A woozy waxwing was the subject of last week's column. Prompted by a phone call, note and photos from a Nature's Notebook reader, I relayed the story of a wayward waxwing that became inebriated after consuming fermented berries.
This week we'll take a closer look at cedar waxwings and their cousin on a less notorious level. While I love seeing cedar waxwings, they are pretty elusive in my neck of the woods. In fact, I'm not positive I've ever spotted one here, although I know they do pass through the area. Once years ago, I tended to some fledgling waxwings that were found in Dr. Barb Coffman's yard, so obviously they nest in our locale as well.
Cedar waxwings are truly elegant in their appearance. Sleek, streamlined and crested they remind me most of a cardinal in shape, although their black beaks are much finer and they are a bit smaller. Overall taupe in color, they sport ebony masks lined with small white lines, a black chin, yellowish belly and white undertail coverts. Their short tails end in bright yellow tips and the grayish wings have scarlet wax-like spots for which they are named. Females are similar.
Youngsters are grayer, have indistinct streaking on their breasts and lack the pronounced crest, mask, dark chin and red droplets of the adult. Although looking somewhat different than their parents, even the fledglings are remarkably pretty and easily identified as waxwings.
Remarkably, another waxwing species, the Bohemian, presents a more magnificent visage. They are larger, more robust, grayer, have cinnamon undertail coverts and display conspicuous black-and-white marking on their wings.
As a family, wandering waxwings are gregarious and tend to be in flocks except during the breeding season. In flight, from a distance, flocks resemble those of starlings. When fruit is abundant, you'll often see them in compact flocks in berry-bearing trees and shrubs. While fruit is their dietary mainstay, they also catch insects on the wing in flycatcher fashion.
Cedar waxwings have a much greater range than their relative, stretching from coast to coast across the continent. Some cedars take winter siestas in the warmth of the Mexican sun.
According to my friend Bob Janssen, famed Minnesota birder and author, cedars are regular migrants, summer residents and winter visitants to our state. They are common to abundant during spring and fall migration, being most numerous in the eastern, central and northwestern regions. One of the largest flocks recorded occurred in autumn in Duluth, when more than 400 cedars were counted. In one Duluth tally 3396 birds were tallied in three and a half hours.
Bohemian waxwings range predominantly in the western half of Canada and the United States, summering far into northern Alaska and wintering down into the Great Plains. Distribution of the Bohemian is irregular, especially in the eastern portion of their winter range.
Mr. Janssen reports Bohemian waxwings are also a regular species in our state, but mostly as a winter visitant. Spotting a Bohemian in summer would be considered an accidental sighting. These birds are erratic in abundance and distribution from year to year. In some years they are rare, in others abundant. They are present most often in the northern and central regions of Minnesota.
While often seen in flocks of 50 to 100 birds, Bohemians have been noted in much higher numbers. Flocks of 500 to 1000 or more are occasionally encountered in the northern regions, especially in Duluth.
Waxwings are rather late nesters, depositing their clutch of three to five eggs in middle to late summer. The nest is shallow and bulky, made of twigs, grasses and mosses and lined with finer grasses, bits of moss and down. Cedars generally avoid dense woods and Bohemians commonly set up abodes in northern coniferous forests and muskeg bogs.
Cedar waxwings maintain such a small nesting territory that occasionally there will be colonial nesting. Bohemian waxwings are erratic in their choice of nesting territory. The abundance or lack of food is believed to govern their decision to nest or not.
Eggs of both birds are pale bluish gray and marked profusely with dark brown spots, although the Bohemians' are larger. The eggs are oval, smooth and have little or no gloss.
Not known for their melodious melody, the call of the cedar waxwing is a very high thin monotone, generally with a slight quaver. It is similar to that of the brown creeper. Calls of the Bohemian are like those of the cedar, but are recognizable by those with a trained ear.
Flocks of waxwings are often spotted where there is an abundance of mountain ash or ornamental crab apple trees and are often seen in towns and cities where these trees are available. Catch them while you can, however, because once the food supply is exhausted, the waxwings will move on. We're in the prime period of peak migration right now, so be on the lookout for waxwings on the wing.
[Source: "Birds in Minnesota," Robert B. Janssen]
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.