Van Damme Gray Ghost

Dickcissel and I stayed at Van Damme State Park at campsite #9. Van Damme is just south of the town of Mendocino, right off a lovely sandy cove.

This campground is legendary amongst birders because of one of its feathered residence. This is a bird that is sometimes known as the camp robber or the Gray Ghost. This is a bird that suddenly seems to appear out of nowhere, that is usually quiet, which is unusual for a member of the jay family. This is the southern edge of it’s range in California and as it’s name implies, the Canada jay is a creature of the far north.

Seeing a Canada jay, formerly called the gray jay, is not always guaranteed at Van Damme. While you may never see this sometimes-elusive bird, it certainty sees you. This jay is extremely curious and often bold.

The bird that is usually first encountered at the campground is the bold and raucous Steller’s jay. This is the west’s only crested jay and it is a bird that I have loved since my childhood. The Steller’s jay is often the first visitor when you pull into camp. Like the Canada, this jay is also very curious.


Since childhood, I have always loved this much maligned jay, with a raucous call and it’s bold jayness. The lesson (and some times struggle) is to see the beauty in everything.

As we set up camp we saw and heard Steller’s but there was no sign of the grey ghost. As dusk approached, a young great horned owl called from the forested hillside and an adult responded from across the way. The owls called for most of the night, which along with the ringing of a buey bell just outside of the cove, were the soundtrack of our Van Damme slumbers.

In the morning, as the owl calls slowed to a stop, the first diurnal call that I heard was the acorn woodpecker. This was soon joined by Pacific wren, Dark-eyed junco, American robin, northern flicker, ruby-crowned kinglet, common raven, red-breasted nuthatch, and the ever-present Steller’s jay. I ticked all these bird calls off as I stayed in the warmth of my sleeping bag.

But then I heard a soft call. I call that I had trouble recognizing. As I sorted through the calls in my memory bank, I knew it could only be one bird! The ghost had arrived!

I zipped open my tent and peered out into the morning half-light. There in the tree over the picnic table was a Canada jay! I loudly whispered over to Dickcissel’s tent, “They’re here!”

I threw on my clothes, putting on one sock upside down in the process and stumbled out of my tent. In the tree were a family of four Canada jays, coming in to investigate our camp. Dickcissel and I watched these beautiful corvids as we ate our breakfast.


This gray ghost is getting a little too close to my morning oatmeal! This very inquisitive,  and fearless jay is not called the “camp robber” for nothing!

Doing a little field sketching of the Canada jays of Van Damme State Park. The sketcher is looking a little “gray” himself.

IMG_7314The Canada jay is very much attracted to the presence of humans and are a very intelligent and curious critter! This jay is perched on our food larder at campsite #9.

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