Campers should watch out for gray jays

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Our Evergreen World

By Sylvia Brockner

While my family was here to celebrate my birthday, I had the opportunity to visit Echo Lake. We drove up for one last trip before snow puts an end to our mountain driving in hopes of showing my family the beautiful aspen gold of our autumn.

However, rain and wind had done their work on the high aspens because the trees were blown bare. From a distance, it looked like there had been a forest fire because all the gray trunks and branches looked like smoke across the mountains.
Nevertheless, the lower trees in the valleys were still wearing their golden gowns, and my family had a chance to see how beautiful it would have been a few days earlier.
As we neared Echo Lake, a gray jay darted across the road in front of us. At the lake, both gray jays and Clark’s nutcrackers were still present in the picnic area. These two birds both occupy the same life zone of evergreen Canadian forests. They are both clothed in the drab colors of gray, white and black, and both are given the common name of camp robber.
However, there the resemblance ends. Gray jays are slim, jay-like birds with long tails and no head crest. Nutcrackers are like small plump crows with a short tail and a loud raucous call.
I have always called the gray jay the ghost of the forest for they are so softly feathered that they move through the forest silently. They are called camp robbers because the minute you start to set up camp, they move in silently to pick up any scraps you may offer them or even steal a piece of bacon from your frying pan.
They are quite unafraid and become a common sight in all of the higher picnic grounds. Their voice is a soft “wheeo wheeoo.” They are quiet and unassuming, giving the impression of a friendly gray ghost that only wants a bit to eat.
Jays and crows are all members of the large corvidae family along with magpies. There are many species of these birds, some of which manage to learn the human language. The crows are quite adept at this and also show a considerable degree of intelligence. Jays are found on every continent except Antarctica.
In North America, they are found from the arctic tree line south to the Sonoran Desert. They gray jay has several common names. Across Canada, they are known as camp robber and whiskey jack. The name camp robber is to be expected as they will help themselves to anything you leave around for them to take.
I have a friend who hung an expensive watch on a twig while he brushed his teeth. A gray jay saw it sparkling in the sun and quickly flew off with it, lodging it carefully 50 feet up in a tall spruce.
However, I have wondered for years where the name whiskey jack came from. Recently, I read in “Birds of Colorado” by Alfred M. Bailey that it is believe to have come from the Cree Indian word for this bird. They called it wiskah chan, which was probably corrupted by the early explorers into whiskey jack.
Young gray jays are dark gray in color and keep that color until they molt in early autumn. Gray jays usually nest between 8,500 feet and timberline in the dark Englemann spruce forest. In winter, they sometimes wander to lower elevations and may be seen at feeders at or below 8,000 feet.
They rarely move out on the plains in some kind of migration, which may happen in years when the cone crop is poor. There are six subspecies of gray jays found in various geographical areas. They mostly vary in the amount of white and dark gray on the head and shoulder, but are still obviously gray jays.
Trish Tofte called me on Oct. 20 to tell me she had a hummingbird at her feeder. She lives in Kittredge near the creek and gets absolutely fantastic birds at her feeders. I couldn’t begin to guess what species of hummingbird she had from a phone description, but she took a picture of it, which Scott Menough identified as a female black-chinned hummingbird.
This is the time of year that we always get a few oddball hummingbirds turning up at scattered feeders about the area. They are often hummers that do not normally breed here. Whether they are late migrants from farther north or just wandering about after breeding season is over is not really known, but any late hummers should be reported. Late hummers are important.