Sunday, January 16, 2011

Wonders Of The Waxwings - Cedar And Bohemian Waxwings

Cedar Waxwings
Bohemian Waxwings

"Forehead Up" is a Native American name for waxwings. I think that's because D.A. was already taken.

A group of waxwings are collectively known as an "ear-full" and a "museum" of waxwings
Seidenschwänze (Silky Tails) is what they are called in Germany.

     In the past three days, I have had two 'lifer' birds. "Life" or "Life Birds" are what birders call birds that they have seen for the first time. Each one of these gets added to a birder's "life list." Some say that the numbers on a life list are what separate the men from the boys of birding. There are "bird watchers" and "birders." "Bird watchers" are those who enjoy the birds but don't bother to learn to identify them. Some bird watchers live to merely tick birds off a list, thus building the list. "Birders" are those more interested in birding behavior, habitats and conservation. They are exacting in their identifications. "Birders" generally regard "Bird Watchers" with disdain, or at the very least, the begrudging tolerance one might bestow upon a snivelling younger sibling.  I fall somewhere in between. My Life List is pretty short by most standards (Like my weight, I'm not going to say what it is), because I'm fairly new to birding. Common birds may nonetheless be new birds for me. The longer a birder has been adding to their list, the harder it gets to add new birds. 
     I got my new lifers while racing back and forth to a nursing home to be with my grandmother. She is 100 years old; she has a long, rich life list. For the past four days, she has been trying to die without success. My husband says she's holding on because she is angry about the change in her astrological sign and is conducting a resistance demonstration. He, she and I are all, or at least were, Aries and proud of it.
     I've gone every day to sit with her. She is in and out of a coma, refusing all fluids and sustenance. Her lungs are filling as her old heart is slowly giving out. I'm not sure she even knows I'm there. Once in a while, she opens her eyes, but clearly sees nothing. When I stand up to stretch my howling back, she does clutch, as if fearing that I'm going to leave. It may be my imagination. We are just sitting, waiting. While she has been having her last life experiences, I've been racking up life firsts in birds, which gives me solace.
     On one of my trips to the nursing home, I saw my first Bohemian waxwings. There was a flock of 126 of them, a pretty good showing for a life first! The following day, I saw a second flock in the parking lot of the nursing home. Waxwings are gregarious, aggressive birds and very vocal. A flock or group of them is called an "ear-full."  Waxwings are characterised by soft silky plumage. Because of this, it's tricky to get feather detail in  photographs. They have unique red tips to some of the wing feathers where the shafts extend beyond the barbs. These tips look like sealing wax, and give the group its common name. When I was a teenager, I was a prolific letter writer. I enjoyed the whole process, including closing the flap with a dollop of hot, red wax and applying my seal to it. I still have my 'R' stamp, if not my astrological sign.
    Male and Female waxwings have the same mainly brown plumage, a black line through the eye and black under the chin, a square-ended tail with a red or yellow tip, and a pointed crest. The bill, eyes, and feet are dark. One of the quickest ways to tell the difference between Cedar waxwings and Bohemian waxwings is the underside, or "coverts" of the tail. As seen in the photos above, the Bohemian has a distinctly rusty red underside, where the Cedar does not. If the sun is shining, this feature is plainly seen even at a distance or on a bird in flight. 
     In North America there are only two species of waxwings. The Cedar waxwing is the more common, but is found only in this continent, while the Bohemian waxwing  is more rare in this hemisphere. It's a bird of northern latitudes. There is a third waxwing, the Japanese waxwing. You've probably guessed it's found in Japan. If we ever see them here, it will be because the earth has shifted on its axis again and we'll get a fourteenth zodiac sign.
     Cedar waxwings like cedar and juniper berries, thus the name. Bohemian waxwings are named for their wandering, vagrant ways. We only get these arboreal irruptives here when they push south from  the northern forests in search of food. True Bohemians, they are known for suddenly appearing, then disappearing. As a German immigrant, my grandmother referred to herself as a Bohemian, too. To be as accurate as a true birder, I should say that she was really my first Bohemian.
     All waxwings like fruit, though they eat insects in spring when egg laying and feeding young. During the winter, a birder can expect to find waxwings devouring Crabapples and thickets of Winterberries. There are some color variations in feathers resulting from which fruits the birds eat. Orange, rather than yellow bands sometimes seen on the tails are attributed to pigments found in an alien honeysuckle fruit introduced to their diet. There are several places with Crabapple trees that I visit frequently during the winter hoping for waxwings. Waxwings and berry bushes are closely linked; flocks gather, devour one crop and then, almost mysteriously, disappear to find the next. They pass the seeds right through their systems as they go, making a mess, a behavior belying their gentlemanly appearance. In a day or two, when the fruit is stripped, they vanish - here today, gone tomorrow. I was lucky to have seen the Bohemians. Had my timing differed by mere minutes, I would not have been able to add them to my life list.
     Any day now, my grandmother will disappear like the waxwings, too. Though it hasn't always been tidy with her either, I'm lucky to have known her, to have added her to my life list.

To encourage visits by waxwings to your yard grow:
Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)
Honeysuckle choose a native species, please
Serviceberry (Amelanchier)
Mountain Ash trees
roses with small hips
Cedar trees
Juniper bushes

Witmer, Mark C., Mountjoy, D. James, and Elliot, Lang. "Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla Cedrorum)." in The Birds of North America, Number 309 (Alan Poole and Frank Gill, editors.) The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C. 1997.

Tyler, W.M. "Bombycilla Cedrorum: Cedar Waxwing" in Life Histories of North American Wagtails, Shrikes, Vireos and Their Allies. (Arthur Cleveland Bent, editor.) New York: Dover Publications: 1965 (Unedited reprint of: U.S. Government Printing Office: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museaum, Bulletin 197: 1950). pp.79-102

Bent, Arthur Cleveland, editor. "Bombycilla Garrulus: Bohemian Waxwing" in Life Histories of North American Wagtails, Shrikes, Vireos and Their Allies. New York: Dover Publications: 1965 (Unedited reprint of: U.S. Government Printing Office: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum, Bulletin 197: 1950). pp.62-79.

Stokes, Donald & Lillian. Guide to Bird Behavior, Volume 2. New York: Little, Brown &Company. 1983. (Cedar Waxwing, pp. 177-188)

Sibley, David Allen. National Audubon Society: The Sibley Guide to Birds. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2000. (Waxwings: pp. 423.)

Sibley, David, et. al, editors. National Audubon Society: The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2001. (Waxwings: pp. 485-487; waxwing article by Mark Witmer.)

Martin, Alfred G. Hand-Taming Wild Birds at the Feeder. Brattleboro, VT: Alan C. Hood & Company. 1963. (Waxwings: pp 113-117)

Leister, Mary. "Cedar Waxwings: Unpredictable Birds." BirdWatcher's Digest. November/December 1991 (Vol 14, No. 2). pp. 50-55.

Iliff, Marshall J. "Identify Yourself: Waxwings -- Cedar versus Bohemian." BirdWatcher's Digest. October 2001 (Vol 24, No. 1). pp. 38-42.

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  1. Great photos of both, and great essay. I think your comparison to your grandmother is wonderful. She must be a grand person.Boom & Gary of the Vermilon River, Canada.

  2. Grand in more ways than one, Gary. We call her "Grandy," in fact. Thank you.

  3. As usual, fantastic photos and wonderfully detailed information. My relationship with birds is totally emotional and I am neither a birder nor a bird watcher, merely a co-inhabiter of the planet and delighted to have my fellow flying people to see and occasionally converse with.
    Jan Sand

  4. Dan Hinckley commented on your link.
    Dan wrote: "Wonderful, Robin. Thank you."

  5. Your grandma is very proud I am sure to have a granddaughter like you, as you can tell by her not wanting you to leave her. I love the connection to the Waxwings. They are a favorite of mine.
    I will say a prayer for Grandy.

  6. Becky, that is a lovely thing to have said. Thank you.

  7. So sorry to hear about "Grandy." You are very fortunate to have had each other in your lives for so many special years. I am sure you have been a comfort to her and have been an added enriching treasure throughout her life.

  8. Robin, what a great post!- again, if I may add, just like all your others. Lovely images, the colors are gorgeous! Also impressive list of source material. How do you find them all? The reference to Brattleboro, VT made me smile - the book is real, but the town is not. Bon voyage to your grandmother. I was touched by the way you honored her.

  9. Hilke,
    Thanks for the positive regard! I get most of my info from volumes in my personal library. When those don't have what I'm looking for, i cruise the net. I frequently go beyond a single web page and look at what those writers ahve used for references. I find all kinds of interesting PDFs and professional papers that way. I enjoy the process though it is time consuming. Isn't Brattleboro, VT on Rt 119 on the river? I'm not sure what you mean, I guess. Here's a Goodle map link.,+VT&gl=us&ei=GVI4Td-zB8fDgQeG993SCA&sa=X&oi=geocode_result&ct=image&resnum=1&ved=0CCAQ8gEwAA

  10. Excellent post as usual Robin providing the comparisons between the two species. We have lots of Bohemians in the UK this winter as a result of their northern territory weather conditions.
    Lovely tribute to 'Grandy' .. I know how difficult it is to wait for a loved one to depart. Stay strong. FAB.

  11. A wonderful tribute... beautiful birds to see.

  12. Great photos of beautiful birds.

  13. They are really beautiful, the waxvings. I didnt know there were so many different kinds of them.

  14. Wonder comparison of our waxwngs!
    It's sad that life must end, rest in peace Mother.

  15. Hi there - nice way to mark the passing of an important person for you.

    Waxwings are such great birds - I got my life tick for Waxwings in the UK on a bus driving through Newcastle in the UK. Its a old industrial area, so these pink birds looked out of place in the dust and rust! We would only see them if they were pushed off the rest of Europe by very cold weather.

    Cheers - Stewart M - Australia

  16. Waxwings are a beautiful bird and you have captured them perfectly - I can't seem to get a good one . . .

  17. These are beautiful captures of the Waxwings.
    congratulations on the lifers!
    This is also a lovely tribute to your grandmother.

  18. Springman, Barb and Pat,thank you! Modesto, Joo, Andrew, Mick, Stewart, fjallpran, thanks to all of you for the reads, comments and compliments. My head is spinning! I think I'l lhave to go find some birds to calm myself.

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  21. Thank you for such a lovely intertwining of the human and avian.