I’ve just returned from a week in Bozeman, Montana.  It was snowing when I arrived and it was predicted to snow on the day I left.  Coming from Minnesota, snow in October and November is not terribly unusual, but I was still relieved when flying into Minneapolis, I looked down on a land that was still green, highlighted by the rusty brown leaves of oak trees.  I spotted two swans in the Minnesota River wetlands that are next to the airport; probably the tail end of that species migration through our state.

Anyone who enjoys birdwatching, enjoys going to new locations for the opportunity to see new species.  In

The beautiful and clever Black-billed Magpie

The beautiful and clever Black-billed Magpie

Montana I am always happy to see the Black-billed Magpies. They have a striking mix of feathers (black, white and blue) on their bodies and as members of the Corvid family; they are gregarious and clever birds.

I was visiting my son and his family, so I had a chance to watch the birds come to his feeders.  When he was just a little boy, I got him a Golden Guide to the Birds of North America.  He loved looking at the illustrations and when he was able to read, he began to memorize the names of the birds.  I took him with me on a few birding field trips, but time can’t be stopped and soon he was a teenager and hanging out with his mom looking at birds was not a priority (to say the least).  I remained hopeful that his early introduction to this wonderful hobby would be revived sometime in the future.

In his 20’s he started to tell me about certain birds that he saw while working in wilderness areas.  It seemed my hope was coming true.  Today he is in his mid-40s and I can say conclusively that he is a bird watcher.  He has a small backyard and unfortunately his next door neighbor has free ranging cats.  Because of this Jon was hesitant to put up bird feeders.  I encouraged him to try anyway.

Last year he expanded his collection of feeders and birdfood.  He now has several suet feeders, a thistle seed sock, and a couple platform feeders.  The saying, “If you build it, they will come” describes his backyard today.  I was entertained by Magpies as they clung upside down to the suet feeders that are attached to a post; Mountain Chickadees that flew back and forth to the platform feeders taking black sunflower seeds; and Eurasian Collared Doves (non-natives much larger than Mourning Doves), gather on the ground below the feeders picking up seeds spilled from above.

One morning, as we sat at his dining room table looking out the patio door to the feeders just beyond, he nearly choked on his breakfast and said “Was that a Blue Jay”?  I turned to look, but the bird was already gone.  He felt

I took this photo with my phone so the quality isn't the best -- but it shows the first ever Blue Jay that came to my son's feeder.

I took this photo with my phone so the quality isn’t the best — but it shows the first ever Blue Jay that came to my son’s feeder. Just above you can see the bag that holds thistle seed.

certain he had seen that telltale mix of blue and gray on the bird, but Blue Jays are not normally seen in this part of the state.  In fact they are listed as Rare in the field guide.  We continued to stare out the window and after a few minutes it returned, confirming his observation.  Blue Jays are one of the most common birds here in Minnesota, but it was exciting to see them in this new and surprising location. I thought I saw another one in a nearby pine tree and after a few more minutes, it too flew in to grab some seeds.  Later in the day, they saw a third!

I suggested that Jon contact the local Audubon Chapter to let them know about these sightings.  When he checked their website he found an article that said Blue Jays have been showing up at local feeders since the end of September.   One woman had six in her yard.  No one is sure why they have arrived in the Gallatin Valley. Their normal range is all states east of the Rockies, mainly because acorns are a large part of their diet and oak trees, while not absent are much less common in the western states.

However, Blue Jays are able to exist on insects, seeds, and grain.  In fact, they are especially fond of sunflower seeds in any form.  They also have something known as the ‘crop’, which is a built in grocery bag, if you will.  If you have ever watched one of these Corvids at a feeder, you have probably seen them pick up one seed after another, apparently swallowing them.  They are just storing them in their crop and will fly away to cache the seeds in another location for later nourishment.  This is how many oak trees get planted, since they do the same thing with acorns.

Before I left Bozeman, I signed Jon up for Feederwatch.  The number of people reporting from Montana is quite small, so I hope his data will help the scientists expand their database of resident and migratory birds this winter.

By Kate Crowley