Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Blue Sort of Morning

One of my favorite local birding spots has a nice variety of habitat: meadows and fields (yes, there is a difference!), a pond, a stream, a swampy area and a small marsh (yes, there is a difference!), hardwoods, conifers, hillsides, a swale, lawns and gardens, and a small farm. Living and dead trees, shrubs, grasses – all these make good homes for a variety of birds.

When I drove through there this morning, I stopped to check on the bluebirds that had recently started patrolling the nest boxes that the property owner has posted here and there across the property. There they were, like drops of sky come down to earth. The brilliancy of the male Eastern Bluebird can hardly be described. Azure, turquoise, lapis – all shimmering together on the back of this bird, whose incongruously rusty breast sets off the blue to perfection.

Have you ever heard a bluebird sing? Imagine the sweet warble of a its cousin the American Robin, slowed down and lower pitched, with a warmer, more liquid tone than the robin’s sweet clarity…the bluebird’s alto complements the soprano of the robin. I put down the car window and listened….

Another song caught my ear, further up the hillside: a cheery, irrepressible twittering, not melodic, but bright and eager. There, perched on one of the nest boxes, was a different kind of blue – a Tree Swallow. The swallow’s violet-blue wings and back, shining with bright blue iridescence, contrast sharply with the snowy-white breast and belly. Swallows spend most of their waking hours aloft, catching flying insects, so I took a good long look at this twittering fellow, standing on improbably short little legs on the nest box. This was the first swallow I’ve seen this spring.

When I arrived home, the backyard feeders were busy with the usual collection of juncos, white-throated sparrows, cardinals, goldfinches, chickadees, and pine siskins (what a siskin winter it has been!). (The woodpeckers will be back when I can remember to fill the suet feeders.)

A flash of blue-gray caught my eye – a different kind of blue! There on the feeder was one of my favorite birds, a Tufted Titmouse. He took a sunflower seed to the wisteria bush, where he fixed it between his feet and hammered at it with his strong little bill. Soon the hull split in two, and he pulled out the kernel, letting the husks fall as he flew back to the feeder. Though this charming little bird is often described as gray, it’s really a pale slaty-blue that is especially pretty in the winter against the white and gray landscape. Smart little birds, and so attractive with their black eyes and beaks and cheeky calls.

As I watched, the birds suddenly flew up and away as a Blue Jay – a different kind of blue! – sped in like a dive bomber with widespread wings and tail, scattering the other birds with its loud Jay! Jay! Easy pickings at the now-empty feeders. No harm done; the little birds come back quickly and they all eat side by side. I love the Blue Jays; they’re smart and interesting to watch, and they are certainly one of the most beautiful birds we know. Do we take them for granted because they are so common? Next time you see a Blue Jay, take a few minutes to really study it. Appreciate the pearl gray breast and the soft white belly feathers. Note how many different shades of blue are in the back, wings, and crest; did you ever notice that? See the necklace of black feathers, which reminds me of the ancient ceremonial collars of scholars and clerics. Notice the white spots in wings and tail, beautifully displayed when the bird swoops up to our deck rail from its flight across the yard. Consider the strong bill, legs, and feet, all in shiny black, setting off that bright black eye. Lovely!

As the birds settle down to feed again, a few Purple Grackles fly to the wisteria bush, taking in the whole scene before dropping to the deck and feeder to pick up seeds. They are shyer than the other birds, perhaps because they stop at our feeders only during spring and fall migrations, unlike the other birds which live in and around our yard. These smaller cousins to our big black crows are glossy black all over, with an indescribable iridescence that ranges from bronze to purple to gold to aquamarine – a different kind of blue! Here’s another gorgeous bird, so common that we sometimes fail to appreciate its beauty.

Altogether, it was a blue sort of morning…and did I mention the purple-blue crocuses and scilla blooming in the neighborhood?

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