Published in the South Texas Chapter Texas Master Naturalist July 2023 Newsletter
Story and photo by Anita Westervelt
That last early June storm sent the mesquite branches dancing in pirouettes and lashed rain against the windows above the kitchen sink. When the skies cleared, the windows were splotchy, but I still had a view of the parallel-to-earth mesquite branch where I spread sunflower seeds every morning. The usual visitors are doves, tufted titmouse, green jays, cardinals and sparrows.
After a couple of weeks, I finally tired of the dirty windows, and was reaching for a bottle of window cleaner from under the sink when a blue bird flashed across my sight and landed in the overgrown Turk’s cap shrub that has colonized around the base of the bird-feeder-mesquite tree. Instead of the Windex, I grabbed my camera.
It was blue indeed! Turns out, the bird was a blue grosbeak, Guiraca caerulea. It is described in eBird.org as a beefy, big-headed, large-billed bunting. Allaboutbirds.org calls it a large, vibrantly blue bunting with an enormous silver bill and chestnut wingbars. It was all of that and exciting to watch as I photographed through the windowpane.
Grosbeaks and buntings are in the Cardinal family. Blue grosbeaks breed mostly in the southern half of the United States and northern Mexico and winter throughout Central America. Our pretty blue grossbeak was a breeding male. The female and immature male look like a sparrow with a cardinal’s bill and rusty-looking feathers at the top half. I’m thinking I should pay more attention to the sparrows that visit the sunflower-laced limb just in case a female blue grosbeak comes a-visiting.
In summer, blue grosbeaks eat many insects, including grasshoppers, beetles, caterpillars, cicadas, praying mantises and spiders and snails. Our visitor snagged what looked like a pale-yellow caterpillar from the Turk’s cap and perched on a slim branch to consume it while I continued to photograph.
Grosbeaks forage mostly on the ground as well as in low vegetation, picking up items from the ground and from plants. They also will hover while taking insects from foliage and will make short flights to catch insects in mid-air, according to the Audubon.org site.
Apparently, the male blue grosbeak is a songster and sings to declare territory and attract a mate. Hopefully the one that got my attention in the Turk’s cap shrub wasn’t just passing through and I’ll catch his rich, husky tune before summer’s end.