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Idaho Voices

Bird lovers delight in jay’s rare appearance

Sun., Nov. 28, 2010

Chuck Murray discovered a strange bird recently in his Bayview backyard. A western scrub jay showed up Oct. 24 and appears to be settling in for a long stay. Nonmigratory, their habitat stretches from southern Washington state to Texas, preferring the dry areas south of us.

The last sighting of this species in North Idaho was in 1977 around the Priest Lake area. Murray notified the Audubon Society, requesting information on the bird, and the society lit up like a Christmas tree with excitement. Large numbers of bird-watchers have descended on the Murray homestead hoping for a peek at this rare bird.

While they normally travel and feed in pairs, Murray has only observed one. When the bird first arrived, Chuck didn’t know what it was, so he took a picture of it and sent it to Audubon. About a week later, there were more bird-watchers in his yard than birds.

Shirley Sturts, secretary of the Idaho bird records committee of the Audubon Society said, “This will be the first documented record in North Idaho. It appears that they are expanding their range from the Pacific Coast east.”

Besides the three western scrub jay sightings, including a La Grande, Ore., pair in September, there are five confirmed eastern blue jay sightings in the Inland Northwest so far this year.

Murray has been feeding birds at his home on Cape Horn Road for 20 years and has befriended a covey of California quail that have lived in the area for a long time. Gradually they stopped spooking when the Murrays were around. Now they wait under a bush in his yard for the afternoon feeding around 3:30 p.m.

As far as the western scrub jay is concerned, he hit pay dirt, since a hungry bird will find a smorgasbord at this location. This jay is noted for liking whole peanuts and will often hide them much like a squirrel does. They also have a remarkable memory as to where they left the hidden trove.

I contacted Professor Jonathan Isacoff of Gonzaga University, recognized as an area expert on our feathered friends, with a few questions:

Q. How rare is it to see this species in our neighborhood?

A. Western scrub jays are extremely rare away from coastal western U.S. They are a strictly coastal bird and they are most abundant closer to Mexico and get less and less abundant as you move from California to Oregon to Washington. They’re fairly common in the Puget Sound and coastal areas of Washington; very rare inland. I believe this is the third record all-time in the state of Idaho. If not, it’s close to that. So this is, for an Idaho resident, a “once in a lifetime” bird.

Q. Could he be seeing two instead of one, since one picture which I asked him to send to you looked like it was a different bird?

A. One of the birds does seem to be crisper and more colorful in its plumage in one of the photos. However, the photos were taken about 12 days apart. It could be that the bird is molting into or out of a more crisp plumage. Another possibility is that the bird has gotten “ruffled” by the cold weather or by other birds. When jays of various species drift to rare locations, the norm is one or two birds. Whether it’s a pair or an individual is totally unpredictable. However, if there were two scrub jays in Bayview, they would almost certainly come to the feeders at the same time or at least be visible from the same location at the same time most of the time they are present. Since only one bird was seen every time for two weeks, I’m guessing there is only one bird.

Q. Why do people get such universal enjoyment in bird-watching?

A. Well, that’s an interesting question. It’s sort of like why golf? Or why poker? One of the great things about birding is you can do it anyplace, anytime. Even Central Park in New York City has a diversity of birds. Other than an outlay for some binoculars (and maybe gas money), it is essentially free – you don’t need to join a club, pay a greens fee or invest in extremely expensive equipment (though many birders do).

The difference is with golf, for example, the clubs are expensive and mandatory. In birding, the high-tech spotting scope is optional. But if I could sum up why people enjoy it: It gets people outdoors, but only as much or little as they want. It is family friendly and can promote great parent-child bonding. And for many people, birds are either cute or beautiful, or both. So it is aesthetically appealing. Some people just love nature and love watching the miracle of flight in nature. There is no one answer, but there are certainly no shortage of reasons to love birding. 

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