Friday, June 22, 2012

Urban Oasis # 5: A Blue Jay and A Gray Catbird in Downtown Boston

A plethora of flowering plants along the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston offer a nice visual respite from the harshness of the angular steel, glass and concrete which characterize the urban landscape, and attract birds.Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

Each day I usually pass through a small section of the Rose Kennedy Greenway, either on my way to, or home from, work. In addition to checking out whatever plant life may be blooming or changing in some way, I also try to keep an eye out for any unusual birds. There are some birds which are quite common and familiar in almost all cities in the US - Rock Pigeons, House Sparrows, European Starlings, etc., but I often wonder when I see these species, all of which are essentially alien invasive species, which native birds would fill in these small but important ecological niches if these alien invaders were not present.

While I have seen a number of American Robbins in and around these small green spots in the city, this morning as I was walking along the sidewalk in the heat and bright sunshine, a particular piece of birdsong caught my ear. I stopped to listen and after a minute or so I was pretty well convinced I was hearing a gray catbird - the call had both the rambling series of notes which is characteristic of the species and then I heard the distinctive cat-like squawk which is the Gray Catbirds signature note (in my mind, anyway). I took out my smart phone and moved closer to the tree where I heard the call coming from, and noticed something on one of the branches, I looked closer and saw that it was  a bird about the size of a catbird, but I did not see its bill move as I heard the vocalizations. Upon closer inspection I was surprised to see it was a Blue Jay, a bird which I wold not be overly surprised to see perhaps in the Boston Public Garden or the Arnold Arboretum, but one which seemed a little out of place in downtown Boston.

While I was looking at the Blue Jay and trying to get a photo (unsuccessfully, unfortunately) I could hear the catbird calling from a higher branch on the other side of the tree. I put down my work bag and moved slowly to the other side, where I did indeed see the Gray Catbird, sitting on a branch, partly obscured by foliage. I managed to get a photo of this bird, which is admittedly not that great, but you can at least see the shape of it. In silhouette it actually looks a bit like a Common Grackle to me, but I did get quite a close look at it and it was indeed a Gray Catbird.

This Gray Catbird was observed singing loudly from a high branch in a tree along the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston, MA. Image copyright Daniel E . Levenson 2012.
The Gray Catbird has a special place in my heart - they're not the most colorful birds and they certainly don't sing the most enchanting songs in the avian choir, but their seasonal arrival with the warm weather and their love of wet, brushy habitat reminds of me hot summer days spent fishing, exploring and having fun on and near the water. The Blue Jay was also good to see- as I've noted before on this blog, this species seems to be in decline in Massachusetts, so I always take special note when I see one.

There are some great online resources available if you'd like to learn more about the Gray Catbird or the Blue Jay (just one of several Jay species that call North America home). For the Gray Catbird I would recommend starting with this great description offered by the folks at Cornell University's e-bird project. You can also check out this piece, posted by the Migratory Bird Center at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park.

If Blue Jays are more your cup of tea, you can learn more about these raucous roarers of the treetops by checking out this page, run by National Geographic. The Canadian Museum of Nature also has some great photos and natural history information on this page.

After seeing these two birds today I know that I plan to keep a closer eye on the shrubs and treetops I pass in the city every day - now that I know there are Blue Jays and Gray Catbirds out and about, who knows what else I might find ?

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

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