An Information Packed Post
The fast flash of blue, the short dash of white, the blood curdling call. You know when they arrive. Or do you?
Blue Jays, like Starlings, (Sturnus vulgaris) recently featured here on GWGT, can mimic the call of hawks. This can be very alarming to the song birds and it is believed that Blue Jays do this intentionally, deceiving song birds into fearing that a hawk is looking for prey. And sometimes they are…
f5.6 1/1250 ISO 500 – 300mm
The calls may signal other jays that a hawk is lurking. This brings more jays to gather and mob the intruder. So, when the jays get noisy, it is time to pay attention.
That is exactly how I saw this hawk today. The loud chatter let me know it was in the garden. I was surprised to see it in the pear tree and not on the fence where it usually lands. One thing is certain, jays are boisterous, chaotic, but always fun to watch.
These birds, Cyanocitta cristata, are in the Family Corvidae, which is where crows reside. Starlings are in the Family, Sturnidae, but they still have the same mimicking skill. It is no match to the skill of my cockatoo, who can mimic the crows outdoors. He lures them to his window and they sit screaming at each other. He has quite the vocabulary too, yelling for me by name.
Above is the range map of the Blue Jay. Out west, they have the beautiful Steller’s Jay. (source – Cornell Lab) Honestly, it was news to me to see Blue Jays at the tip of Florida year round.
With a little cock of their crest, you know who is in charge at the feeders. But every now and then, they show pensive curiosity. These images have a bit of story.
f5.6 1/200 ISO 1000 – 300mm lens - about 20 feet to the subject – Thru a window
Experiencing Their First Snowfall
This family of Blue Jays were hatched here last summer. There are three siblings that are experiencing their first snowfall. Often, the three travel together to show up in my yard. It is not possible to tell the males from the females until they start pairing up in Spring, so I can’t tell you if we have boys or girls.
In this series of photos, the one above is intently watching the snow fall. I have two of the siblings pictured in this post. Want to know how to tell one from the other?
The black bridle across the face, nape, and throat varies and may aid Blue Jays in recognizing one another.
f6.3 1/200 ISO 1000 – 300mm lens – about 20 feet to the subject – Through a window.
Jays are intelligent birds, and I can only imagine what they must be thinking being exposed to their first winter.
What Do They Like to Eat?
Blue Jays in summer will eat insects, but will also occasionally take the eggs and nestlings of other birds. In winter they eat nuts, especially acorns, and seeds from trees, shrubs, or those foraged on the ground. They will also eat grains, but most of their diet is composed of insects and nuts.
f6.3 1/200 ISO 800
In my yard they love the peanut hearts and cracked corn, and have no problem filling their beaks with shelled peanuts, three at a time with the jay on the left.
f5.6 f200 ISO 400
Jays will eat safflower seed, but Cardinals savor safflower. Blackbirds, grackles and squirrels typically do not like it. Yippy for that, and it is why I use a lot of safflower seed.
Backyard Photo Studio Tip – Perching
Yes, the tip for today is… trim those trees. Open up the branching. Birds go to open branching and we want to control where they land.
The single branches on the Pear tree that you see them perching on have been stripped clean of side branches to encourage the birds to perch where I choose. I pruned the pear tree from the perspective of my camera’s viewing position indoors.
f5.6 1/1600 ISO 640 – 220mm
Another important thing to remember is that where a bird perches is proportional to the size of the feet. When they land, the “knees” bend and the feet clasp. This is an action of the flexor tendons and is automatic when they land on a perch. These tendons are attached to muscles above the bird’s heel, like what we view as a backward knee.
Size matters. If you want big birds, prune big branches. Note from comparison images the size branches birds will use for perching.
Background defines the subject…and Keep Pruning
So check that you have light falling on the subject and have a background that does not distract if possible. Above, I would have preferred the scene without the white sky, but I did get time to reset the exposure, like in the first image of the hawk in the post.
Compare the first few images of jays and the one above that are cluttered with branches to the birds on a stripped branch. It is hard to get a clean shot of a bird unless you can position yourself to have them without branches blocking the subject, especially the face like the photo of the jay above.
So if you prune a few perimeter branches, you have an instant perch, easily accessible to the birds, you and your camera. Birds like clean perches because they are easier to navigate to and from.
Many nature photographers will improve a shot in this way if it is not a photo that must be kept completely natural. Some even carry clippers in their bags to remove foliage from a composition.
The photographer that I learned this technique has a special way to prune the branches. He knocks off side branches in a backward swinging motion with a long broom handle rather than using clippers. It makes for a more natural appearance. I, on the other hand, clip them to avoid unnecessary tearing. It is better for the tree’s health. Just saying…
f6.3 1/200 ISO 1000 – 300mm lens – about 20 feet to subject – Through a window.
Add Yard Props
Below is another prop added to the Backyard Photo Studio Shooting Gallery. It is a saw cut poplar log for birds to land on, and elevates them by two feet. As a prop, you can move it anywhere to make for a good photo. You train the birds to come to it with the enticement of food. Being poplar, it is very light to pick up and move, and having been stripped of bark, it harbors no insects.
This is the second sibling, a bit trimmer than the other one. Maybe it’s a girl!
f7.1 1/200 ISO 1000 – 240mm – About 9 feet to the subject – Taken indoors through a window.
See below, cracked corn is a favorite.
f6.3 1/200 ISO 1250 – 270mm – About 8 feet to the subject – Taken inside through a window.
Next post, Cardinals in Winter – Photo Tips – Fabricating Perches. This is a post on making a natural perch using cut branches and also backyard objects used for perching.
After a few species of birds get their featured spot, I will show you some of the things you are seeing in context, plus a whole lot you haven’t seen. I will explain the setup more fully.
Let’s recap tips mentioned so far.
- Buy seed specific for the species of birds you want to attract and that squirrels don’t like.
- Install plants that feed and shelter the birds.
- Design the garden to benefit and protect wildlife.
- Place feeding stations deliberately to aid in photographing.
- Add natural props.
- Prune out plants for unobstructed landing perches.
- Clean branches of obstructing side branches and pick the branch size to prune by the sized bird you hope will land there.
- Learn the habits of your subject.