Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Bluebird Trifecta

Sunday, February 17, my wife and myself and Debbie Barnes of the Aiken Audubon Society set out to find a flock of Bohemian Waxwings that had been seen the day before at the U.S. Army Turkey Creek Recreation Area south of Colorado Springs. We did not find them. The outing was, however, far from a total loss. What we lacked in waxwings we more than made up for in bluebirds.

Our first stop was at the intersection of Barrett Road and Highway 115, where the Bohemian Waxwings had been seen most recently. No sign of them despite a fair crop of juniper berries in the area. Upon exiting back onto 115, we did spot a pair of birds on a telephone wire. They were quickly identified as male Western Bluebirds, Sialia mexicana. One of the two birds obligingly glided to the ground, then popped back up to sit on a fence post about thirty feet from our vehicle, affording the view shown above.

We backtracked to the Turkey Creek Recreation Area, pulling into a playground area with a collection of buildings and the stables where horses for the mounted color guard reside. A Lewis’ Woodpecker is known to hang out there, too, and was sighted earlier in the day, but was a no-show when we were there. No waxwings, either, just more Western Bluebirds, a Common Raven or two, and a flock of Dark-eyed Juncos.

While taking in the austere scenery, Debbie connected with another birder friend, Jeannie Mitchell, via cell phone. Jeannie was kind enough to share that news that a group of birders who were in Turkey Creek that morning had seen a huge flock of Mountain Bluebirds, Sialia currocoides. I admit I was skeptical, but we followed the appropriate road and….

Sure enough, here were probably at least 200 Mountain Bluebirds, distributed on each side of the road. A handful of American Robins, Turdus migratorius, were in their ranks, but the sight of all that turquoise blue was jaw-dropping. One dead tree in particular was essentially festooned with living, feathered ornaments.

By now, around 4 PM in the afternoon, the wind had gotten gusty, the sun lower, and the temperature was dropping. Reluctant to leave, we took it slow and found still more Mountain Bluebirds in a vast open field studded with old yucca and mullein stalks, plus the obligatory barbed wire fences and metal fence posts. Various Mountain Bluebirds took turns alighting on all available perches in really great light.

We also saw what we initially thought was another Western Bluebird. Looking at her pictures once she got home, Debbie realized it was actually a male Eastern Bluebird, Sialia sialis. Note that the Eastern Bluebird lacks the blue throat of the Western Bluebird. The belly of the Eastern Bluebird is also bright white, in contrast to the dirty appearance of the Western Bluebird’s underparts.

Bluebird trifecta! Looking at the distribution maps for bluebirds in the various field guides, one would not guess that the Eastern Bluebird ranges this far west, but here is proof to the contrary. There are always strays, of course, but as habitat, climate, and other factors change, birds adapt and their geographic ranges change accordingly, even from week to week. The convergence of all three species here is now a regular occurrence, especially at this time of year.

Debbie mentioned that bluebirds are feeding on juniper berries when flying insects, grasshopper nymphs, and other prey is not readily available. Cold fronts may push the birds into protected valleys and other warmer situations, but they quickly return when the temperatures warm up again. Sounds like me.

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