Cochise County Birds: The Blue Grosbeak, Passerina Caerulea

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Passerina caerulea surprise! The Blue Grosbeak was perched atop a mesquite tree behind our Cochise County home.

Striding back around the house and through the front door, I called out to my wife in passing, “I know better than to go out without my camera! There’s a bird I’ve never seen!”

“Walk slow!”

Great advice in general, but the little flyer hadn’t spooked when I’d rounded the building at a normal pace, and crunchy gravel underfoot isn’t particularly helpful for stealthy bird stalking. If it works, don’t fix it. I didn’t creep, didn’t sprint, just walked normally…and marvel of marvels, the bird was still waiting for the Canon Powershot to do its thing.

There was no way I knew it was a Blue Grosbeak at first. Frankly, Indigo Bunting came to mind. Not that I’d ever seen either species before, except in pictures. Besides, it was perched too far away for the naked eye to be sure of the details. Time for the zoom lens to do its thing, after which blowing up the photos on the computer would make identification a simple matter.

When it did finally fly off, did I get a picture of the bird in flight? Heck, no. Are you kidding? Small birds are generally quick flyers. Point and shoot digital cameras have a shutter delay after the button is pressed. The Canon’s delay is not bad compared to some others, but any delay is more than enough.

Still, several of the photos came out rather well, certainly enough to get a good look at the bird’s conformation and coloring. Aha! Blue body with darker wings and tail. Cinnamon/rust bars on the shoulders of the wings. A tiny little black mask right in front of the eye. A huge beak for the size of the bird, taking up pretty much the whole face and looking powerful enough to crack small rocks, not just seeds.

Definitely a Blue Grosbeak. Male, since the girls of the species stick to brown coloring.

A male Blue Grosbeak, the first I've ever seen, looks over his shoulder to check me out near our Cochise County home.

A male Blue Grosbeak, the first I’ve ever seen, looks over his shoulder to check me out near our Cochise County home.

Blue Grosbeak. Only now did it occur to me that the name has to literally mean “big beak”. Dense much, Ghost?

How big is the Blue Grosbeak? Well…not huge by any stretch of the imagination, but a bit bigger than the Indigo Bunting, which is roughly the size of a sparrow. The Bunting’s wingspan runs around 8 inches, the Grosbeak’s more like 11 inches. It’s a fairly stocky bodied bird, powered by a varied diet. Some sites list it as a “seed eating bird”, but Wikipedia seems most likely to have it right when it states,

It eats mostly insects, but it will also eat snails, spiders, seeds, grains, and wild fruits. The Blue Grosbeak forages on the ground and in shrubs and trees.

I’ts here for the summer breeding season, being a migratory species that winters mostly in southern Mexico and Central America. Also, my initial thought that it might be an Indigo Bunting wasn’t too far off. The two species are somewhat similar in appearance, though the Blue Grosbeak is a bit larger than the Indigo Bunting, and the Grosbeak is considered to be a “large bunting”.

Is the individual I photographed just passing through, or is it nesting here somewhere with a mate I didn’t spot? Considering the fact that we’ve had an overly warm, early spring, and that the monsoon rains are showing signs of being ready to start a bit early this year, I’m guessing the latter. This bright blue fellow most likely has a mate somewhere, with a nest and pale blue eggs. Online sources indicate that most Blue Grosbeak nests are positioned just three feet or so above the ground…but also state that the bird is often overlooked despite its flashy color; it doesn’t often hang out in the open like it did for me this one time.

This is definitely part of the joy of living off grid in the Arizona desert. We’re surrounded with wildlife, and we never know when a previously unnoticed species will suddenly pop out of anonymity to demand our attention. I’d seen pictures of the Blue Grosbeak in my mother’s big Audubon bird book when I was a kid growing up, but it took me 70 years to spot one in the wild…even if the “wild” in this case was located just a few yards from the Border Fort.

The Blue Grosbeak's deep blue color covers the entire head and body, excluding the wing and tail feathers.

The Blue Grosbeak’s deep blue color covers the entire head and body, excluding the wing and tail feathers.

Update: July 7, 2014. Today, with the monsoon rains having arrived a few days earlier, the sky was fully overcast, gray, and dropping water sploshes on the land from time to time. Cool out, too, never getting above 75 degrees after surviving the 100 degree temperatures of late June.

When I headed out to the Subaru, needing to make a quick run over to Bisbee, the blue grosbeak male was perched atop our #1 front yard mesquite tree. With everything except the green mesquite being a washed out gray, the brightly colored bird was a joy to behold. Out came the camera. Despite the gloom of the day, a couple of the pictures are worth sharing.

Blue Grosbeak and Mesquite Bunny 023

Blue Grosbeak and Mesquite Bunny 028

Blue Grosbeak and Mesquite Bunny 034

Blue Grosbeak and Mesquite Bunny 043

6 thoughts on “Cochise County Birds: The Blue Grosbeak, Passerina Caerulea

  1. We had mountain bluebirds in Montana, too, but I never saw one of these Blue Grosbeaks.

  2. It certainly is a pretty bird, Ghost. I have a plant in my yard (actually, my neighbor’s yard – it’s hanging over my property) that looks like your mesquite tree. Does it get puffy white or red flowers on it?

  3. Um…not all of our mesquite trees are exactly same, but this one gets blossoms that are kind of fuzzy (I wouldn’t say puffy) and yellowish.

  4. What a wonderful bird blog. I’m happy to have discovered it.
    My mom and I write and illustrate the blog “Learning To Bird With Lunch”.
    I live in Bellingham, WA.
    Warm regard,
    Ally

  5. Thanks. For more bird pages, you can go to the Critter Index at the top of the page, scroll down through the categories to Birds, and find a list of titles. I checked out your blog (Googled it) and left a comment. Nice text and VERY nice illustrations.

    I once seriously considered moving to Bellingham. My then-wife and I were living in Wenatchee and drove to your city to check out a cedar log home a few miles out of town. Nice place, too.

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