Thursday, October 22, 2020

All About Stellar Jays

 Here is a recent post from the Union Bay Watch Blog published by Larry Hubbell, long-time local photographer and birder.

Steller's Delight

What do you see in this photo? 

The obvious response is a mature Steller's Jay, perched on a log, above its reflection in the water. Do you see any clues to its recent behavior? 
Here is a closer look. 

By the way, Click Here if you would like to read how this species got its name. Look in the second bullet under "Cool Facts".

Did you notice the clumped, wet-looking feathers on its head and just above the legs? 

If you inferred that the bird was recently submerged, Congratulations! Well done.

When I see a bathing bird I immediately hope for a perfectly in-focus photo with our avian subject surrounded by a misty cloud of droplets. Somehow, reality always seems to fall a little short. Still, I continue to enjoy the challenge and nature continues to provide surprises.

While watching the jay, I noticed an American Robin hopping steadily closer. The robin was obviously focused on the bathing bird.

The wet jay paused briefly before moving into the pose in the first photo - above. See the update below for more bathing Steller's Jays - Thank you to Dennis Paulson!

In my bathing-bird fantasy, the jay would be spreading its wings and tail to assist the sunlight in drying its feathers. In reality. this dry-land, sunbathing jay photo was from a year before and a half-mile away. I just couldn't resist sharing.

Apparently, birds are influenced by the power of visual suggestion. As soon as the jay was out of the water the robin jumped in.

This mist is closer to my bird-bathing fantasy. However, since the dark back and head of the robin nearly disappears against the backdrop of gravel and rocks I am still searching for the optimal bird-bathing photo.

This week, I was inspired to write about Steller's Jays after watching them harvesting live, green acorns out of oak trees in the Arboretum.

At the first tree, where I was watching the Steller's Jays at work, I noticed an Eastern Gray Squirrel approaching on the ground. Squirrels also love acorns. A moment later, from the top of the tree, I heard what sounded like a Red-tailed Hawk. Although, it did seem to have a bit of an oddly raspy inflection which reminded me of a Steller's Jay. Almost immediately the squirrel popped out on the far side of the tree, still on the ground. The squirrel did not linger. It appeared to leave the tree without any of the acorns. It may have all been a coincidence but I suspect the jay successfully scared off the squirrel. This type of behavior seems like an obvious indication of superior intelligence.

In the past, I have watched Steller's Jays pick whole acorns off of a tree (or off of the ground) and carry them away in their bills.

I do not remember watching them pluck...

 ...and pull... the supporting twig...

...and then carry the nut away... 

...while using the twig like a handle. 

When I was able to track the jay with an acorn, it would generally fly into an evergreen tree, like a Western Red Cedar. 

It would quickly disappear into the safety of the shadows, surrounded by foliage. In the past, I have watched them land on horizontal branches where they will hold the acorn with their feet and open it by striking it with their bill.

I suspect at other times they disappear into the shadows to hide the acorns for winter consumption.

This winter photo reminds me that Steller's Jays are year-round residents throughout their range. 

Their coastal range extends from Southeast Alaska to Northern California. However, they also reside in and around the inland mountains of Southwestern Canada, the Western United States, Western Mexico, and even as far south as Nicaragua. They move up and down the mountains depending on the weather. Some migration is known to occur but not enough to show up on any of the range maps that I could locate.

In this July photo, I noticed feathers of vary lengths, most obvious in the crest but also along the shoulder, chest, and wing. Steller's Jays are likely to be molting throughout the summer but July is their prime time for growing new feathers.

This was the same day but most likely a different bird. Its crest also has some feathers of odd lengths. I believe the bird is cleaning its bill on the branch in this photo - which is a process called "feaking".

On the same July day, I also watched Steller's Jays harvesting Beaked Hazelnuts. Half hidden below the leaves you can see how hazelnuts generally grow in units of two.

By the way, Hazelnut leaves have some of the softest leaves in the forest. This can be useful information to help with identification and other more mundane tasks.

Even though they are obviously green, the jays evidently think the nuts are close enough to ripe by the end of July.

They remove the husks in the same manner that they remove acorn shells. My neighbors say their local pair also loves peanuts. My understanding is that Steller's Jays will eat almost anything that provides nutrition. They seem to be quite flexible when it comes to finding food. 

Steller's Jays are members of the Corvid family as are American Crows and Common Ravens. Corvids are quite intelligent and apparently able to easily adapt to our inadvertent ecological impacts. 

All About Birds quotes the North American Breeding Bird survey which says, "Steller's Jay populations have remained relatively stable...from 1966 through 2015..." Crows have also maintained their populations while the counts of ravens are increasing. 

At a time when many avian species are in decline, this makes me wonder if challenging times creates a natural selection for intelligence.

By the way, during our Master Birder Class (from Seattle Audubon) Dennis Paulson pointed out that the angle of a Steller's Jay's crest is indicative of their emotional state. My perception is that a vertical crest indicates agitation while a horizontal one communicates peaceful well-being. Sometimes, I wish human emotions were that easy to read.

Of course, Steller's Jays have another advantage in addition to intelligence.

They also have brilliant and beautiful good-looks. It seems to me that Steller's Jays are winning the evolutionary lottery.

Dennis Paulson says, "...Here are some photos for you from our pond! Probably the same jay on two different days."  

Which species of trees is this? Is it native to Union Bay?

Ginkgo biloba  It is not a native tree. However, Steller's Jays seem perfectly able to figure out that the food is edible and useful.

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