Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Late Winter Flock of Cedar Waxwings

Cedar Waxwings Galore

Since I first learned about Cedar Waxwings and saw them I was enamored. They are the most beautiful and interesting birds found in Maryland. They rely purely on their beauty for mating as there is no birdsong. The black masked eyes contrasting the off ivory breast and slate blue wings; the tail tip appearing as if it were dipped in bright yellow paint; the scarlet shots in the wings simply make me think this bird was a flower.

I would see three or four a year in the local parks I wander and enjoy their gentle hiss and their luxuriant beauty. They were always either alone or in a pair. Often they perch for a length of time required for some good viewing and photographs. A few years ago I was at a local science center and in it was a bird cage with two waxwings. Part of me was disappointed as I was reminded of Maya Angelou’s book Now I Know Why Caged Birds Sing. I was assuaged somewhat by learning that these birds had been injured, taken to a wild bird rehab center where it was determined that they had become too tame to be released into the wild again. I maintained some skepticism about that. More on that later.

I appreciated though that I could observe these caged birds closely. I had the opportunity to look at the birds from a few inches away. It was a guilty pleasure to have such captive subjects open to my curiosity. I left with mixed emotions knowing that I satisfied a lot of observation while doing it to caged birds. I was not in a position to judge whether their conditions were truly legitimate but it certainly was not my call for many reasons.

A couple of years ago I was walking around with two friends at an urban reservoir not far from some good wooded park land. Suddenly within a few feet of us were two waxwings within about 5 feet ahead  of us. My mates were not birders but were interested in the stuff one sees in nature. I interrupted our conversation to alert them to this event. Though no one said it I suspected that I was forgiven for the interruption as there was intrigue now. My hiking partners were interested in the waxwings and the birds continued to fly only a few feet in front of us giving us a lot of time to examine them. That was the first time it occurred to me that Cedar Waxwings are not terribly concerned about humans.

With that introduction we will get to the real story. On February 19 I was taking my usual morning walk around Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. As I passed a tiny copse of Willow Oaks I found them filled with birds that were not Robins and Starlings. Initially I noticed a subtle coloring and crest and imagined Titmouse which are not unusual though not everyday birds in the area. Suddenly I saw a Cedar Waxwing and quickly understood that I was seeing 30 to 50 of them, certainly more than I was willing to count.

They bowled me over, there was an issue of my favorite bird in numbers I could hardly imagine. They were everywhere gobbling the berries that remained on the branches and on this day those berries were plentiful. I had never seen such an event-more waxwings that I could have ever expected. Sans a camera I approached the lower branches and found that the birds were very little concerned with my presence. I was reminded of my interest in their behavior and the concern that the caged birds I had witnessed a few years earlier. What I saw suggested to me that these birds were sort of naïve to the ways of the world. They allowed me to face them from only a couple of feet away. Those who chose to cage them for fear of that their tameness would imperil them in the wild did not seem so problematic now. These birds don’t know the ways of the city anyway.

I had never seen a Cedar Waxwing feed off the ground but I did now. They were grabbing all of the berries that they could get as they fell from the branches. The next day I brought one of my cameras and snapped away a large number of photos some of which were salvageable. That allowed me to observe them further. What I think I learned was that they were less naïve than brave. As I approached them on a branch they seemed more defiant than fearful. 

The next day I used a different camera and found that their behaviors did not change but my growing number of photos did. I was thrilled to be in their midst. It was as if they welcomed me which of course they did not. I was merely a sentient thing that they did not fear very much. There is very few joys that I have experienced that match embedding myself amongst Cedar Waxwings for a few days. I already knew that they were beautiful and now I know that they are gregarious and that they flock at least for portions of the year. I also learned that they will feed off the ground. It was fun for three days but on Friday, armed with yet another camera my cache of waxwings was not to be. They had moved on.

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