[Originally appeared in the Sierra Wave newsletter, Vol. 25, No. 4, Mar-Apr 2007 – click here for original with photos]
This was the winter that the Bluebirds of Happiness chose to dazzle all of us with their electric company. This small bird, so intensely blue it catches your breath when sunlight hits it, made an otherwise drab season memorable for their sojourn. They were seen rising from fence posts, flying into the wind, and hovering with a motionless body attached to blurring wings. Just as cameras were focused, they dove to the ground for insects only they could see before returning to the post where they cocked their heads left and right before diving to the ground again. When they had enough protein they would flock to the pyracantha berries for dessert. Dozens were seen in green and red hedges that turned green over the weeks as the berries disappeared. There are other blue-colored birds in the eastern Sierra (jays, buntings, and Blue Grosbeaks) but they are not bluebirds with a capital B.
There are three species of bluebirds in North America with two found in California. The Western Bluebird and the Mountain Bluebird are both found in the eastern Sierra and this was the Mountain Bluebird winter. When the cold descends most Mountain Bluebirds withdraw to the southwest tier of states where snow-free land allows them to feed on insects and berries. This Nevada state bird spends the summer raising young in most of the mountain ranges in Inyo County. Some winters very few birds are seen in Inyo although typically numbers begin to show up in late winter or early spring as birds that wintered to the south begin their return route to northern U.S. and Canada into Alaska. It is a mystery whether our wintering birds are from the northern reaches or our local mountains or a mixture of both. They are seen all months of the year but are on the valley floor only from October to March.
The Western Bluebird is also electric blue but the breast and upper back are orange. The females of both species are faded copies of the males. The Western Bluebird is much less common than the Mountain Bluebird in the eastern Sierra. In summer the Western Bluebird is found in the Far West from Mexico to southern British Columbia. The only known breeding locations in Inyo County are mature pinyon-junipers of the Panamint Mountains and a few low elevations along the east face of the Sierra Nevada such as Grays Meadow and Seven Pines. While a few are reported some winters from Round Valley and Owens Valley a reliable winter area is from Shoshone to China Ranch in southeast Inyo County.
William Leon Dawson, the original Birds of California author, reveals to mere mortals the magic of a Mountain Bluebird thusly: Gentle and demure, as well as brave and high-spirited, is this sky-born thoroughbred of the Sierras, this bit of heavens own blue incarnate.Tags: dove, grosbeak