Story and Photographs By Joan Herrmann

Whereiwander… today will be another meandering around and through our meadow and woods and probably down to check out the ponds. Last week, we had absolutely no snow, and between last night and today, we have more than a foot of new snow. It most likely will all be gone by the time you are reading this because we are supposed to get temperatures in the forties and fifties throughout the rest of this week. It has been the most inconsistent winter, in regards to snow fall, since we moved here twenty-nine years ago.

I am still awaiting the return of the Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) and his mate, who visits our suet feeders daily throughout the early spring and summer months. He began coming to the suet feeder about five years ago, and I know that they have about a fifteen-year lifespan. So, I hope he is just being cautious and will return sooner or later. The male Red-winged Blackbird arrives about two weeks before the females to select a prime location, which will provide both food and nesting sites. He will sit above “their site” and begin singing to entice the returning females.

The nesting location is of major importance for both the male and female Red-winged Blackbirds. Marshes and wetlands near agricultural areas are most often preferred. She will build a well-camouflaged cup-shaped nest that is made of cattail reeds and rootlets and is cleverly woven onto cattail stalks or sometimes other convenient short shrubs. The female exclusively builds the nest, and it will take her about three to six days to complete this task. She will usually lay three to four eggs, which are pale bluish-green and marked with dark splotches. Within ten to twelve days, these altricial nestlings will hatch from their egg. Altricial means that they are born immobile (motionless), downless (without feathers), and their eyes are closed, and they depend upon the adults to feed them.

If you have been observing large flocks of birds this spring and have watched them for a while, you will probably notice that many of them are different species of birds, all flying together. For example, it is quite often that Red-winged Blackbirds will join with Common Grackles (Quisacalus quiscula) and Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater), and they all will fly in the same flock. There is a sense of safety in numbers and they all consume the same type of foods. They are amazing to watch as they fly in unison. They look like they are performing an aerial display. This type of flying in unison is called a “murmuration.” The name comes from the sound made by all the wings moving together.

Another interesting bird that might be part of the murmuration, the Brown-headed Cowbird, has an interesting life. The female Brown-headed, after mating, doesn’t build a nest. Instead, she deposits her eggs singly in other birds’ nests. This is known as “Brood Parasitism”. She may deposit her egg in the nest of a finch, a warbler, or a vireo and the unsuspecting female will raise the brown-headed cowbird as her own. Unfortunately, the cowbird egg hatches earlier than the host bird’s egg, and the larger cowbird grows much more quickly and will crowd out or reduce the food intake of the host’s nestlings. This behavior is thought to have originated from the cowbirds following herds of buffalo. The cowbirds sit on the backs of buffalos or cattle and eat the insects which feed on those animals. Another interesting thing is that even though the cowbird nestlings are all reared by different hosts. They all find each other at migration time and flock together with the other blackbirds.

Birds that are blue have always fascinated me, especially Blue Jays and our State Bird, the Eastern Blue Bird. We have an unusually large flock of Blue Jays that visit our feeders all year around. This year I have counted as many as twenty-three Jays waiting in the Walnut tree for me to go back inside and then they descend to retrieve the unsalted peanuts, black oiled sunflower seeds and peanut butter suet from the balcony feeders. If the Blue Jays have enough food providers for the winter, they will not need to migrate. Before we moved up here our home was on Lake Ontario in Irondequoit. We had a small flock of Blue Jays that visited our feeders in all seasons. But, it was there that I first encountered migrating Blue Jays. They don’t fly in flocks; they migrate individually. Through observation, I watched as a solo Blue Jay would fly along the shoreline of Lake Ontario, and then a few minutes later, another single Blue Jay would fly by. This continued for several hours of observing numerous solo birds. However, when one of these solo birds found a source of food, it would begin calling to let the other passing birds know, and they would return one at a time to create a large feeding flock. As each one from the newly formed flock filled its need for food, it would leave singly and resume its solo flight along the shoreline.

The Blue Jay’s choice of food at our home was the black oiled sunflower seeds, unsalted peanuts, and suet. I occasionally threw out chunks of stale bread. I watched, one autumn afternoon, that shortly after I had thrown out the bread, a rabbit was eating the bread. We were still living along Lake Ontario, and the fall migration was just beginning for the Blue Jays. I was still watching the rabbit nibble on the bread when a Blue Jay landed in our yard. It kept its distance from the rabbit and its eye on the bread. I could hear it calling, and within about fifteen minutes, there were numerous Blue Jays standing around watching the bread and the rabbit. When the number of Blue Jays increased, they forced the rabbit away from the bread. I guess they couldn’t eat with a “hare” in their food.

I will provide Information about my other favorite blue bird, the Eastern Blue Bird, in my next column. I hope that you are enjoying this new spring migration too.

Joan Herrmann has taught and done programs for Schools, Garden Clubs, Libraries, and Nature Centers for about 38 years as a Professional Nature Photographer, Naturalist, and Outdoor Educator. After moving from the Rochester area in 1995, she began her Photography business, Essence of Nature, and became a co-owner of The Artworks in Old Forge, New York. As a docent at Munson, Williams, Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, New York, she has been educating children and adults for nineteen years.

In 2007, she began working with the Black River Outdoor Educational Program (BROEP). In 2013 and 2014, she did a week-long summer program at BROEP with Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC).

Using her love of nature and photography, she created a Flora/Fauna outdoor educational program teaching students (ages 6 to 14) the joys of nature and creative photography skills.

Joan’s love of nature has been a lifelong study of Birds, Wildflowers, Mosses, Ferns, Trees, Amphibians, Reptiles, Grasses, Insects, Spiders, Tracks, Scat, and Galls. She has assisted in cataloging all trails used by the hiking Coaches and photographed and identified seasonal Flora.

Since October 2016, she has written a bi-monthly nature column with Adirondack Express Newspaper. In October 2019, she began a bi-monthly column with the My Little Falls newspaper. You may reach her at