Fall in the Pacific Northwest is a bit of a limbo time for birding. Ducks are between plumages and are mostly brown, migrants like flycatchers and warblers and tanagers are on their way south, and osprey and cliff swallow nests sit empty. Shorebirds are coming through, and they can be fun and challenging (she said diplomatically), but frankly, fall is a bit of a letdown for me after all the excitement of spring and early summer.
Until the waxwings show up.
My mom had a Golden guide to birds in the map slot of her '72 Datsun, and if I was bored, I'd thumb through it. The birds that caught my eye were the showy ones like wood duck and painted bunting, but the waxwing, for all its brown tones, was pretty showy, too. Lemon-yellow tipped tail, cherry-red wing-feather tips? And a black mask? Neat.
I don't remember when I saw my first live-and-in-person cedar waxwing, but over the years it's become a bird I expect to see in the deciduous or riparian habitats of Oregon and California, where I've done most of my birding. I even stumbled upon a nest of waxwings so big they were due to fledge any minute (the post's video no longer works, sorry about that...it's a bit old, I guess).
Fall is a great time to find waxwings because they gather in large, noisy flocks (often with robins) to feast on the fruit adorning many trees and shrubs in the greater Portland area, both ornamentals and natives. A friend of mine has two Golden Raindrops crab apple trees, and each year dozens of waxwings and robins show up to strip the tasty fruit from the tree.
The flocks I saw earlier in the fall were mostly juvenile birds with one or two adults mixed in. They are easy to tell apart from the sleek adults: the crest isn't grown in, the mask isn't complete, and the chest shows dark streaks. The tail is dipped in yellow, but the red hasn't appeared on the wingtips yet.
I must admit I began this post over a month ago but never finished it. Soon the waxwings weren't as plentiful, and I thought my post was now out of date.
Last week I visited the Bob's Red Mill store in Milwaukie with a friend, and we both noticed how the ornamental trees there were heavily laden with red berries and remarked that the waxwings obviously hadn't found this patch yet.
I was back there today and, as you might have guessed, they've found it. Big time. Waxwings and robins are swarming all around the area, from the trees at Bob's to others in nearby office parks.
Another waxwing, the Bohemian, occurs in North America, but it prefers higher latitudes, breeding through Alaska and Canada and barely entering the lower 48 near the Canadian border in winter. They occur irregularly in Oregon in the Wallowas and the Blue Mountains, I believe during only the coldest of winters. That one is not on my life list yet. It resembles the more common cedar waxwing, but it's a bulkier bird and has red, yellow, and white in the wings. Several years ago during a heavy snow, one did show up with a flock of cedars. Luckily they landed in the northeast Portland backyard of an accomplished birder, so there was no question about its identity. That snow day was a lucky one for Patty!
So when you're out and about birding, don't forget to listen for the ZeeeZeeeZeee high-pitched trills of the waxwings. They're still out there feasting away!
Thanks to Jen Sanford and Greg Gillson for allowing me use their most excellent photos.