Friends of Blue Sky

Hiding In Plain View, Our Chaparral Birds

By Claude G. Edwards, BSER Docent Instructor and SD Birding Expert

As you know well, one of the important and characteristic features that we learn about and enjoy is the occurrence of chaparral vegetation on the slopes and canyons within the Blue Sky Ecological Reserve. Chaparral is often subtle and understated, appearing outwardly uniform but containing many interesting qualities in its plant species and diversity, its ability to withstand heat and drought. Even so, chaparral keeps secrets to those who are impatient or uninterested.

The same goes for many of the bird species that are found in and are adapted to living in chaparral. Unlike coastal sage scrub, chaparral shrubs are largely evergreen and woody, with intermingled or tangled branches that make it difficult to traverse without a path through it. Most of the year such plants as wild-lilacs, scrub-oaks, manzanitas, and chamise maintain the same appearance, not wilting or losing foliage when it is hot and dry.

Several species of birds occurring within Blue Sky Canyon fit in well to the rigors and opportunities associated with chaparral. Most of them are year-round residents and are among the more regularly encountered species on guided bird and nature walks. One unifying quality about chaparral birds is their generally somber coloration. Most of them wear shades of brown. Some are patterned with combinations of black, gray, rust, white or olive. Such qualities help these birds blend into their surroundings. Notwithstanding their dull and subtle plumages, they can be easily identified by their size and shape, their bills, their behaviors, and by their voices.

California ThrasherTypical of the bird species we can find in our chaparral are year-round residents such as California quail, Bewick’s wren, California towhee, wrentit, and California thrasher (shown at left). They are generally grayish-brown, somewhat browner here or there, paler or darker above or below, but pretty much grayish-brown. This allows them to be bold in action but discrete in appearance.

California thrasher and California towhee and wrentit wear pretty much the same colors, but are recognized by their respective size, largest to smallest as mentioned here. Their beaks are different from one another, long and decurved in the thrasher, short and finch-like for the towhee, and short and relatively slender in the wrentit. Thrashers use their long beaks to toss around dry leaves and litter beneath shrubs, the terrestrial towhees use their feet for this purpose, and bush-loving wrentits glean insects from stems and foliage. Their voices are also distinctive.

On the other hand, California quails sport a perky crest of upstanding feathers on their crown and are marked with white streaks on their sides and scaly-edged feathers on their belly. Males are distinguished from females by their black throat boldly bordered with white. They often give a three-part song that goes something like ‘chi-CA-go’ or ‘mu-CHA-cho’.

Wintertime brings a few additional species that are commonly associated with chaparral. These include hermit thrush, fox sparrow, and golden-crowned sparrow. Like the previous species, they are generally grayish to dark-brown in plumage with slight to bold feather markings that add interest when we are able to get a good look at them. They stay close to the ground and shrubs.

Western scrub-jay and blue-gray gnatcatcher also have an affinity for this plant community, adding blue to the color palette. Scrub-jays are bold and assertive, omnivorous in feeding style, often seen carrying away acorns of scrub-oak and live oak. Some of these may not be refound and can sprout to grow new plants. Orange-crowned warbler and Hutton’s vireo add shades of green and yellow in their plumage. They prefer gleaning insects from stems and foliage, as do blue-gray gnatcatchers.

Be alert the next time you visit the chaparral, there may be more than meets the eye!