Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Life Bird: Florida Scrub-Jay

In the summer of 1994, I went to a veterinary convention in San Francisco, then extended my trip for a few days to explore northern California. One of the Life Birds I picked up was the Scrub-Jay, isolated to the west coast and Florida. At that time, the western bird was considered to be the same species as the scrub-jay found in Florida. Since then, the Powers That Be have seen fit to split scrub-jays into two species. The Florida Scrub-Jay retained the scientific name Aphelocoma coerulescens, while the Western Scrub-Jay was renamed A. califonica. Even though I had seen "a" scrub-jay, I hadn't seen the FLORIDA Scrub-Jay, so it was fair game as an addition to my Life List. It was definitely a target bird for this trip.

My non-birding cousin Nancy came to the rescue again. On a previous nature walk, she had been to a place that she said was well-known for its population of Florida Scrub-Jays. "They even come and sit on your head," she promised, and showed me photos to prove it. I was hooked.

The Lyonia Preserve consists of over 350 acres of scrub habitat behind a library in Volusia County, FL. It is named after the rusty lyonia plants that grow there, and is maintained as an example of endangered Florida desert habitat. Its residents include gopher tortoises and of course, Florida Scrub-Jays.

We had been birding all morning, and had just picked up Nancy's daughter, Lyndsey, from her college before we hit the preserve, mid-afternoon. There were three trails, yellow, blue and red. The yellow trail was about 0.4 miles long, and was the one Nancy suggested we take. I was hoping for the 1.6 trail, but Nancy had already been very understanding and I didn't want to press my luck.

This is the habitat where the scrub jays live. A dwarf oak forest, with low vegetation, open area of white sand, and paths through scrub brush and cacti, and with very few large trees and little shade. The weather wasn't bad, but I can see where this might be a tough hike in summer.

Somehow, we got off the yellow trail. Our markers only showed blue and red dots. I remembered thinking "Red means stop. The red trail is the long one." I suggested following the blue trail, since it was just a mile and a half long, rather than backtracking to find out where we lost the yellow one.

We kept walking. And walking. Lyndsey was chatting on her cell phone. I told her she might want to have her friend call 9-1-1. "We're lost in this desert with no food or water! We can't find the trail! We're all gonna DIE!!" And, we weren't seeing any scrub jays. In fact, we saw almost no birds at all.

Eventually, I realized that we had walked much more than a mile, and that we were on the 2.4 mile trail. Whoops! Sorry, Nancy - my mistake.

As we approached the point where the trails intersected, the spot where we originally got off track, I had pretty much given up on seeing any scrub jays. I was showing Lyndsey the fruiting structure of a Prickly Pear cactus (and dealing with the tiny hair-like prickles in my fingers) when she said, "What's that? It looks blue!"

Lo and behold - a Florida Scrub-Jay!

Then, in the bush - there was another one!
Suddenly, after NO scrub-jays, we were inundated with them.

One patiently posed for me while I fooled with camera settings,

trying flash and no-flash options

and then the miracle happened.

One landed on my head.
I slowly handed my camera back behind me to Lyndsey.

"Quick! Take a picture!"

These awesome "head shots" are all courtesy of Lyndsey Z.

Ain't THAT a gorgeous bird?

It just goes to prove: If you want Life Birds, take a
non-birder along for luck.


Lynne said...

That IS a gorgeous bird! It's so cool that he posed on your head. Did you notice the bird's pretty ankle bracelets? Maybe you should market a birder's hat with bird on top!

ncmountainwoman said...

Now how many times does a lifer actually sit on one's head? I love the post, including being on the wrong trail.

Did you do anything to attract the jay to your hat?

Mary said...

HOW COOL! A lifer lands on your head. I wonder, too - What did you do to attract it? Did you stand there motionless? Great photo, Lyndsey!

Susan Gets Native said...

Okay. Now that's COOL.

Kathy said...

Oh my, what a beautiful bird is sitting right on your head! Those pictures are so worth fearing you would die in the desert. I had no idea that any place in Florida would have cactus growing. Congratulations on getting an awesome life bird!

KGMom said...

That is very cool and very funny.
Wonderful story.

Mary C said...

Great shots, Kat Doc! Did you notice any differences in the scrub jay's appearance compared to the Western Scrub Jays here in California? The only difference, I think, may be the smaller amount of black behind the eyes. Also, I noticed that this bird was wearing bands.

KatDoc said...

Yeah, that was a pretty sweet experience. I'm glad I had someone there to take the photos, since I couldn't very well take pictures of my own head!

I didn't do anything to attract the birds to me at all. They are all banded and, despite signs saying not to feed them, I suspect they are pretty used to getting handouts from visitors when they show off.

Of course, the hat is from Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, on Lake Erie, right next to MAGEE MARSH, so if you come to Crane Creek/Magee Marsh for International Migratory Bird Day in May, you, too, could buy a hat that attracts Life Birds to your head!

Mary C: To tell the truth, I don't remember many details about the Western Scrub-Jay that I saw 14 years or so ago. Sibley shows the Florida bird as more "contrasty" - the blues are bluer and the whites are whiter. The necklace is more pronounced in the Florida bird and it has a white forehead, which the California bird lacks.


Lisa at Greenbow said...

I don't know if it is legal to count a lifer if it lands on your head. I might have to check with the birding police about this.Tee hee On your head!!! This is too funny. Congrats on your lifer.

Susan Gets Native said...

That's it, Lisa! Turn her in!

holly said...

Awesome. That is a GORGEOUS bird.

(I'm so excited...tomorrow is BodyWorlds!!!)