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12 Blue Birds in Maryland

blue birds in maryland
Photo by Matt Felperin

Introduction

Maryland’s diverse landscapes provide habitat for an array of blue birds, adding vibrant colors and captivating melodies to the state’s outdoors. From the Chesapeake Bay to the Appalachian Mountains, Maryland offers a haven for blue birds, each species contributing to the rich biodiversity of the region. In this blog post, we’ll explore the fascinating world of blue birds in Maryland, highlighting their unique features, behaviors, habitats, and more.

Blue Birds in Maryland

Jump to a species!

Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea):

  • Features: This heron is relatively petite, featuring a slim body, slender neck, and elongated legs. Its wings are rounded, and it boasts a lengthy, straight bill resembling a spear, which thickens at the base. Adult Little Blue Herons sport a uniformly dark plumage. When observed up close or in favorable lighting, they exhibit a deep purple-maroon hue on their head and neck, contrasting with a dark slaty-blue body. Their eyes are yellow, legs appear greenish, and their bill transitions from pale blue at the base to black at the tip. Juveniles are predominantly white, with faint dusky tips on the outer primaries. During the transition to adult plumage, immature birds display a mixture of white and blue feathers.
  • Behavior: The Little Blue Heron adopts a patient hunting strategy, preferring to wait for its prey rather than engaging in frantic movements. It carefully observes the water, scanning for fish and other small prey, and shifts positions either by leisurely walking or by flying to a new area altogether. When it comes to nesting, this species typically chooses trees, often amidst other nesting herons and wading birds.
  • Habitat: Search for Little Blue Herons in serene aquatic environments, spanning from tidal flats and estuaries to streams, swamps, and inundated fields. Typically, they are encountered in modest numbers at each location, often nestled away in secluded nooks.
  • Range: Little Blue Herons are uncommon visitors to particularly eastern Maryland, most abundant in the summer months.
  • Fun Fact: A series of natural “teeth” running along the Little Blue Heron’s central toe functions as a grooming aid. This convenient feature allows the bird to comfortably scratch its head, neck, and throat.

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias):

  • Features: As the largest among North American herons, the Great Blue Heron boasts lengthy legs, a gracefully curved neck, and a sturdy, dagger-shaped bill. Its head, chest, and wing feathers contribute to a somewhat disheveled appearance. During flight, this majestic bird forms its neck into a tight “S” shape, with broad, rounded wings and legs extending well beyond the tail. From a distance, Great Blue Herons appear blue-gray, featuring a prominent black stripe above the eye. When in flight, the upper wing displays a two-toned pattern: pale on the forewing and darker on the flight feathers.
  • Behavior: Great Blue Herons employ a deliberate approach to hunting, either wading at a leisurely pace or standing motionless like statues as they stalk fish and other prey in shallow waters or open fields. Keep an eye out for the rapid and precise movements of their neck and head as they swiftly stab at their quarry with their powerful bills. When in flight, their slow and deliberate wingbeats, along with their tucked-in necks and trailing legs, create a distinctive and unmistakable silhouette.
  • Habitat: Search for Great Blue Herons in a variety of environments, including both saltwater and freshwater habitats, ranging from expansive coastlines and marshes to tranquil riverbanks, lakes, and even residential goldfish ponds. They are also known to forage in grasslands and agricultural fields. During the breeding season, these birds congregate in colonies known as “heronries,” where they construct stick nests elevated high above the ground.
  • Range: Common throughout the entire state of Maryland.
  • Fun Fact: Although they possess a striking stature, Great Blue Herons maintain a weight of merely 5 to 6 pounds, attributed partly to their hollow bones, a characteristic common among all bird species.

Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon):

  • Features: Belted Kingfishers are sturdy birds with large heads, featuring a shaggy crest on the top and back. They have short legs and medium-length tails that are square-tipped. These kingfishers are blue-gray on top, with fine white spots on their wings and tail. Their underparts are white, with a wide blue band across the breast. Female belted kingfishers also display a broad rusty band on their bellies. Juveniles exhibit irregular rusty spots within the breast band.
  • Behavior: Belted Kingfishers commonly perch solo along stream banks, lakeshores, and estuaries, dedicating their time to hunting small fish. They are also known for their swift flights along rivers and coastlines, emitting loud rattling calls. When hunting, they either dive straight from their perch or hover above the water with their bills pointed downward before plunging after spotted fish.
  • Habitat: Kingfishers inhabit areas close to streams, rivers, ponds, lakes, and estuaries. They construct their nests in burrows dug into soft earthy banks, typically located near or directly above water. During the winter months, Kingfishers migrate to regions where water remains unfrozen, ensuring constant access to their aquatic prey.
  • Range: Regular all over Maryland, but more frequent in the later months of the year.
  • Fun Fact: Belted Kingfishers are in the same genus (Megaceryle) as the famous Giant Kingfishers of sub-Saharan Africa, perhaps my favorite kingfisher species!

Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata):

  • Features: Blue Jays are sizable songbirds characterized by a prominent crest and a broad, rounded tail. They fall between the size of crows and robins, with a white or light gray underside and a combination of blue, black, and white feathers on their upper body.
  • Behavior: Blue Jays produce a diverse range of calls that can be heard over long distances, often while perched within trees. They typically fly silently across open areas, particularly during migration. To store food for later, they use their throat pouches and cache it elsewhere. When feeding, they hold seeds or nuts in their feet and peck them open.
  • Habitat: Blue Jays are commonly found along the edges of forests. They have a particular fondness for acorns and are frequently spotted near oak trees in various habitats, including forests, woodlots, towns, cities, and parks.
  • Range: Common throughout. Anywhere in Maryland, you’ll have a hard time missing these birds.
  • Fun Fact: Many Blue Jays migrate in groups along the Great Lakes and Atlantic coasts, yet their migration patterns remain largely unknown. Some remain in their habitat throughout winter, while younger jays are more inclined to migrate compared to adults. However, some adults also participate in migration. Interestingly, certain jays alternate between migrating south one year and staying north the next winter before migrating south again the following year. The reasons behind their migration timing remain a mystery.

Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor):

  • Features: Tree Swallows are sleek, petite songbirds featuring elongated, pointed wings and a short, squared, or slightly notched tail. They possess short, flat bills. Adult males exhibit a blue-green hue on their upper body and white underneath, accentuated by blackish flight feathers and a slender black eye mask. In contrast, females have a less vibrant appearance, with more brown tones on their upperparts. Juveniles display an entirely brown upper body, and some females and juveniles may exhibit a faint, indistinct gray-brown breast band.
  • Behavior: Tree Swallows primarily consume small aerial insects, which they skillfully catch in their mouths while performing acrobatic maneuvers in flight. Following the breeding season, Tree Swallows assemble in sizable flocks for molting and migration. During the nonbreeding period, they congregate in extensive communal roosts.
  • Habitat: Tree Swallows nest in open environments like fields and wetlands, typically near water bodies. They utilize both artificial nest boxes and natural tree cavities for nesting. You can often spot foraging flocks of Tree Swallows flying over wetlands, bodies of water, and agricultural fields.
  • Range: These birds are common all throughout the state.
  • Fun Fact: The Tree Swallow, typically observed in open, treeless regions, earns its name from its preference for nesting in tree cavities. Additionally, they readily adopt nest boxes for nesting purposes.

Purple Martin (Progne subis):

  • Features: Purple Martins are sizable swallows with broad chests. They feature sturdy, slightly curved bills, short forked tails, and long tapered wings. Adult males exhibit an iridescent dark blue-purple plumage, complemented by brown-black wings and tail. In contrast, females and immature birds appear duller, showcasing varying degrees of gray on the head and chest, along with a whitish lower belly.
  • Behavior: Purple Martins fly swiftly, utilizing a combination of flapping and gliding. They capture large aerial insects like dragonflies while in midair. Martins typically feed and roost in groups, sometimes mingling with other swallow species. They often forage at higher altitudes compared to other swallows, making them a bit challenging to observe.
  • Habitat: Purple Martins are colonial birds, often nesting in large groups in the same location. They prefer open habitats, particularly those near water. In the Eastern regions, they primarily nest in nest boxes and martin houses.
  • Range: Purple Martins are not as common in Maryland as Tree Swallows, but can be found without too much difficulty, particularly in eastern Maryland and in the summer months.
  • Fun Fact: The Purple Martin obtains both its food and water while flying. It glides over the surface of a pond and uses its lower bill to scoop up water.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea):

  • Features: Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are petite, slender songbirds with long legs, a lengthy tail, and a slender, straight bill. They display pale blue-gray plumage on their upperparts and grayish-white underparts, along with a predominantly black tail edged in white. The underside of their tail is mostly white, and their face features a distinct white eyering. During the summer, male Blue-gray Gnatcatchers have a black “V” marking on their foreheads extending above their eyes.
  • Behavior: The active Blue-gray Gnatcatcher is constantly on the move, darting around shrubs and trees in pursuit of small insects, often with its tail held at a perky angle. These birds frequently glean food from spiderwebs and may even collect strands of webbing to incorporate into their small, knot-shaped nests.
  • Habitat: In Eastern regions, gnatcatchers breed in deciduous forests and along their borders, particularly favoring moist areas.
  • Range: Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are fairly common in the whole state during the summer months from April to September.
  • Fun Fact: Blue-gray gnatcatchers are known for their intricate cup-shaped nests, which are constructed with spider silk, plant fibers, and other fine materials and often adorned with lichens for camouflage.

Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis):

  • Features: The Eastern Bluebird, a petite thrush, features a rounded head, large eyes, plump body, and attentive stance. Although its wings are lengthy, its tail and legs are relatively short. The bill is short and straight. Male Eastern Bluebirds exhibit vibrant, deep blue plumage on their upperparts and rusty or brick-red coloring on the throat and breast. However, the perception of blue in birds varies depending on lighting conditions, and males may appear plain gray-brown from a distance. Females, on the other hand, have grayish upperparts with bluish wings and tail, along with a subdued orange-brown breast.
  • Behavior: Eastern Bluebirds maintain an upright posture while perched on wires, posts, and low branches in open landscapes, where they scan the ground for prey. They obtain food by swooping down onto insects or, during the fall and winter, by consuming berries while perched on fruiting trees. Additionally, bluebirds frequently utilize nest boxes and abandoned woodpecker holes for nesting purposes.
  • Habitat: Eastern Bluebirds inhabit meadows and clearings bordered by trees, which provide suitable nesting sites. Due to the widespread installation of nest boxes and establishment of bluebird trails, these birds are now frequently observed along roadsides, field margins, golf courses, and similar open habitats.
  • Range: Eastern Bluebirds are some of Maryland’s most common and recognizable birds, seen year-round across the state.
  • Fun Fact: The male Eastern Bluebird courts a female by showcasing his nest site, bringing nesting materials to the cavity, entering and exiting the hole, and fluttering his wings while perched above it. However, his involvement in nest building is limited to this display. It’s the female Eastern Bluebird who constructs the nest and handles the incubation of the eggs.

Cerulean Warbler (Setophaga cerulea):

  • Features: A petite and compact warbler, commonly observed perching horizontally. It features a small, rounded bill and a shorter tail compared to some other warblers like the Magnolia Warbler. Male individuals exhibit a sky-blue upper body with two white wing bars, dark streaking on the back, a slender blue band around the neck, and blue streaks on the sides of their white belly. Females display a bluish-green upper body with a subtle yellowish tint underneath. They lack the streaks on the sides and the neck band seen in males and also sport a whitish eyebrow and two white wing bars.
  • Behavior: This species of bird is known to hop along branches located high in the canopy of trees. It frequently forages in close proximity to gaps within the canopy, likely to take advantage of increased light and accessibility to prey. Males of this species are recognized for their distinctive singing behavior, emitting a buzzy, ascending song that is characteristic of their species.
  • Habitat: In Maryland, breeds within mature deciduous forests characterized by tall trees and a sparse understory.
  • Range: These birds are hard to see, not only due to their habit of remaining high in the canopy, but also because of their infrequent visits through Maryland. May is the best month to observe them in the state.
  • Fun Fact: When attempting to nest again following a failed attempt, the female often utilizes spiderweb material from the previous nest to initiate construction on the new one. While she gathers fresh lining for the new nest, spiderweb material may be considered too precious and difficult to acquire to be discarded.

Black-throated Blue Warbler (Setophaga caerulescens):

  • Features: Black-throated Blue Warblers are petite birds with sleek, pointed bills and a well-balanced physique. Among warblers, they are relatively larger and more robust. Males showcase a deep midnight blue plumage on their upperparts, contrasting with white underparts and black markings on the throat, face, and sides. Females, on the other hand, exhibit a subdued grayish olive coloration overall, although some may display hints of blue on the wings and tail. Both genders feature a distinctive small white square on the wing, often referred to as a “pocket handkerchief.”
  • Behavior: These avians search for food within the understory and lower canopy of forests, where they glean insects from the undersides of leaves. Males vocalize songs to protect their breeding territories and vigorously chase away competing males.
  • Habitat: Black-throated Blue Warblers inhabit extensive areas of hardwood and mixed hardwood-evergreen forests characterized by a dense shrubby understory.
  • Range: Similar to Cerulean Warblers, this species passes through Maryland on their migration journeys and are most common in May and September-October.
  • Fun Fact: The striking contrast in appearance between male and female Black-throated Blue Warblers was significant enough that initially they were identified as two distinct species.

Blue Grosbeak (Passerina caerulea):

  • Features: The Blue Grosbeak is a robust songbird characterized by its substantial, triangular bill, which appears to dominate its face, extending from the throat to the forehead. Adult males boast a deep, vibrant blue plumage with a small black mask in front of the eyes, chestnut wing bars, and a striking black-and-silver bill. In contrast, females exhibit primarily rich cinnamon-brown coloring, with a deeper hue on the head and a paler shade on the underparts, while their tails display a bluish tint. Both genders display two wing bars; the upper one is chestnut, and the lower one is grayish to buffy. Immature Blue Grosbeaks typically showcase a rich, dark chestnut-brown plumage, accompanied by chestnut wing bars.
  • Behavior: Blue Grosbeaks possess vibrant colors but are relatively inconspicuous, although during the summer, males often serenade with their delightful, melodious warbles. They frequently sing while perched atop high points within the shrubs and small trees of their typically open or shrubby environments. Keep an ear out for their distinctive loud, almost metallic “chink” call. Additionally, observe their peculiar behavior of twitching their tails sideways.
  • Habitat: Blue Grosbeaks are emblematic of old fields transitioning into woodland. They prefer breeding habitats comprised of a mixture of grasses, forbs, and shrubs, often dotted with a few taller trees.
  • Range: Uncommon to common visitors in most of Maryland (less frequent in the far eastern part of the state) from May to September.
  • Fun Fact: Blue Grosbeaks have extended their range northward within the United States over the past century or two, potentially capitalizing on the clearing of forests.

Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea):

  • Features: Indigo Buntings are compact birds, approximately the size of a sparrow, with sturdy bodies, short tails, and thick, conical bills. During flight, they appear rounded and plump, with short, rounded tails. Breeding male Indigo Buntings display a vibrant blue plumage overall, with a slightly deeper shade on the head, accompanied by a shiny, silver-gray bill. In contrast, females are predominantly brown, featuring faint streaking on the breast, a whitish throat, and occasional hints of blue on the wings, tail, or rump. Immature males exhibit a mix of patchy blue and brown plumage.
  • Behavior: Throughout the summer, male Indigo Buntings sing their melodious tunes from the treetops, shrubs, and even telephone lines. These birds have a diverse diet, consisting of insects, seeds, and berries, and they can be enticed to backyard feeders with thistle or nyjer seed. While perched, they frequently display a distinctive tail-swishing behavior. Although fairly solitary during the breeding season, Indigo Buntings gather in sizable flocks during migration and at their wintering grounds.
  • Habitat: Search for Indigo Buntings in areas characterized by dense vegetation, such as weedy patches and brushy areas, particularly where fields intersect with forests. They are often found along edges, hedgerows, overgrown patches, and brushy roadsides. When not perched at the highest points in their surroundings singing, they can frequently be spotted foraging amidst shrubs and grasses laden with seeds.
  • Range: Common all over the state, from April to early October.
  • Fun Fact: Indigo Buntings acquire their songs during their youth, learning them from nearby males rather than their own fathers. Typically, Buntings residing a few hundred yards apart sing distinct songs, whereas those within the same “song neighborhood” share nearly identical tunes. Local songs may endure for up to 20 years, evolving gradually as new singers introduce unique variations.

Threats and Conservation

While many of Maryland’s blue birds are currently classified as Least Concern by the IUCN, several species face ongoing threats such as habitat loss, climate change, and collisions with human-made structures. Conservation efforts by groups such as Audubon Maryland-DC focused on habitat preservation, restoration, and public awareness are crucial for ensuring the continued survival of these avian species. Initiatives such as land conservation programs, habitat management practices, and citizen science projects play a vital role in monitoring populations and implementing conservation strategies to protect Maryland’s diverse birdlife.

Citizen Science

Birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts in Maryland can contribute valuable data to scientific research and conservation efforts through citizen science initiatives such as eBird and NestWatch. By reporting bird sightings, monitoring nesting activity, and participating in community science projects, individuals can help researchers better understand bird populations, migration patterns, and habitat preferences, ultimately contributing to the conservation of Maryland’s avian biodiversity.

Vote!

Conclusion

From the tranquil waters of the Chesapeake Bay to the verdant forests of the Appalachian Mountains, Maryland offers a rich tapestry of habitats that support a diverse array of blue birds. Whether soaring overhead, flitting among branches, or singing from hidden perches, these avian species enhance Maryland’s natural beauty and serve as indicators of environmental health. By fostering a deeper appreciation for the state’s avian residents and actively participating in conservation efforts, we can ensure a brighter future for Maryland’s blue birds and preserve their legacy for generations to come.