Always in Season: Waxwing salvages eclipse experience
The cedar waxwing is always a welcome bird, and never more so than at noon Monday of last week.
That was Solar Eclipse Day, and Suezette and I had turned our deck into an observatory: Deck chairs at the ready, protective eyewear handy, hot coffee nearby.
All we needed was the sun.
At first, there was sun, and we watched as the moon bit into the solar disk.
We also saw clouds passing over the sun—more and more clouds. Way too many clouds. Unwelcome clouds.
By noon, clouds had obscured the sun. Our Eclipse Party was doomed.
But not our Eclipse Experience.
To the right of us as we faced toward the south and searched in vain for a break in the clouds, we heard a little buzzing noise.
A cedar waxwing was calling from a branch of the cottonwood tree that shades our deck in the late afternoon. It was a very welcome waxwing. The waxwing gave truth to the notion that "You can't always get what you want, but you can always enjoy what nature gives you."
The cedar waxwing is a year-around bird here, and encounters with waxwings have often lifted my spirits. I was on my way to the mailbox one bitterly cold morning when I flushed a flock of cedar waxwings out of an eastern red cedar planted in our front yard.
Yes, the waxwing is fond of cedar berries. In fact, the bird is named after the tree.
On a completely different sort of day, while mowing the lawn at mid-summer, hot and sweating in the sun, a cedar waxwing flushed from a boxelder and sat at the edge of a branch scolding me. When I checked the area later, I saw the bird darting off a branch, catching insects and returning to the tree. A close inspection revealed the bird's nest.
The waxwing is not a flashy bird. Instead, it has a subtle beauty. Overall, the bird is a warm brownish gray in color with several special features. One is a crest on the head. A second is a black patch on the face that makes the bird look a little like a bandit. Still another is a band of yellow at the end of the tail. The fourth is bit of red on the wings. These look like beads of wax, and also contribute to the cedar waxwing's name.
With his characteristic humor, David Crossley describes the cedar waxwing as "punky-crested and heavy set" in his book "The Crossley's Guide."
These waxwings are fairly common across our area, but they are more often seen in winter than in summer. Waxwings form quite large winter flocks and they forage across wide areas. They can be abundant one day and gone the next, so encounters aren't certain.
Waxwings can be sought, however. They frequent trees that hold their fruit. In our area, these include cedar and juniper, among the conifers, and mountain ash and crabapple among the deciduous trees.
Nesting waxwings are chancier. I know they nest on our property west of Gilby, N.D., each year, but most summers pass without finding a nest. Instead, I notice the waxwings when they converge to feed on ripe chokecherries.
In "Breeding Birds of North Dakota," Robert E. Stewart describes cedar waxwings as "characteristic of semi-open deciduous woodland including lowland woods on river floodplains and upland woods on river bluffs, hills and escarpments; also of regular occurrence in stands of Rocky Mountain cedar in western North Dakota, and occasionally inhabits open stands of trees and shrubs on or near areas of human habitation, including parks and residential areas of towns, orchards, farmsteads and shelterbelts."
Our place qualifies on the last two counts.
A second waxwing species occurs here in winter. This is the Bohemian waxwing, named for its peripatetic ways. The Bohemian is larger and browner than the cedar waxwing and shows some yellow in the wings. The best way to tell them apart, however, is to inspect the rump under the tail. It's white in cedar waxwings, chestnut in Bohemians.