Nantucket Birds: Waxwings

Waning Waxwings?
By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw

Gee, it sounds as if Bahbwa Wahwah spoke these words. Our bird this week is one that never fails to delight and charm both new and old birders alike. It is a bird that subtly insinuates itself into your awareness, for you never see it at feeders or out hopping around your lawn. But sometimes they rain into a berry-laden holly tree and seem to disappear within.

Often known as the “cedarbird”, this species is right at home on Nantucket, and “Birding Nantucket” lists it as common year-round, nesting in July and August. This however, understates some of the drama of its seasonal movements. Waxwings are almost total fruit eaters, so their travels are dictated by what fruit is ripe and where it is. At this time of year, bittersweet and privet are a few of their favorites, and, as winter tightens its grip, the cedar berries for which they are named provide sustenance.

How do you find a Cedar Waxwing? One of the best clues is their call. By the way, this is also an excellent test of high frequency hearing. The calls are very high and all at a single pitch, with a slight lisping quality, each lasting just a second or two. Usually though, it is a flock of eight to twenty birds going past, and then the sound is almost continuous – similar to the ringing of tiny bells high in the air.

Listen to the call of the Cedar Waxwing.

Waxwings flock quite closely together and tend to twist and turn as a unit. If you see the group land, train your binoculars on the area and watch for motion. It is amazing how well these handsome birds can blend into their environment.

Cedar Waxwings are about seven inches from beak to tail, making them just slightly larger than sparrows. Your first impression is that you’ve found a little female cardinal. They have a sharp crest on their head like a cardinal, and show black through the eye. But they lack the thick, orange beak of the cardinal. Rather, the waxwing beak is black and a bit stubby. Their coloration varies from warm brown on the head and upper parts to a soft gray on the back and a creamy yellow on the belly. The undertail coverts are white, which is an important tool for telling them from their larger cousin, the Bohemian Waxwing.

But what about the wax on the wing? Most adults have hardened red tips on their secondary wing feathers, which apparently protects them from being frayed while feeding in the tangles. The effect is like the red wax used to seal envelopes, and provides a bright spot of red when the birds are perched.

So, now you’ve seen a waxwing. Look for another. It’s rare to see just one. These are social birds and the typical flock size is around 20. Sometimes hundreds are seen together, particularly in winter. Their social behavior can be quite charming, seldom fighting even though they are at close quarters. Indeed quite the opposite is the case. Many times there will be a group of a half dozen sitting in a row, passing a berry from one to the other down the whole line, then back again. It almost seems that this is a game they enjoy playing, for they have been seen to do the same thing with bits of cloth.

One-sixth of their diet is insects and they often act like flycatchers, perching on exposed limbs, flying out and snapping at a bug, then returning to the same spot. During snowfall with large, floating flakes, they’ve also been observed flying out and catching snowflakes. Whether this is just a drill to improve flycatching skills or they are getting a cool drink this way, we can only guess. Still, it is fun to watch.

Most people experience Cedar Waxwings by looking out their windows into a holly or cedar tree and noticing these classy-looking little birds swarming over the tree, gorging themselves on the fruit. A few moments before the tree was empty and now there are birds everywhere. Suddenly they will be alarmed and all fly off, leaving the tree again uninhabited. You find yourself wondering if you dreamed the whole thing.

We are coming into the season on Nantucket when large feeding flocks of Cedar Waxwings descend on the island from the north. Sunday morning birders still remember seeing flocks of hundreds in the winter in the cedars along Baxter Road in ‘Sconset. For many this was a life bird, and it’s always a treat to suddenly be exposed to a bird like this about which you had previously been unaware.

But remember the secret to finding waxwings is to learn their call. There are hundreds of these subtle birds on the island and they will give you a treat whenever you find them.

Originally published in the Nantucket Independent, November 5, 2004. George C. West creates illustrations for these articles. Check out the “Birding Nantucket’ series at: http://k-blackshaw.com/BN/BN.htm

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