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ALWAYS IN SEASON/ MIKE JACOBS: Absent waxwings could still show up

Illustration by Mike Jacobs1 / 2
Mike Jacobs2 / 2

Last week's bird, the house sparrow, is the image of domesticity. Even its name suggests a place bound creature. This week's bird is a wanderer, as its name implies. What do the house sparrow and the Bohemian waxwing have in common? They are "missing birds of the week."

The house sparrow isn't as much missing as disappearing. Last week's column discussed the downward trend in house sparrow numbers, from a high in the five figures a couple of decades ago to fewer than 400 on the most recent Christmas Bird Count in Grand Forks.

By contrast, the Bohemian waxwing is never a dependable bird. It nests far to the north, across Alaska and Canada to the southern coast of Hudson Bay. The closest Bohemian waxwing nests are in northern Manitoba.

In winter, though, the waxwings often move southward, and in some years they can be abundant here. Not every year, though, as I was reminded by a phone call from an old birding colleague who wanted to know why the waxwings hadn't shown up at the mountain ash trees.

They don't show up every year, probably because they find plenty of food elsewhere. Even in a good year for waxwings, the birds seldom stay around long. Once sated, they're off to the next supply of low hanging fruit. That could be in your backyard. There's a stretch of winter ahead of us, and waxwings could still show up.

Dependable cedars

Another species of waxwing is dependable here. Cedar waxwings nest locally, and they're fairly common throughout the summer, when they imitate flycatchers by darting after insects from open perches. In fall and winter, the cedar waxwings take after their wandering cousins and go off in pursuit of fruit. Sometimes, the two species flock together.

They are similar, but a good look will show enough difference that the species can be told apart. Bohemian waxwings are slightly larger, though size is seldom dependable as a field mark. Bohemian waxwings also are duller, overall, more of a brownish gray color. Cedar waxwings are lighter, more tan than brown and more yellow than gray. Even this difference can be obscured by poor light or overlooked in a quick glance.

This leaves two reliable field marks. One is the color combination in the wing. Bohemian waxwings show red, yellow and white; cedar waxwings lack the yellow markings. Admittedly, these can be hard to see, and again can be missed if the bird in question moves quickly away.

So how can you tell a Bohemian waxwing from a cedar waxwing with certainty? The best advice is, look under the tail. Bohemian waxwings have rust or chestnut feathers under the tail, while cedar waxwings are pale yellow or white below. The waxwing you're looking at may not show off this field mark, but when it does, you will know which waxwing you are seeing.

There's one more complication: Both Bohemian waxwings and cedar waxwings are gregarious birds, and they often form mixed flocks. This provides an opportunity to compare the two species, of course, but it can lead to maddening and ultimately futile attempts to determine how many of each species is present in any flock.

Spring influx

I mention this because I had a similar experience this past Tuesday. The weekend storm came from the southwest, and it brought an incredible influx of spring migrants. This resulted in an almost continuous flock of birds rolling along the exposed shoulder of County Road 33, my usual route into Grand Forks. The snow buntings, winter residents here, were easy to pick out. They show a whole lot of white when they lift off. The darker birds in a mixed flock are harder to differentiate. Experience tells me that these flocks will contain horned larks as well as Lapland longspurs. To be sure, however, takes patience and luck. The luck would be a bird holding still long enough to get a good look at it. In that case, identification would be easy. Neither the larks nor the buntings are likely to cooperate in this way, however.

Horned larks are an early sign of spring. They are resident throughout the year in areas not far south and west of us and occasionally also in the Red River Valley. Lapland longspurs are Arctic breeders. The longspurs are regarded as among the most numerous terrestrial birds in the Northern Hemisphere, and flocks of many hundreds of longspurs sometimes occur — although some may be those longspur look-alikes, the horned larks.

The larks are among the signs of spring that have begun to show up here, so this streak of missing bird reports should be near an end. It's a consequence of winter, when the number of species to be seen is limited.