The Pacific-slope Flycatchers who entrusted a corner of this ranch house for their nest have fledged their baby Flycatchers and moved on, leaving behind a beautifully constructed, but empty, nest. It's possibly the same Flycatcher pair who used a slightly lower notch in the house four years past. Two years ago the Flycatcher's moved to a second story nook, but last year a raven swooped into that nest, destroying the eggs. Right now, jays are yammering in the fir and redwood just beyond the yard. The rising heat of midday and the sight of me through the window holds them at temporary bay. As soon as I'm out of sight they'll descend on the cherry and plum trees. Lately they've taken to dive bombing the blueberry bushes for fruit that has only turned the faintest blue.
Of course, these are not Blue jays, western jays are either scrub or Steller's jay. The Steller's jay is usually larger, crested and a darker blue in color. They are named for the German zoologist Georg Wilhelm Steller, who first identified them while sailing with Vitus Bering in 1741. Since the Bering Sea lies roughly between Alaska and Russia, a common misconception persists that Bering was a Russian, but he was born and learned his seamanship as a Dane.
In July, 1741, Steller was likely the first European to set foot on Kayak Island (so named because of its shape) in the Gulf of Alaska. It was there that he first spotted his jay. Bering did not survive that ocean expedition and Steller made it only as far as Siberia before fever felled him. However, Steller's journals made it back to the court at St. Petersburg and were subsequently published.
Steller identified six species of mammals and birds. Two are extinct: the speckled cormorant and Steller's sea cow. The latter proved too tasty for Russian seamen who initially mistook it for a seal. Within twenty-five years sailors wiped out the manatee-like sea cow. Three other species (Steeler's sea lion, Steller's eider, and Steller's sea eagle) are endangered. Only Steller's jay has thrived. It's intelligence and craftiness rivals the raven. Steller's jay has been heard mimicking other birds, particularly hawks, as well as squirrels and dogs.
While ravens and jays are notorious fruit thieves, Pacific-slope Flycatchers prove largely beneficial to man through their hunting activities. Flycatchers forage most often from the perch of a tree limb, high or low, though generally in the shade. From there they dart out and catch insects in mid-air. Their victims tend to be flies, mosquitoes, and the occasional wasp or bee.
This leads to my latest discovery: Just east of our largest apple orchard, hornets chose a relatively low hanging (about six feet off the ground) fir branch as the site of a gray nest the size and shape of a football and a half. No, I did not bump into it, but walked right alongside before noticing it.
Hornet's nests are made from a paper substance that comes from saliva and wood pulp. Yes, hornets do have spit. Not only that, in Japan the business of hornet spit/saliva brings in tens of millions of dollars annually. As Dave Barry would say, you can't make this stuff up: According to biochemist Takashi Abe, amino acids from the saliva of baby hornets improves physical endurance in human athletes.
Naoko Takahashi became the first Japanese woman to win the Olympic marathon race at the Sydney Games in 2000. She drank the hornet saliva drink before and during that marathon. The powdered drink (mixed with water or other electrolyte liquids) has a brand name: VAAM (Vespa Amino Acid Mixture).