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Cedar waxwings at last. October 6, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading.
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Our friend Ben was surveying the morning scene from our deck door yesterday, enjoying the view across our plant-filled deck and backyard. As I watched, I became aware of a large flock of grey birds on the privet that borders Hawk Run, the little creek that runs behind our house.

Mind you, I’m not referring to those horrible privet cubes people love so much, but to a tall (as in 15 feet), graceful, open, airy plant, left to grow the way God intended. A privet left to its own devices is a delight in all seasons, with its exquisite form, clusters of tiny, highly fragrant white flowers that turn into clusters of deep blue-black berries, and bright yellow fall foliage. In winter, the berries cling to the shrub, and I love to watch the mockingbirds enjoying them.

But I digress. Observing this flock, I noticed several things. They were bigger than chickadees, who have already arrived for the winter with their cousins, the titmice. Titmice are grey, too, and are bigger than chickadees, but I’ve never seen more than three or four at a time, and here were at least 12, maybe 20.

The crown feathers of a titmouse’s head form a crest like a cardinal’s, giving it its name, tufted titmouse. I thought I could see something crest-like about these birds’ crowns, too, but the triangle seemed to be flattened, pointing backwards. Could it be, could it finally be, that I was seeing a flock of cedar waxwings?! Our friend Ben raced for the binoculars.

Yes!!! These amazing birds, so common in the northern half of the country in fall and winter, had never been in our yard before. In fact, Silence Dogood and I had never seen one. And here was a whole flock! Resisting the urge to hog the binoculars, I called Silence and we stood at the sliding glass doors, just revelling in our good fortune.

How did I know these were cedar waxwings, when the birds I was watching appeared to have dark grey backs and whitish underparts, and the pictures in our bird books show brown backs and cream underparts? Their tails gave them away. In fact, our friend Ben thinks they should be called cedar waxtails, not waxwings. The tips of the tail-feathers of waxwings look like they’ve been dipped in deep yellow candlewax, and our binoculars showed that clearly. (The secondary wing feathers are tipped in red “wax,” giving them their name, but our binoculars didn’t reveal that.) I’m sure the birds really are brown and cream, but take this as a caution as to what light conditions can do.

I don’t know about you, but there’s only so long Silence and I can stand still and hold up even small binoculars to our eyes, and shifting focus constantly makes Silence dizzy. So after a few minutes, we decided to risk it. Arming ourselves with our steaming mugs, we slipped out onto the deck as discreetly as we could manage and sat down. And then we were really amazed.

Not only were the waxwings clustering on the privet, alternating between it and some nearby evergreens, but the air was literally filled with birds and birdsong. We’d begun filling the feeders again a few weeks ago when it got cold. And because our large yard is wildlife-friendly, we always have lots of birds. But this particular morning was entirely different. There were the chickadees, goldfinches, titmice, cardinals, mourning doves, and the last robins. There were our nuthatches, and we could hear the resident woodpeckers at work high in the tree canopy.

But here, too, was the first bluejay of fall! (We love big, bold, colorful jays.) And the air was full of warblers, flying from tree to tree, and the waxwings, and myriad other birds, coming so close to us in the branches overhead, I thought at any moment one might land on us. Silence and I agreed that it was the most amazing morning either of us had ever experienced.

I guess it’s not surprising that we finally got our cedar waxwings: We have two huge red cedar trees in our front yard, which bear thousands of waxy blue-black juniper berries, providing food and shelter for myriad bird species over the winter. And cedar waxwings get their name from this evergreen. The question is, what took them so long?

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