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The Voices of the Steller’s Jay

Depth and nuance. That is something I strive for when journalling and sketching. And spending time in nature, on my deck in the Santa Cruz Mountains, for instance, really deepens my understanding and appreciation of nature.

Depth and nuance. When the casual observer, if they are observing at all, will hear the loud call of the Steller’s jay they might describe their call as “jarring”, “annoying”, “unmusical”, or “head-splitting”. But spending time with these birds really makes you love the depth, variety, and dynamics of this western jay’s vocabulary.

For me, this comes with time and awareness. Depth of time and the nuance of the subtlety of sounds these birds produce.

One morning, when the Steller’s jays were thick around the trees near the suet feeder, I decided to log the different sounds the jays made during a 15 minute interval. I tried to give a name or a onomatopoeia facsimile of the sounds I was hearing. Purely a subjective and unscientific exercise but a fun one at that!

The jays were especially vocal and I could only wonder at the meanings of their varied sounds. Even ornithologists do not fully understand the meaning of all the Steller’s jay’s calls. Why, for instance, do they imitate the red-tailed and red-shouldered hawk call?

In the space of 15 minutes, I counted about 15 different calls. I scribbled down in those 15 minutes calls such as: Faster chirp, Red-shouldered Call, rusty huge (Old gear), One grunt, Alarm clock (old school), tri-chump, Accelerated tri-chump, shirk-shirk-shirk, Reep!, red-shoulder whisper, silent whispser-ramble, Reet-Reeet!, and Ray-gun.

The “Reet-Reeet!” call was the call that called attention to an avian predator is close proximity. This was most likely the local Cooper’s hawk. This warning call not only alerted other Steller’s jays of the threat but also other birds in the area that seemed to know the jay’s warning cry.

Pygmy nuthatches can be tough to photograph well in low light because they are always in constant motion and images contain lots of motion blur. That is not the case then the nuthatches are frozen.

A few days before I noticed two frozen pygmy nuthatches on and near the suet feeder. Upriver I heard the masses mobbing calls of the Steller’s jay. This seem to be a warning that there was a predator in the area. I wondered what makes a pygmy nuthatch freeze? Was this a response to a predator in the area, just to hold absolutely still.

This is the duality of the Steller’s jay. On one hand they are nest robbers and on the other, they are the avian warning system of the confer forest than saves other bird’s lives.

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Van Damme Gray Ghost

Dickcissel and I stayed at Van Damme State Park at campsite #9. Van Damme is just south of the town of Mendocino, right off a lovely sandy cove.

This campground is legendary amongst birders because of one of its feathered residence. This is a bird that is sometimes known as the camp robber or the Gray Ghost. This is a bird that suddenly seems to appear out of nowhere, that is usually quiet, which is unusual for a member of the jay family. This is the southern edge of it’s range in California and as it’s name implies, the Canada jay is a creature of the far north.

Seeing a Canada jay, formerly called the gray jay, is not always guaranteed at Van Damme. While you may never see this sometimes-elusive bird, it certainty sees you. This jay is extremely curious and often bold.

The bird that is usually first encountered at the campground is the bold and raucous Steller’s jay. This is the west’s only crested jay and it is a bird that I have loved since my childhood. The Steller’s jay is often the first visitor when you pull into camp. Like the Canada, this jay is also very curious.

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Since childhood, I have always loved this much maligned jay, with a raucous call and it’s bold jayness. The lesson (and some times struggle) is to see the beauty in everything.

As we set up camp we saw and heard Steller’s but there was no sign of the grey ghost. As dusk approached, a young great horned owl called from the forested hillside and an adult responded from across the way. The owls called for most of the night, which along with the ringing of a buey bell just outside of the cove, were the soundtrack of our Van Damme slumbers.

In the morning, as the owl calls slowed to a stop, the first diurnal call that I heard was the acorn woodpecker. This was soon joined by Pacific wren, Dark-eyed junco, American robin, northern flicker, ruby-crowned kinglet, common raven, red-breasted nuthatch, and the ever-present Steller’s jay. I ticked all these bird calls off as I stayed in the warmth of my sleeping bag.

But then I heard a soft call. I call that I had trouble recognizing. As I sorted through the calls in my memory bank, I knew it could only be one bird! The ghost had arrived!

I zipped open my tent and peered out into the morning half-light. There in the tree over the picnic table was a Canada jay! I loudly whispered over to Dickcissel’s tent, “They’re here!”

I threw on my clothes, putting on one sock upside down in the process and stumbled out of my tent. In the tree were a family of four Canada jays, coming in to investigate our camp. Dickcissel and I watched these beautiful corvids as we ate our breakfast.

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This gray ghost is getting a little too close to my morning oatmeal! This very inquisitive,  and fearless jay is not called the “camp robber” for nothing!

Doing a little field sketching of the Canada jays of Van Damme State Park. The sketcher is looking a little “gray” himself.

IMG_7314The Canada jay is very much attracted to the presence of humans and are a very intelligent and curious critter! This jay is perched on our food larder at campsite #9.