One of the pastimes I enjoy most in Ajijic is walking along the lakefront, observing changes in nature as the seasons move from rainy to dry, from fall to spring, and with the changes, bringing new avian visitors. I start early each day and take my dogs, Carlo the big black Newfoundland, and Cokie the brown Lab, and together we encounter many new sights and sounds. While I am concentrating primarily on our winged friends, Cokie and Carlo tend to favor close encounters with other mammals, such as cows, horses and other dogs. However, even they can be moved to notice some of our more statuesque shore birds, the beautiful egrets and herons who stand patiently at the water’s edge waiting for the moment they can capture their next meal.
Of late, however, I am concentrating on the arrival of new species to our area, some of the “snowbirds” who arrive each year to spend the winter in Mexico, after breeding north of the border, and who come back here to spend the next months feeding where the food supply is more plentiful.
A most notable arrival of late has been the huge flocks of yellow-headed blackbirds. We tend to see them flying in large groups, either along the marshy areas of the lake, and often above the cultivated lands, pastures and fields that comprise the federal zone of Lake Chapala. The yellowheads are omnivores and will feed on aquatic insects, and on grasshoppers, grubs, weed seeds and grain. They roost at night in reedy or marshy areas near Lake Chapala or irrigation ditches.
The yellow-headed blackbird spends the spring and summer in the western half of the continent, breeding in the central and northern part of the US and Canada. It is a handsome bird, approximately the size of a robin, and is easy to identify due to its bright yellow head and breast, contrasted with a black body and white wing patch. The female of the species is smaller and more drab, of a mostly charcoal brown color. She lacks the conspicuous wing patch. They are extremely territorial during nesting season, and the males will ardently defend their claims for females.
In their breeding range, the yellowheads also frequent reedy lakes or marsh areas, but spend a fair amount of time foraging for food in grain fields. These habits remain the same here in Mexico.
A significant difference in their winter range is their social behavior. Here the flocks of birds we see flying overhead in huge number are segregated by sex. The older more mature males tend to hang together, and, of course, due to their striking plumage are the easiest to identify. The less spectacular females often travel in their own groups and are easy to confuse with other species of blackbirds. However, it is literally possible to see thousands of yellow-headed blackbirds as they fly over Lake Chapala each morning and evening, forming undulating ribbons as they soar and dip over the lake shore.
One of the reasons the flight of the blackbirds is nearly impossible to miss while walking along the shore is due to the sound overhead. I don’t refer to their vocalization, which is distinctly unmusical for a songbird, and is frequently described as close to the unpleasant sound of a very rusty hinge. Rather, it is the whoosh sound created as these huge flocks speed over the heads of we land-bound creatures, making a dramatic whirring noise, and a sensation of a cool breeze wafting above us. It makes for a very pleasant beginning to a day, to pause, and look up at their fantastic feats of flight, to feel the air displaced above us, and to marvel anew at the wonders of nature.
This article appears courtesy of the Chapala Review, a monthly Newspaper published in Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico. The focus is the Lake Chapala area. The goal is to provide quality information about the area, its stories, events, history, culture and people.