I’m truly ashamed…seems we in North Carolina hear and see some of our birds so much that we hardly give them the attention that we do other birds. Today was no different. Walking along the trail was what seemed to be Cardinals or sparrows making their sounds. But quickly, things took a turn…a “Blue” turn…when the sounds didn’t match what I was looking at making them, I couldn’t believe it. There in front of me was the deep cerulean blue colored Blue Grosbeak, a cousin to the Northern Cardinal! This was my first time ever seeing one!
What a beautiful shade of blue accented by chestnut red on its wings. The Blue Grosbeak was a wonder of both vibrant color and familiar sound indeed. The beak had an almost aluminum blue sheen color to it.
Look Towards the Sound Anyway!
In not looking in the direction of the sounds I was hearing to see who it was, like I usually do, I almost missed a “first time for me bird”. The Blue Grosbeaks had the perfect area to nest in at Lawson’s Trail. Just to the RIGHT of the trail is an ascending embankment of Cypress trees, maples and Sweet Gums which provided them a place to find food. Below the trees, a prolific thicket of lower growing native shrubbery and thick vines was a perfect place for their nest. The sounds I was hearing were coming from the LEFT side of the trail — from the edge the open swamp itself.
They Bobbed and Bobbed on the Branches…
They loved landing on old cut Sweet Gum stumps and landing in the light and airy branches of our native Black Willow trees. As the wind would blow, it made it hard to photograph the Grosbeak couple as the branches were moving about with each and every breeze.
Where was the Nest of the Blue Grosbeaks?
Interesting question. It surely was not located in the Black Willow trees. After reading about Blue Grosbeaks, I realized they make their nests in tangled up vines and thickets. Such would be the case here. Their nest was in the vine and shrub mixture growing just on the right of the trail. Through subsequent visits here during the summer into early fall, they maintained this same behavior as if to draw me away from their nest. I would hear them minutes before I could see them. I only saw these two Blue Grosbeaks along this trail over those months…until they had babies!
The date of these photos is July 3, 2017. Per this photo of the female Blue Grosbeak, she appears to have some food in her mouth.
NOTE: Fast forward to my August 28, 2017 visit to the trail. There were juvenile Blue Grosbeaks in the same exact spot. Quite fun to see. They were even more skiddish than their parents were at my presence on the trail. I stayed in the center of the trail and only moved the camera which I was holding when I saw them. Slowly I advanced on down the trail.
A Few Facts about the Blue Grosbeak (Passerina caerulea)
- Size: 6 3/4 inches tall with an 11 inch wingspan
- Habitat: Edge of woodlands, thickets, low growing brush/shrubbery
- Nest: made mostly from twigs, snakeskin, leaves, paper…(interesting note: I later found a large 6 foot snakeskin at this exact area in this vine/shrubbery area. I left it undisturbed since many birds use them in their nests for materials.) 1-2 broods a year with 3-6 pale blue eggs.
- Food: In summer it consumes insects, fruits, seeds, snails. May come to a feeder.
- Migratory: In North Carolina, it’s here during the summer. Arrives mid-April and leaves in October. Winters in the tropics of the Bahamas, Cuba, Mexico and Central America. Check your local field guide for its occurrence in your area.
- Interesting tidbit: these birds exhibit “delayed plumage maturation”…meaning that some young males look like the female version of the species at the time of their first breeding. Possible reasons: protecting them from predators due to their inexperience. (Females blend in more with their surroundings.) Another reason could be to mix with females and avoid a territorial adult male. Since females like the brightly feathered males, these dull colored males may not make the “A” list for their first breeding season…chuckle, chuckle.
Any Other Birds Present in the Blue Grosbeak’s Community?
Yes, there were! First off, the family of CARDINALIDAE has many similar birds. From this photo, the Blue Grosbeak’s cousin, the beautiful red Northern Cardinal, pays a visit!
The Four Things You Can Learn from This Siting of the Blue Grosbeak
There are the four things you can learn from my taking for granted a Northern Cardinal’s frequently heard sounds and finding a Blue Grosbeak instead. Keep these questions in mind when you’re out birding:
- Are you sure it’s NOT the sound of another bird with a similar sound? Have you become COMPLACENT with their sound of the birds do you see making that same sound?
- HOW MANY birds are present making that sound that you can see? Are they Males? Females? Juveniles? A Pair?
- What other birds are NEAR them? WITH them?
- WHEN do you see them on your subsequent visits at the same spot? Same area? Same time of year, only during migration, or all year round?
About Number 4…
This one is important and here’s some thoughts to always ponder in your observation of any birds’ habitat, particularly in a swamp area:
- What season of the year is it?
- What trees, shrubs, vines or herbaceous perennial or annual wildflowers are leafed out?
- NOT leafed out? If its just leafing out of dropping its leaves, you may have a migratory bird just passing through or setting up shop there for the breeding season or winter season.
- IN bloom? OUT of bloom? Berries or a type of fruit present? Some trees flower and later in the year produce a fruit. Your bird may be there for the fruit or seeds.
- Any insects of the same type flying around? Lots of different insects? Your type bird may be there to breed where food is plentiful.
- Is there water present? A lot? A little? Does it look dried up as if a lack or rain? Some birds may be resident birds of your larger area but not usually seen near you and they may be going where you are due to their food source no longer being available where they usually forage. (Example: I have never seen Great Egrets OR White Ibises in 15 years at this location, but this year I did. The egrets were here due to flooding in their usual areas and the Ibises due to a long season of no rain. Even though this spot was almost dry, the crayfish and smaller fish were in large puddles. This was barely enough for the Ibises to spot in flight down below, but they did.)
So NEXT Time…
It’s easy to take for granted sounds we hear so frequently birding that we don’t stop to see who it is. Other species of birds often mix with certain other species of birds. I certainly am glad I didn’t just keep walking by when I heard the Northern Cardinal…I would have missed seeing this fantastic Blue Grosbeak!