgable about plants (my area of interest). I had never met anyone who had actually written books and was intrigued by that idea.

    The second memory is in the early 90's when I worked at the then Harris Corp. site across the street from the not-yet Cruickshank Sanctuary. The scrub jays would greet us as we travelled between the two buildings and we needed to watch out for the ever-present big black racers when driving through the parking lots.


  3. This is very interesting. I had a lady stop me today and ask me if the scrub jays made their nesting material out of the Spanish moss that hangs from the trees here.

    I told her I wasn't sure and she insisted on finding out. I don't know why it was that important, but hey, to each his own right? As I continued walking along, darn if her question didn't start bothering me. What DO they make their nests out of? I know twigs, but what else? And, I hear of people feeding the scrub jays, but isn't that illegal?

  4. I sent this question to Charlie Corbeil, and he forwarded it to Vince Lamb, a Cruickshank Sanctuary and scrub jay expert. Our thanks to Vince for providing the following answers to State Park Discussion Forum's questions: "I have seen a few scrub-jay nests but I usually try to avoid getting close. Scrub-jays will abandon nests after people have come too close. I believe that they construct their nest from twigs found nearby. Some Spanish Moss could be included but it does not provide much structural strength.

    Feeding scrub-jays without a special permit is illegal but fairly widespread. I have only heard of one person who was ever given a citation and that citation was dropped. People feeding jays should use raw, unsalted peanuts or worms – not people junk food. Studies have shown problems resulting from human feeding – especially during the nesting season. If the jays receive a few peanuts occasionally, I doubt that any real harm is done. When they are fed large quantities of food from humans, they can lose their ability to find natural foods. This can cause problems when the humans stop providing the food."

    Visit Vince's web site at http://www.vincelamb.com/ and Charlie's web site at http://www.pbase.com/charlie_corbeil/profile


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