The Birdman of Bel Air
for National Geographic News
For a while in late January and early February, I spent a great deal of time at Malibu Creek State Park in the meadows, trying to get a decent photograph of the western bluebird.
Now, the western bluebird (which is really a thrush) scoots around in small flocks from one area of the meadow to the other. To forage, it flies off of a perch and grabs insects off of the ground, then flies back to its perch again. If you hang out next to its favorite perches, you can generally get a good shot of a bluebird after it returns from its hunting trip.
They say that the color of a bluebird's back is a piece of the sky. Indeed, the color of these feathers is about as close to sky blue as you'll find anywhere. I found myself mesmerized by the bright blue color of these birds, and spent many an anxious hour trying to get closer and closer to them.
I finally discovered that, in general, a western bluebird will allow you to get to within 20 feet (6 meters) of it. Then, it invariably flies off. But after they got used to me following them around the meadow and carrying my heavy camera around on a tripod, some of the individuals allowed me to approach to within about 15 feet (4.5 meters) of them.
Armed with my 2x teleconverter on my 200mm-500mm Tamron zoom lens set at 500mm, I fired off a number of shots at close range to capture some of the details of this bird that are not visible from farther away. For instance, the tiny overhang of the top of the bill, the sharp concentration of the eye as the bird stares you down, and the creative way that it uses its feet to perch on branches.
I found myself becoming a big fan of the western bluebird, and I got a kick out of spotting the differences between the brightly colored male and the more drably colored female. I also enjoyed being serenaded by their soft, warbling peep-chirp which they repeatedly call out as they fly past you. Sometimes they all call out together as they fly by, and it sounds like a symphony.
In the end, however, the only piece of the sky that you can bring back from a trip to visit the western bluebirds exists in your memoryor perhaps in a photograph.
Attracting Western Bluebirds to Your Yard
In addition to grasshoppers, caterpillars, beetles, and other insects, western bluebirds eat lots of berries. Therefore, if you provide some berry-producing trees, shrubs, and vines in your yard for the bluebirds, you may be able to attract these "pieces of the sky" into your garden.
Some of the most popular berry-producing plants for bluebirds include blackberry, blueberry, raspberry, elderberry, bayberry, dogwood, juniper, Virginia creeper, sumac, pokeweed, mountain ash, and mistletoe. You can also provide suet, raisins, grapes, chopped peanuts, sunflower hearts, and even live mealworms on a feeder for the bluebirds.
Since bluebirds are cavity nesters, you may be able to entice a pair of bluebirds to raise a family in your yard by providing them with a bluebird box. Many types of bluebird boxes are commercially available, and many bluebirders across the country have established "bluebird trails," which consist of a series of bluebird boxes placed at least 300 yards (275 meters) apart for the western and mountain bluebirds, and at least 100 to 150 yards (90 to 137 meters) apart for the eastern bluebird.
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