Month: October 2014

About the Blue Jay

Blue Jays reside mostly year round in southern Canada and east of the Rockies. A part of the Corvid family, related to crows and ravens, Blue Jays are intelligent, vocal, and communicative. They form tight family and community bonds. Their diet consists of nuts, seeds, acorns, berries, insects, frogs, mice, and – once in a while, probably – bird eggs and nestlings. (I’ve never seen a jay eat a bird egg or nestling, though I did watch a catbird pick at a robin egg this spring.)

Who doesn’t recognize the Blue Jay? It is a large songbird with an aqua back and iridescent blue plumage and scaly wings and tail. Blue has been my favorite color for as long as I can remember. Even before I became a birder, I always got excited when I saw jays. There it goes! When they fly, they are as eye-catching as Northern Cardinals: a streak of vibrant blues and also purples – so impossibly beautiful that I want my eyes to literally absorb them – mixed with scaly white and black on outspread wings and diamond-shaped tail. No matter the backdrop, of tree green or blank snow, they stand out. Finding a feather from the wing or tail is treasure-like, a keep-sake for all ages. The jay’s blue isn’t really blue, but brown due the feathers containing melanin, off which light bounces and refracts, thus creating an effect of blue iridescence. Crush the feather, it becomes brown.

Blue Jays produce three kinds of sounds. One is the familiar screech, “Jay jay!” During three-fourths of the year, I hear them all day, every day. At the start of spring, the Blue Jays disappear. In late summer, they come back, with youngin’s and adults shrieking with full-force until the following spring. Depending, the jays are talking, trying to get a hold of one another, issuing warnings of predators, or mobbing raptors.

Here is where the Blue Jay’s charm stops. They are such noisy birds, topping even the incessantly chirping House Sparrows. Such a contrast between gorgeous appearance and brash, unappealing call is almost incongruous. The “jay” is loud enough to startle me. Often, a quiet moment inside or outside, then, abruptly, JAAAY. It keeps going. You know those moments. Even with other noises in the background they are annoying.

Last month, when the jay explosion was still high, I heard at least thirty (a conservative estimate) screeching while hiking around Brinton Brook. To the north of the sanctuary, along with countless catbirds, I came across a large group of Blue Jays mobbing a raptor, all hidden in the thickness of the evergreens. Not quiet deafening but grating enough. I tried, without luck, to see which raptor they wanted to aggravate. They continued for minutes, even after I left.

The second sound Blue Jays produce is musical and gurgling. I hear “tingly-dee”. The Audubon Society website describes it as “queedle queedle.” Barely into birding, I thought I found another species. Whenever it rang in the winter air, I went outside, hoping to see this hidden bird. It took me several days to figure out it was a Blue Jay. I can’t remember how I did, but I was surprised that jays can produce such a limpid, bubbling song.

Lastly, Blue Jays imitate Red-shouldered and Red-tailed Hawks. I’ve only heard them do Red-tails. I didn’t even know when that Blue Jays could imitate these raptors for a time, so when I first saw a Blue Jay sitting in a tree, repeating the Red-tail call, I shouted at the jay, “Why??” I’d been fooled into thinking there had been a Red-tail – How neat was that! – in my neighborhood for the past couple days. In retrospect, the calls did seem off. There’s something about the timbre and the length. Now, I can easily recognize the imitations. Some are better than others. They might fool other birds, but not this birder anymore.

Blue Jays are also known for their aggressive behavior. I observed some of this behavior last winter, when I put out seed on my backyard deck. The smaller birds – juncos, sparrows, cardinals, etc – would be feeding peacefully when three or four Blue Jays arrived like schoolyard bullies, with a loud entrance. They’d sometimes peck at the mild-mannered juncos to move aside. As for the suet, any bird at the cage had to go. It was especially off-putting seeing the cardinals flutter down in distress. Looking on from inside the house, I protested this conduct. Fortunately, the Blue Jays didn’t approach to feed like this frequently, and they didn’t visit the deck much. Even if they begin to scare all of the birds away and hog the seeds for themselves, I won’t drive them away. They are birds after all. (Also, when they were so close to the back door, they allow me a good view to admire their plumage.)

While researching for this essay, I came across an article about Blue Jays from Audubon Magazine. The front image is a painting of a jay. Arrows stick out of the jay’s breast, on which there is a bit of blood. Meanwhile, the jay, singing, stares at the viewer with a happy expression, as if it were undergoing no harm.

My opinions on the Blue Jay may not be entirely positive, and I’m sure others feel a similar sentiment. But I don’t understand such a hate for this bird, let alone how someone could go as far as to project into reality this horrifying concept. Indeed, Blue Jays may be noise-makers , they are aggressive, and they eat bird eggs and nestling once in a while (although allaboutbirds.org says this is disputable because of a study, though they don’t link the study, to my frustration). By golly, I can think of other birds to justifiably dislike more intensely, such as the House Sparrow – go back to England! – and the European Starling. However, I wouldn’t go as far as to picture hurting them. And I don’t object to one if one disdains the Blue Jay. How can I stop you?

Morning at Muscoot Farm

The cold morning began with sun and fog. At a small building near the parking lot, two European Starlings, which were otherwise perched quietly, suddenly got into scuffle and tumbled down the tin roof, gurgling. After those few seconds, they broke away and settled back on the roof, forgetting.

Rock Pigeons sat on the barn’s gutters, House Sparrows chirped in the bushes, and small flocks of starlings murmurationed around the farm. In the tree next to the barn, Yellow-rumped Warblers flitted from branch to branch, catching insects, warming themselves in the sunlight. All but one adorned fall plumage – faint black streaks on their breasts, yellow lines barely visible on their flanks.

With the group finally gathered, we walked unhurriedly. Chickadees and titmice buzzed far into the woods. We searched for more warblers but none made appearances for us. In the background were soft tzzt’s of the newly arrived White-throated sparrows. The small field just out of eyesight of the farm looked mowed. It was empty and flat. Dried grasses bowed. Last month, the bright male goldfinches ate the plentiful thistle. Presently, I listened for any goldfinches. There were no per-chik-o-ree, only songs and calls belonging to other birds.

We continued. We saw a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, female, a first for me a first for me since last late winter. Shortly, across the road from the field, we came across our first hotspot for birds: a short tree, covered with vines. Several Gray Catbirds mewed and crackled. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet, tiny as a wren, olive colored with yellow lines on its wings, darted about so quickly that was impossible to get a good look at it. A Brown Thrasher made a brief appearance, peering back at us. On the other side, at the top of thick green beside the tree, a quiet Northern Mockingbird was perched.

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One of the birding hotspots that morning. Also depicted is half our group (nineteen members).

A Common Yellowthroat – female, since it lacked a black mask – foraged at the bottom of the tree, floating behind the large leaves. She was one of the pudgiest small birds I’d ever seen, even for a yellowthroat. As I watched her overturn fallen leaves, I overheard others’ excitement over a Swamp Sparrow, which was perched on the same as the mockingbird. I hurried over – a new bird for my life list. I was able to look at it for a few seconds with my binoculars – a solid enough chance for me – before it dropped into the green.

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The Swamp Sparrow. Photo by Billy Liljeroos

Passing the Eastern Bluebirds and Chipping Sparrows, we walked past the field and into and the small wood. Someone spotted a Green Heron down the hill, through the trees, at the pond – altogether more than fifty feet away from. It was crouched in patch of green grass. Immobile, a statuette. I was baffled as to how anyone could’ve noticed it. Many of us struggled to find it with our binoculars, including me. Anne Swain, our group leader, put her scope on it for everyone. We lingered for a bit. The Green Heron was a first for up to half the group. Then deciding we’d probably see the heron later, we moved on.

We reached the fields on the northern side, my favorite spot for birding at Muscoot. The season change had drained the colors, save for the grass we walked on. Where goldenrod abundantly grew last month, stalks and dried leaves tangled. Fluffs burst from a milkweed pods, seeds long released. Most of the mullein was nearly dead. Only their tips still had flowers. Dragonflies, fritillary butterflies, and honeybees and bumblebees no longer whirred around. The Ruby-throated Hummingbirds had already migrated two weeks ago.

Up the hill, by the gazebo, a young Eastern Phoebe was flycatching, maneuvering like an awkward moth. Having not caught anything, it rested on a mullein. For several minutes it looked around, tail flicking. Its breast appeared more yellow that it really was in the sun.

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Eastern Phoebe on a mullein. Photo by Billy Liljeroos.

As we walked up the hill, I noticed a few goldenrod stalks still standing, near the gazebo. Bumblebees crowded around the flowers, hoping for nectar overlooked by earlier visitors.

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Bumblebees crowding a single goldenrod bunch.

We walked along the edges of the fields. A manure pile below the line of trees attracted insects, which, in turn, attracted more Yellow-rumped Warblers, bluebirds, phoebes, and a Palm Warbler. One male Brown-head Cowbird – a brood parasite with a song like liquid metal – was perched on a young evergreen.

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Brown-headed Cowbird. It was so relaxed that I got within a few feet of it.

When we crossed over to the second field, I pointed out a Cooper’s Hawk in a dead tree. A Cooper’s Hawk is an accipiter: a raptor with a long tail in comparison with the length of its wings. I couldn’t make out much else with my binoculars, which don’t let in as much light I hope for. Looking through Anne’s scope, I clearly saw that the hawk’s back faced us. A young one, too – the wings’ dark brown plumage were white-flecked. Suddenly, the Cooper’s pooped. For us, that meant it just ate. We joked that it wouldn’t catch a rabbit or squirrel while we still hung around, like we anticipated.

A little later, as we continued our walk, an American Kestrel soared above us. We cried out when a Sharp-shinned Hawk – an accipiter that almost looks like smaller version of the Cooper’s Hawk – attacked the kestrel. The Sharpie barely missed sinking in its talons. Instead of attacking again, it flew away.

The kestrel had gone over to the woods adjacent to the field. For whatever reason, it perched in a tree and took flight, perched and took flight, never resting more than a few seconds, restlessly calling klee klee klee klee klee klee klee!! The autumn foliage complemented the small falcon’s beautifully colorful plumage: red rusty back, slate-blue wings forehead, black-spotted body. A spectacular sight, but I wondered about its behavior. After the long minute, the kestrel kept on flying, behind the trees and beyond our sight, its calls growing quieter.

When we arrived at the pond, we immediately look for the Green Heron. We scanned the opposite shoreline, half-hoping it’d still be there, half-assuming it had gone. But someone found it. Completely motionless, it was squatting by the water in front of the short grasses, fifteen feet left from its original spot. This Green Heron was young. Unlike an adult, its back and wings weren’t vibrantly green; and nor was its chest deep chestnut, but streaked, dark brown on white. It was like an American Bittern. If I were by myself, I wouldn’t have noticed it all. But here, now, with its presence revealed, I could even see it without binoculars.

Group leader Anne Swaim (left) takes a photo of the juvenile Green Heron. Yours truly watches her.

Walking back to the farm, as we passed the small field, the kestrel from before appeared, calling. It dove at the field few times, and then it began to soar in imperfect circles, right over our heads. I could see the light through its wing feathers. Looking through our binoculars, we saw a large grasshopper sticking out from its beak. The kestrel leisurely chomped on the grasshopper, bit by bit. We were amused by the breakfast on the go.

Finished, the kestrel tried to land on a thin branch at the very top of a tall tree. The wind had picked up by this time, causing the branches to sway. It took the kestrel more time than it should to realize that the struggle wasn’t worth it, so it glided down to a shorter tree. But it had barely stayed there for ten seconds when it took off again. Calling, the kestrel flew upward and disappeared past the trees, back to the northern fields.

August’s Goldfinch

August is the month for the American Goldfinch. They are the last songbirds to nest during the warm seasons, and they only have one brood. It coincides with the abundance of seeds, namely from thistles, asters, and sunflowers. The male’s plumage is at its yellowiest, a cheery sunshine, which appears brighter against black and white-lined wings, black cap, and little orange beak. The females may look drab even when not beside the males, though the olive is their olive, a beauty of its own.

The goldfinches frequently fly around all day. Above trees, back and forth across the deep blue sky, never landing, continuously traveling. Whenever I am outside and hear the per-chick-o-ree (or, “potato chip”), I look up to trace their irregularly undulating path. Once they go beyond my hearing range, I stare after them. I wonder where they go and what the purpose of their flight is.

When the goldfinches begin their nesting, they vanish until September, when their young fledge.

But just before, they become astonishingly aggressive.

I say astonishing because I’d never think these pleasant songbirds could behave this way. They are so sweet, so dazzling, with a vocal timbre so delightful and delicate. I did have some idea of their belligerence when I fed them for the first time, during the previous winter. I hung a finch feeder filled with nyjer seeds – basically, candy from El Dorado. Although the feeder had room for six birds at a time, the goldfinches allowed only up to four of themselves to feed peacefully. Once a fifth arrived and tried to knock one away, the two would nyoom around the backyard as if they were ballroom dancing. This happened more often as spring approached.

As the time to breed draws nearer, male goldfinch aggression heightens. Flocks break up. Territories must truly be established. Sometimes, one would be perched on a plant in the backyard garden, eating seeds, or drinking from the plant tray on the deck. Suddenly, another comes to pick a fight. They erupt in flight battles that look more extreme than their winter ballroom dance. First they have a face-off, fluttering closely to each other. They slowly rise into the air, wildly chirping as if to say, “You wanna a piece of this? Huh, huh?!” Then they’d either chase each other, or soon give up and return to their own businesses.

As intense as songbird fights are – they’re the equivalent of a soccer game brawl – it’s difficult to watch them with a serious face. Goldfinch fights? Comedy. During one of the Audubon group walk at Muscoot Farm, we stopped at the field to watch the goldfinches eat thistle seeds, admiring their plumage in the meanwhile. Suddenly, one goldfinch came too close to another and they went at it. The usual fighting. The few new-ish birders expressed that the scene was charming. To me, that was just as funny.

The gradual crescendo of aggression leads to stillness. As suddenly as goldfinches fill the sky, they fly about no more. When half of August passes, they, for the time being, choose their silence.

Ten Seconds

A young House Wren emerges from the thicket of tall grasses. Instantly, it jumps onto high branch of a leafless bush, surrounded by rocks in the middle of the garden path. Size of a kiwi fruit, stout and brown, tail short and upright, the wren turns its head this way and that. Beady eyes skim over me – be still, a bird approaches – to search for danger in this new place. The tiny decurved bill looks like the mouth of a concentrating child. Soundless, the wren hops to a lower branch, then to another, and another. A span of two seconds, though it seemed like less. Onto the path the wren returns, staying still just long enough so that it almost blends with the dark dirt. Then it flutters to a thickly-leafed, thorn-stemmed plant on the other side of the path. I stand up from the bench and move to try to find the wren. But it’s disappeared.