Monday, March 10, 2014

Waxing Poetical...

What better bird to wax poetical over than the waxwing. Though we might be tempted to think that a waxwing is a waxwing is a waxwing, there are, in fact, three species of waxwing in the world - Cedar, Bohemian and Japanese. While Bohemian is by far the most widespread (occurring throughout the northern temperate zones of Eurasia and North America), the most familiar species for the vast majority of North Americans is the Cedar Waxwing. Bucking the trend set by other waxwing species, Cedar Waxwings wander far to the south in winter, venturing well down into southern Mexico at times - I once saw one sharing a tree in a hotel garden on Oaxaca with a stunning male Vermilion Flycatcher! So this is the 'standard' waxwing by which others are judged.

Cedar Waxwings are probably at their lowest ebb with us in Eastern North America at the moment, but there are a few small groups around town and, just last week, I chanced across a group of 17 hanging out in the parking lot at the Lobster House, right next to Cape May Harbor. So do look out for these birds and enjoy them all the more armed with the little factoids I give you below:

Cedar Waxwings are an extraordinary combination of colors; soft dove gray, vinaceous pink and old gold, with finishing touches of black, white, flaming scarlet and brilliant yellow. Since there are no true cedars in North America, they should really be called Juniper Waxwings! [Photo by Mike Crewe]

Birds can be aged and sexed by the sealing wax-red tips to the secondary flight feathers (these give the birds their English name), which develop over time. The bird top left in this picture has no red so will almost certainly be a young, first-winter bird [photo by Mike Crewe]. 

Cedar and Bohemian Waxwings share the same tail pattern, with a bright yellow tip. Japanese Waxwings have a scarlet tip to the tail. Occasionally you find a bird with an orange tail tip (there was one in the Lobster House group) and this aberration has been traced to birds feeding on particular, non-native berries during the time at which these feathers are being grown [photo by Mike Crewe].
All waxwings are prodigious berry eaters, though they will eat a lot of insects when they are available and can often be seen flycatching from treetops in spring. Like geese, they seem to have a poorly developed digestive system which requires a high intake of food (and a high outlet at, well, the other end!) and the dryness of late-season berries means much drinking goes on. If you find a group of feeding waxwings, chances are that, sooner or later, you will have a great opportunity to see them drinking from any available water. In mid-winter, they regularly eat snow if water isn't available [photo by Mike Crewe].

Even when seen up close, the feathers of waxwings are unusual amongst birds in that they seem to form a much closer, tighter fit than the feathers of other birds. This gives them an unusually sleek look that is shared by other closely-related birds - the silky-flycatchers of tropical America and the amazing Hypocolius of the Middle East [photo by Mike Crewe].

Cedar Waxwings can be unpredictable in their appearance in your area, but they are predictable in another way - it's a safe bet that when you see them, they will be having a bad hair day! [Photo by Mike Crewe]