Birding on Bloedel: Stellar’s Jay standing sentinel

“A Year of Birding in Bloedel” is a column that runs every Friday in the Bainbridge Islander. The project is planned to continue in 52 parts through 2014 to help readers find and identify birds in the island’s garden sanctuary. Beginning with this entry on the bald eagle, each column will also be published  here on the Bainbridge Conversation blog each Friday. 

The author, Ted Anderson, is a retired professor of biology, having taught at McKendree University (Ill.) for 32 years and for the University of Michigan’s summer biological station for 20 years, where he frequently taught the biology of birds.

Anderson is also the author of “Biology of the Ubiquitous House Sparrow, from Genes to Populations” (2006), and “The Life of David Lack, Father of Evolutionary Ecology” (2013). Ted and his wife Carol have been members of Bloedel Reserve for seven years. They live in Kingston. 

Contributed photo / Kincade Fowler Steller's Jays are omnivorous, eating a wide variety of animal and vegetable food.
Contributed photo / Kincade Fowler
Steller’s Jays are omnivorous, eating a wide variety of animal and vegetable food.

The Danish-born Russian explorer Vitus Bering led two expeditions to Alaska and the Bering Sea in the early 1700s. The physician and natualist on his ill-fated second expedition (1740-1742) was Georg Wilhelm Steller.

When Bering’s ship, the St. Peter, visited Kayak Island in the Aleutisns in 1741, Steller discovered a striking jay new to science, but which he realized was clearly a close cousin of the Blue Jay of eastern North America. This relationship led Steller to deduce that Alaska was part of North America, not Asia.

Unfortunately the St. Peter encountered severe storms while attempting to return to its Russian home port, and was shipwrecked on what is now Bering Island, where the crew had to spend the long winter. Steller and about half the crew survived, but Vitus Bering did not, dying on Dec. 18, 1741. The jay and several other bird and mammal species were eventually named for their discoverer.

Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri) is a denizen of the coniferous forests of western North America, but it has also adapted to life in urbanized environments. It, like its eastern cousin, is now a frequent visitor to backyard bird feeders. Its striking cobalt blue plumage over most of the body, except a charcoal gray hood, makes it a stand-out in any setting. Its strident alarm calls are often heard before the bird is seen, and it is quick to scold any perceived threat — hence, again like its eastern cousin, it is often referred to as the “sentinel of the forest.”

Jays and their relatives, the crows, are omnivorous, taking a wide variety of both animal and vegetable food. At backyard bird feeders it is particularly fond of sunflower seeds, a reflection of the fact that about three-quarters of its diet is vegetable.

Although most of the animal portion of its diet consists of insects, it also preys on the eggs and nestlings of other species of birds, which accounts for the fact that during the breeding season the “scolder” is frequently scolded by other birds. Listen for its raucous scolding as you walk along the forest paths in Bloedel — it may be scolding you.

Bainbridge Islander, Birding

About Ethan Fowler

Ethan Fowler has more than 20 years of journalism experience with 19 years of daily and weekly newspaper experience covering news, features and sports, as well as being an editor for 14 of those years. He has won several writing awards over the years in Washington state, Virginia, Texas and Georgia, including award-winning investigative journalism. Fowler was paid by the Review & Herald Publishing Association in 2009 to co-author a book, "Brushed Back: The Story of Trevor Bullock," with his wife. The book details the real life of a top minor league pitcher in the Philadelphia Phillies organization and his Christian faith. "Brushed Back" has sold more than 2,000 copies since its release.