On my Facebook page on July 5th, I posted an accounting of the numbers of birds on my ABA Life list that had colors in their names. The total was 152 species with “Black” being the color that came up the most with 41 species. I incorrectly had “Blue” with a surprisingly low 9 species. Rechecking, I find that there are actually 15 “Blue” species as I had cross referenced an alphabetical list only. Thus 158 of my ABA birds have a color in their name – about 22 percent. Too many “Black” birds to include them all in a blog post, but “Blue” is manageable. Here they are with some comments on each. They are in alphabetical order with the exception of the Black Throated Blue Warbler which I have saved for last as a segue to some very personal reflections.
The Blue Grosbeak is a relatively common breeder throughout the Southern U.S. My first observation was in Maryland in 1975. It would be 42 years before seeing another one – on the Dry Tortugas in Florida in April 2017. Later that year I saw several in Arizona and in New Mexico and this year, others were seen in Texas and North Carolina. This photo is from Zapata County Texas on April 11, 2018. Its large bill helps separate this species from Indigo Buntings which are often found in similar field margin habitats. The solid blue of each make the birds jump out, but I find them both kind of plain – but not nearly as plain as the Blue Grosbeak female which is a very dull light brown.
Blue Jays and Northern Cardinals may well be the best known birds of the Eastern U.S. A corvid, it is raucous, gregarious, and easily identified. It is common in urban and suburban areas as well as in forests – primarily at forest edges – so long as there are oak trees around. I am sure my first Blue Jay was seen as a young child in Maryland way before I was keeping lists. Since then I have seen them on dozens of occasions listing them in 9 states. They make annual appearances in Washington – more often in the most eastern and southeastern parts of the State.
My Washington “lifer” was a heard only bird in Ephrata in December 2012. Wanting a better observation, I chased a bird that had been seen at Lyons Ferry State Park in October 2013 during my (first) Washington Big Year. It is one of my favorite stories. Palouse Falls is just shy of 8 miles north of Lyons Ferry. I had never seen the Falls which seem to come out of nowhere in dry country. I also needed a rest stop so I made a brief detour. I snapped a few photos of the Falls and then entered the restroom – neither the best nor worst of many such facilities I have visited in our state parks. When I got out, the Blue Jay was perched on the roof of the restroom. Sometimes you just get lucky!!
Palouse Falls (on a winter trip in December 2015)
The photo above is of the Blue Jay that was a regular visitor and treat for many birders at “Barry’s Farm” on Bow Hill Road in Skagit County beginning in December 2017 and continuing for many months into 2018.
Blue Gray Gnatcatcher
I first saw this fairly drab little bird in San Jose California in 1973 just as I was starting to bird “seriously”. Although this photo from San Diego in January 2017 emphasizes the “Blue” in “Blue Gray”, I think that was probably at least helped a bit by Photoshop. Usually these birds are substantially more gray than blue. They breed throughout much of the U.S. except Washington, Montana and the upper Plains. In the past few years they have been found regularly in the Neah Bay area in November and December – why not – it’s Neah Bay where anything is possible. I saw my first Washington one there in November 2015. I have seen them in Washington several times since and in 7 other states. Some of my most frustrating birding was trying to get a photo of a very similar California Gnatcatcher last December. It seemed that every time I thought I had one in the open, it turned out to be another Blue Gray Gnatcatcher. Finally at the San Elijo Lagoon, I succeeded.
Blue Headed Vireo
Another Eastern species, the Blue Headed Vireo joins the Black Capped Vireo as my favorite Vireos. Granted I have only seen 13 Vireo species in the ABA area, but I think both of these are quite sharp. Somewhat like the Blue Gray Gnatcatcher, the “Blue” head often appears more “Gray”. This photo is from my Maine trip in June 2015 – taken at Schoodic Point. It is the bluest head I have seen. As with many eastern species, I saw my first one in Maryland in 1975. Others have been seen in New Hampshire, Florida and earlier this year in Texas.
This Bluethroat was one of the specialty targets in Nome in June 2016. If you want to see one in the ABA Area, you have to go to northern Alaska. We found it singing on the Kougarok Road. In the same area, in addition to lots of mosquitoes, we also found Arctic Warblers – the other targeted breeding species in the area – found only there. I was very happy to have the observation and get the photo, but I wish we had been a bit closer as it is truly a striking bird.
Blue Throated Hummingbird
I had seen my first Blue Throated Hummingbird at Cave Creek Ranch in Arizona in June 1977 and had not been back to the area since then. On a Wings Birding Tour, I returned in August 2017 hoping to get photos of many of the specialty birds I had seen but not photographed on that first visit. This was one. Obviously I got the photo, but it was one of the major disappointments of the trip. We had seen one the day before and I got a crappy photo in tough light. Our trip leader said not to worry as we would see many of them the next day at the Southwest Research Station feeders in Cave Creek Canyon. We made our first stop at a place that had gifts in the Canyon and then went to the Research Station. The group dawdled getting to the feeders as the leader “carried on and on” about butterflies and dragonflies and other non-bird stuff. I went on my own down to the feeders where some Blue Throated Hummers were active. I had no sooner gotten the photo shown here, when the call came out that we were behind schedule and had to leave. WTF!!?? A much better photo would have easily been possible – but… Not a happy moment!!!
Blue Winged Teal
To me this is a very inaptly named bird. Yes there is blue in its wing, but there is also blue in the wing of the Cinnamon Teal. The obvious field mark for the male though is the purplish blue head and the very distinct white crescent at the base of the bill. But there is “Blue” in its name so it is included here. It is found throughout the U.S. and Canada except in the Great Basin – breeding in the north and in migration elsewhere. I first noted one in California in San Jose in May 1973 and have dozens of observations in Washington, most recently in May this year. The photo is from Wiley Slough in Skagit County in May 2016.
Blue Winged Warbler
Here we go again. Yes this warbler does have some blue (well sort of) in its wing, but to me the wing is mostly gray. There is also some blue in its tail, but overwhelmingly this is a bright yellow warbler. It is closely related to and hybridizes with the Golden Winged Warbler which at least has lots of noticeable gold (well, yellow gold) in its wing. This photo was taken on South Padre Island on April 8th this year. It was one of my sought after target photos as I had seen one in 1978 on High Island but had no photo. It is found only in the Eastern U.S. and is taking over more and more areas that were formerly more Golden Winged territory. I think the species was first specified by noted ornithologist Alexander Wilson (See my earlier blog post on bird names). Naming this species after him would thus be appropriate but there is already an even yellower Wilson’s Warbler. I guess Gray Winged Warbler just doesn’t cut it.
The Eastern Bluebird is another of the iconic Eastern birds that I first noted in Maryland in May 1975. I expect that I had probably seen one earlier in my non-birding youth. This photo is from Scarborough Maine in June 2015. Since then, I have seen them in Florida, Texas, Arizona and most recently in North Carolina. In Arizona both Eastern and Western Bluebirds are found with the former only in the extreme southeast as with the one I saw in Huachuca Canyon in 2017. Note the rusty orange throat. If this were a Western Bluebird the throat would be blue.
Great Blue Heron
This bird often appears more gray than blue although in good light, the blue is definitely there and such is not the case with the very similar Gray Heron found in Eurasia and Africa. Many non-birders misidentify the Great Blue (or “GBH” in birder shorthand) as a crane. They are found throughout most of the U.S. and are quite common and very noticeable. Amazing hunters, I have watched one stand perfectly still for 20 minutes until its prey – a small fish – came to just the right spot and then is snatched with a lightning strike. I have also watched a Great Blue catch a huge fish in a pond and take 10 minutes to position it perfectly to be able to swallow it whole. It seemed impossible that it could do so.
This is by far the most common large wader in Washington – seen throughout the year and throughout the State. I noted my first one in Maryland in 1972 and have seen them in 10 states. 800 of my Ebird reports include this species.
Like its cousin, the Little Blue Heron which comes up next in this post, there is a white morph of the Great Blue Heron – well maybe not for long. There has been a long debate over whether this morph is actually a separate species – a Great White Heron. Supposedly the AOU and ABA are soon going to recognize it as such … supposedly.
Little Blue Heron
As just noted above this species also has a white morph – not a speck of blue. It is much rarer than the blue morph although we saw more white morphs than blue in Texas this April. It is mostly found in the Southeast U.S. where it is a resident and up the Eastern Coast where it is primarily a non-resident breeder. It is also fairly common in coastal California. It is almost unheard of in Washington – almost. Two friends saw a white morph appear out of nowhere at Wiley Slough in September 2014. There is only one other record accepted in the State. My first observation was at Palo Alto Baylands Park in 1973 and I have also seen them in Texas, Maine, Florida and North Carolina. The photo is from Maine in 2015. It is about 60% of the size of a Great Blue Heron.
I think a better name for this bird would be Electric Blue Bird because the color is an electrifying and dazzling blue – and oh yeah, at least where I generally see it, it is not in the mountains. It is found only in the Western U.S. all the way into Alaska. To be fair, where it is a resident, it usually is in or next to mountainous areas. I have seen it only in Washington (many, many times), twice in Colorado and once in California. My first observation was in the Wenas area in 1975. The complete absence of orange/rust makes it an easy ID compared to Western Bluebirds although they nest in the same area – at least in Washington. As simple as its coloration is, I find it a very beautiful bird.
Red Flanked Bluetail
I wrote up the chase for this bird in an earlier blog post. I had seen one in miserable rainy conditions in British Columbia in January 2013. The one shown here is from January 2017 in Lewiston Idaho just across the Snake River from Clarkston, Washington. I sure wish it would have ventured a bit further west so I could have it as a State record. In some countries it is also called an Orange Flanked Bush Robin. There is definitely bright blue in its tail, so it deserves to be in this group. It is probably a chat taxonomically. It is a mega-rarity in the ABA area, being an “Old World” species found primarily in Asia but expanding westward.
As with a number of other western species, I saw my first Western Bluebird in San Jose in 1973. Other observations have been in California, Colorado and Washington. This photo is from Spokane, Washington in May 2012 and clearly shows the blue throat compared to the orange throat of an Eastern Bluebird. It is great fun to drive the sage area along Wenas and Umtanum roads between Ellensburg and Yakima where a concerted effort to place and maintain nesting boxes has made this a “go to” spot for both Mountain and Western Bluebirds.
Black Throated Blue Warbler
Primarily an Eastern Warbler, I first saw a Black Throated Blue Warbler in Maryland in 1975. Since then I have seen two in Washington with the picture being of the male that visited a feeder in Bothell in late March and early April in 2015. Later that year I saw several on breeding grounds in Maine and then a female at Gog Le Hi Te Mitigated Wetlands in Tacoma in November. I have also seen them in Florida in April 2017 in migration. These warblers winter primarily in Cuba and Hispaniola and are common and doing well. It is always dangerous to make a list of “most beautiful birds” but this one definitely has its appeal.
Why Did I Write This – a VERY Personal Disclosure and Reflection
Per the introductory paragraph to this post, I saved the Black Throated Blue Warbler for last to be a segue to some personal non-birding reflections. There have been bits of personal reflection in some of my previous posts and two in particular were very deeply about them – and not about birds at all. The reality is that all of the posts have had personal connections – not just because they are my personal experiences with people, places and birds I write about, but also because so often my birding has been an “escape” or “distraction” from other matters – personal issues, emotional challenges, feelings that could be avoided – for awhile at least – if birding occupied my time and my mind. Much good has come from this, but also eventually the piper has to be paid and most things have to be dealt with.
I chose to save the Black Throated Blue Warbler for last simply because it is both “black” and “blue”. Generally “black and blue” is a reference to the color of bruises on the skin from a fight or injury that turn black … and … blue. Although it has not been a physical fight and there have been no physical injuries and thus no visible bruises, I have had a very tough week as a personal relationship that I thought was going to great places had a crashing and unexpected fall – and as it did, it felt like the aftermath of a fight or the suffering that accompanies a physical injury. Yes it was worse because of the timing and some of the details of the end, but mostly it was the sudden emptiness that was so devastating. There had been so many hopes and even plans for much in the future and they were all gone. A while ago I had even posted a picture on Facebook with the comment – “even better than birding”. I foresaw a future that would not be without birds but would include so much else with a special person, that indeed it would be much better than birding.
Then suddenly there seemingly was no such future at all and even birds and birding had lost their appeal. I removed the photo and the post. There had been no fight, so why did I feel like I had been through one? There had been no physical battle, so no outward bruises, but there were some on the inside and like the ones on the outside in a physical fight, they turned Black and Blue.
Black? Is black the absence of all color or the presence of all color? In this case it felt like a complete absence – no light – just darkness. In my pain, I had fallen – let myself fall – into a deep and dark abyss.
Blue? When someone says they are blue, they are saying they are sad – depressed. Unquestionably I was very sad – quite depressed in actuality if not clinically.
I was experiencing both black and blue. Then it got worse. The morning after my crash and burn, a neighbor in my complex died suddenly. It was a heart attack. His wife was away visiting relatives. He was alone. There was nobody there to help him and had it not been for a sister worried about unreturned calls, who knows how long it might have been before anyone even knew he was gone. He was very fit, not that old, didn’t smoke. We worked out at the same gym. How could this have happened? And if it could happen to him. it could happen — to me. I, too, am alone. Having just lost what I thought was going to be this incredible future, this death brought home another aspect of loneliness. Not just the absence of positives, but the presence of negatives as well – the possibility of dying unrescued being just one.
There was now more black and more blue. The bruises were hurting. It was getting worse … and then it wasn’t… The sudden death of my neighbor reminded me that there are no guarantees in life. There is no guarantee that the birds we chase will be found. There is no guarantee that the relationships we are in or that we seek will be as planned, as hoped for, or even continue at all. There is no guarantee even of a tomorrow. So I started thinking not of tomorrow, but of today. A bit less black, a bit less blue.
I had gone to private mode on Ebird – my observations no longer cataloged for anyone else to see – no longer on year or month or life lists. What did they matter?! Nothing had seemed to matter to me, so I took down what had previously at least superficially mattered the most. I disappeared. Some friends noticed. That helped. A little less blue, a bit less black.
What is the most important thing in a relationship? There are many things when if missing, doom the relationship. Any list of “most important” would have to include “TRUST” and “BELIEF”. I learned she had done something that was understandable, but the way in which it was done was not. It challenged my perspective on who she was either at the core or at least under some of the pressing external matters that were there. Most importantly it also challenged “TRUST”. Which words that had been said, feelings expressed, or even physical expressions had been real? How could I ever know which ones in the future were? And this is where there has to be “BELIEF” – any lasting relationship has to have a shared “BELIEF”. If that is there then something that seems out of character can be re-examined, hopefully discussed and hopefully resolved. “BELIEF” gets one past unintentional negative and “BELIEF” returns each person to “TRUST”. “BELIEF” was being deeply challenged as well, perhaps fatally. I could hold on to “BELIEF” – did she?
That disappointing discovery came after the words from my friends, the immediacy of my neighbor’s death and the result of beginning to focus on today. What was left undone when my neighbor died? What goals unachieved? What places not visited? What words had he intended to say to others – later – that were never said because there was no later? What thank yous unsaid? What love unexpressed? We will never know.
But I knew I had some – some of all of those things not yet done, words not yet said. I could not do them or say them all on that day of sudden awareness, but I could start. And to start I had to leave the black and the blue – or maybe better said, I had to see them differently. I thought of the Black Throated Blue Warbler – such a beautiful bird.
Black was not the absence of color, it was its own vivid expression and a marker against which the blue and the white could be appreciated. The blue was bold and bright. There is no sadness in this bird. When it sings on its territory in the spring, it stands out and declares – “Look at me, hear my song. Come to me. I am beautiful. Be with me. I have purpose. I have meaning. I will repeat this today and for every tomorrow that I am allowed to have. I am alive!!”
No the sadness is not gone. To seemingly be mistaken about and lose so much is hard. Some distraction will still be necessary. It appeared that I had lost what I had valued as better than the best bird I had ever known. There are other birds and other people – maybe there will never again be a “best” but there are others that are wonderful. Writing this blog reminds me of that and that each has its beauty and meaning both actually and by analogy to all else in my life. The next chase has begun and I will get better at it and will succeed. This is a start.