Wild Ideas: The Sharks and Jets rumble on the deck

At the end of April, in an effort to build up my stock of bird photos, I decided to lure in some birds by putting some seed out on my deck. Except for hummingbirds, I rarely feed birds this time of year and was surprised at the variety of species that showed up and the intensity with which some tried to claim the food as their own.

Male red-breasted grosbeaks fend off a blue jay at a bird feeder during a pouring rain.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
Male red-breasted grosbeaks fend off a blue jay at a bird feeder during a pouring rain.

A few male ruby-throated hummingbirds showed up within minutes of my hanging out the nectar feeder a few days before. To attract other birds, I put seed on a pelican-shaped planter base sitting on the deck railing. A light rain was coming down, and the sprinkle turned into a deluge over the next two days. A variety of birds came to the feeder anyway, some in gangs. Suddenly it was “West Side Story” out there.

The first were blue jays and grosbeaks. Since I moved in three years ago, I had seen only the occasional jay near the house and no grosbeaks. Jays are year-round residents, but the grosbeaks, a forest species, are migrants and on their way to their breeding grounds in the north and the higher elevations of the Appalachians. After I put out the feeder, first one jay, then several showed up, the same with the grosbeaks. It was like the Sharks and the Jets collecting their gang members for the big rumble.

Although the size of the two gangs varied at different times, I counted six jays and four male grosbeaks in all. The jays are much bigger than the grosbeaks, but attitude seemed to count more than size. The grosbeaks held the feeder, mostly thanks to a particularly aggressive one that kept the jays — and sometimes his brethren — at bay.

A newly arrived male indigo bunting sports glorious, iridescent-blue breeding plumage.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
A newly arrived male indigo bunting sports glorious, iridescent-blue breeding plumage.

Trying to slip in to score some seed during the lulls in combat were a few other birds — a male goldfinch in his bright-yellow breeding plumage, a male cardinal, a couple of male white-throated sparrows that hadn’t yet moved on to their northern breeding grounds and a couple of newly returned male indigo buntings. Various year-round residents, including tufted titmice, chickadees, mourning doves, a Carolina wren, a white-breasted nuthatch and a red-bellied woodpecker rounded out the avian cast. While all the birds gave deference to the woodpecker, probably because of its size, the grosbeaks and jays ruled, mostly ignoring smaller birds eating at the fringes.

While I waited for the weather to break, I enjoyed the show and couldn’t resist taking a few photos. The conditions were terrible for photography — I was shooting through a storm door that had glass on one side and screen on the other, the day was dark and rainy, and my zoom lens is not the best quality. I finally ended up opening the door to get better shots, only to have hummers fly into the house. Fortunately, they were easy to herd back out.

While the photos weren’t the best, they did capture some of the dynamics of the birds jockeying for position at the feeder. It was mostly an all-male show, with only a few females showing up. With the dimorphic species — those in which the genders differ in color, such as the grosbeaks — it was easier to tell if the birds at the pelican feeder were male or female. In species with only subtle or no differences in appearance between genders — like jays — it’s harder to tell.

With migrating species, males often precede females to claim the territory before the latter’s arrival. About a week later, the apparently all-male cast on the deck was broken up by the arrival of the first female hummer at the nectar feeder. Then a female grosbeak showed up at the pelican feeder, joining the males.

A male white-throated sparrow sings its sweet, desultory song while taking a break from feeding. He and his kin should be heading for their summer breeding grounds to the north any day.Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
A male white-throated sparrow sings its sweet, desultory song while taking a break from feeding. He and his kin should be heading for their summer breeding grounds to the north any day.

Most of the birds, intent on taking advantage of this unexpected largesse, became inured to my firing off shots with my camera from just a few yards away inside the house. After a couple of days of rain, the sun came out, showing off the deep-blue, iridescent feathers of the indigo bunting males. Like grosbeaks and cardinals, indigo buntings are in the Cardinalidae bird family.

A few days after the female grosbeak showed up, all the grosbeaks moved on, with a gang of cowbirds coming in to replace them. The jays had also dispersed, and the other birds started visiting the feeder less often. With spring now fully underway, they likely have more options for food and are busy with nesting.

My phoebe pair’s first clutch of eggs — five this year — was already hatching out when the cowbirds showed up, so the nest escaped parasitization. However, the phoebes may not be so lucky with the second clutch if so many cowbirds keep hanging around. I had gotten enough photos for the time being, so I quit putting out seed and will only keep the nectar feeder going.

There are still plenty of birds nesting here, including migrants such as indigo buntings, American redstarts, eastern towhees and wood thrushes, and I look forward to seeing and hearing them until they depart next fall. Without the drive to claim territory and breed, fall migrations of many bird species tend to be more of a trickle, as animated maps of migration sightings at eBird.org show.

Although many males shed their bright plumage after the breeding season, the fall migration still offers another opportunity to see species, such as the grosbeaks, that only are here briefly on their way to and from their breeding grounds.

© 2014 Pam Owen

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Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 280 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”