By Bob Spiwak
A beautiful and sunny winter day. Nine degrees at wakeup and a forecast for a series of storms coming in from the west with varying amounts of snow predicted.
The holidays are finally over and a measure of peace has settled over Highway 20. From observations and reports, there may have been as much traffic on Goat Creek and Lost River roads every afternoon as hordes of people stormed the Mazama Store. The community club celebrated the incoming year with a potluck dinner that was well attended.
Speaking of food, the gingerbread house raffled off at the store at Christmas was a model of the controversial hut on Flagg Mountain. In the foreground were several dozen tiny edible people in two groups. One group had smiling faces, the other had deep frowns, each group flanking the hut. Well, somebody or somebodies have eaten most of the smiley people. Scott Johnston won the raffle but has not yet claimed his prize. Were the cake cannibals merely hungry or could this be some other insidious action?
This morning we were visited by Alexis Billings, a behavioral ecologist from the University of Montana at Missoula. She is working on her Ph.D. in this field, her thesis based on the conversations and calls of Steller’s jays, the beautiful blue-black, noisy, squirrel-taunting avians who visit feeders all over the area. While the annual Christmas Bird Count showed an increase in their numbers, the count here and other places Billings visited were down.
We invited her here in October, confident we’d have at least our usual three pairs of jays here this winter, but thus far there has only been one couple.
Not being ornithologists, we asked her what her attraction was to jays, specifically the Steller’s variety. She said “I love all corvids” [the family name for ravens, crows, magpies, jays and others], “but I especially like the Steller’s because they are so sassy.”
The crux of her studies and thesis is based on what she calls sound analysis — how the birds communicate, the different languages and accents they emit, such as the sounds “wha” and “weck,” the former being an alarm call that will take the flock from the feeder to a safe place high in a tree. As with many other birds, their most formidable assailant may be the northern goshawk. With four different hawk sounds in her arsenal, the goshawk is the only scary one for all manner of birds. Their primary food source is smaller birds. (Over four days, a goshawk killed three mallards feeding on our pond last month.)
Alexis will be in the valley for some time and will give a talk at North Cascades Basecamp later this month. She will be visiting sites other than ours, armed with a bucket full of unshelled and uncooked peanuts, sound equipment and possibly a camera in the feeder. She guesstimates having her thesis completed sometime in 2016 and her plans after that are to go to Australia and further her ornithological linguistic studies.