I took this picture on a trip to the ghost town of Shaniko, Oregon and didn’t notice the watcher within until I edited the photo. I thought it was something inside but realized later it was a reflection of the Shaniko Hotel across the street. It looked like some alien creature out of a Star Wars movie watching me. I found some interesting doors in Shaniko but apparently they were keeping an eye on me.
After living a life full of leaps and bounds, she settled down in her favorite aspen grove. The bunchgrass waved goodbye. The rabbitbrush shaded her in her final moments. The rosebush provided fruit in celebration of her life. And finally, the aspen covered her in leaves of gold.
Jays have insisted on being a part of my life since I was a young child. They are brash, bold, raucous, and not easily ignored.
As a five-year old living on a wooded lot in Maryland, the Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata, introduced itself to me with little formality. Its loud voice and striking appearance said, “Notice me!” Its frequent companion, the Northern Cardinal, also made it hard for me to look away. I guess that must be why I have a thing for birds with crests on top of their heads.
When I moved back across the country to Washington State, I met more Jays. On camping trips with my family, the Gray Jay, Perisoreus canadensis, made its kleptomaniac presence known. Otherwise known as the Camp Robber, this gray bird has a way of sneaking in and taking what it wants.
I had a boyfriend in high school named Jay. One winter I was out of town for a couple of weeks and when I came back he broke up with me. He told me he had started going out with “Mary” while I was gone. He said he had gone outside in the middle of the night and shouted to the world how much he loved Mary. Like I said, Jays have a way of being loud and taking what they want.
The next Jay played an important role in my life for many years. Steller’s Jays, Cyanocitta stelleri, are a deep azure blue topped with a black crested head. They like to imitate Red-Tailed Hawks and other birds. Steller’s Jays also have an appetite for other bird’s eggs and young. They especially like to prey on the endangered marbled murrelet, a small seabird that breeds in inland forests. While working on a project to preserve a forest where murrelets nested, I learned more about the football-shaped seabirds and their predation by jays than I knew about any pigskin football.
Western Scrub Jay
The latest Jay in my life is the Western Scrub Jay, Aphelocoma californica . When we first considered moving to the high desert of Oregon, I remember looking at potential houses and thinking, “What is that bird I keep seeing?” The bird raised its white eyebrows, cocked its head, and regarded me curiously. When we found the place we eventually bought, the blue, white, and gray Western Scrub Jays were in the backyard shouting a welcome.
Jays, with their distinctive appearance and mannerisms, always seem to be a part of my life.
Looking out of my window, I see a Townsend’s solitaire beating its wings and attacking its reflection in the side mirror of my parked car. It has been there for hours. Long strokes of white droppings adorn the side of my car. At first I assume the bird must be a male defending its territory.
Townsend’s solitaires are a drab gray relative of the American robin that most people wouldn’t even notice. They are not showy.
Male birds are usually the ones with colorful plumage but that is not the case with solitaires; the male and female look almost identical. I guess they decided not to follow the theory that a male is more brightly colored to attract females and the female has duller colors so she can sit undetected on a nest.
I watch the bird pause in its attack on my car as it flies into a nearby Western juniper tree. An orange crescent of plumage flashes on its outstretched wings only to disappear again as it settles into the tree. The bird is camouflaged by the gray bark on the twisted form of the tree. Its darker flight and tail feathers blend into the cracks and crevasses of the tree’s bark. It pulls off some of the juniper cones, tilts its head back, and gulps them down quickly. I see the flash of orange again when it flies up to the top of the tree.
In the fall and winter months, solitaires develop a one-track mind about what they will eat. They feed almost exclusively on the small purplish cones, otherwise known as berries, of the juniper tree. While we may think of these cones as being good for nothing but the production of gin, they provide all that solitaires need. The adaptable and much maligned Western juniper tree is being removed in parts of the West but solitaires and other animals often rely on it for food and shelter.
As their name implies, Townsend’s solitaires spend much of their time alone. They are a Greta Garbo type of bird. Solitaires often perch atop a juniper in a very upright position like a guard standing at attention. The bird will remain quiet and motionless until there is a need for defense.
The bird in my yard opens its beak to sing. The melodious song is surprisingly complex. The clear flute-like notes ring out and fill the sky. It starts calling. The one short note is a loud attention-grabbing whistle that is repeated over and over again. It’s like a bird version of a smoke alarm.
Male songbirds defend their territory by singing and calling around its borders. They essentially create a musically-charged “fence” around the boundaries. Townsend’s solitaire females also defend their territory. They will aggressively defend an area long past the breeding season. The females take an active role in protecting a productive juniper patch.
The solitaire returns to my car and perches briefly on the mirror. Its head is cocked to one side as it peers at the image of its perceived foe with a dark eye lined in creamy white.
I have learned to accept the unexpected. Those that first appear drab and dull may surprise you. Their colors may be hidden. Their voices may be quiet. They might be female. Give them a chance – look for the flash of color, listen to their song, and admire their strength.
Black and white and full of chatter. No, it’s not a newspaper; it’s a bird.
Distinctive black and white plumage and raucous calls make this bird easy to identify. Its unusually long tail gives it a unique silhouette. A magpie.
Their loud calls are often heard in the wild places they live in. They are also master imitators. Is that hawk you hear or is just a magpie?
From a distance they just look like a black and white bird. Look a little closer. Their plumage catches every little bit of light and reflects it back in an iridescent glow.
Some see them as smart opportunists while others see them as pests. Are they using their voice and brains to get ahead or get under your skin?
Not everything you see in black and white should be taken at face value. Look for colorful reflections. Listen beyond the chatter. Forgive those who use what they think will get them ahead to their advantage.