Last week as I gazed out the picture window in the great room of my Calgary home, the mountain ash suddenly came alive. A large flock of silky looking, sleek grayish birds descended upon it. They decorated it like a Christmas tree in December! They were the beautiful Christmas bulbs and the remaining clusters of orange mountain ash berries were the lights. It was definitely a sight to behold. Bohemian Waxwings had come to visit and to feast on the berries.
Today as I walked past my kitchen window a huge flock of birds grabbed my attention. They were flying in and out of a very tall evergreen in the backyard of a house just up the street. There were several hundred birds flitting on and off, landing and resting for a brief moment each. All of a sudden, they all left the tree in a flurry and flew off to find another resting spot which I suspect would be in a yard with mountain ash berries, Saskatoons, hawthorn tree berries or leftover berries on a flowering plum.
Generally, they come in flocks often as large as a hundred or even thousands. Today they behaved as they most often do. Bohemian waxwings cruise the landscape looking for fruit in the non-breeding season. mountain ash berries and service or Saskatoon berries seem to be their favorites. These tree species are plentiful in Alberta. There are two species of waxwings here, cedars and Bohemians. Both love berries of various kinds.
Cedar waxwings and Bohemians are similar in appearance, yet different. Both have a conspicuous crest, are about the size of a robin and are sleek looking. Differences include some of their accessories! The under-tail feathers or coverts, as they are called, of the Bohemian are rusty in color, while the cedar waxwing’s are white. Both wear a black mask, but the Bohemian has peachy blush on its face compared to the cedar waxwing whose face is brownish. The belly of the Bohemian is grayish, but that of the cedar waxwing is brownish yellow. In addition, the Bohemian waxwing has white triangles on its wing. These are lacking on the cedar waxwing.
The antics of the waxwings when they eat fruit is hilarious. They dangle from the tree branches as they attempt to snatch the fruit from the ends of the tiny stems that hold them onto the tree branches. If it is windy they bounce up and down like little balls, but always manage to secure a berry in their beak. Each bird stretches its head upward to let the berry slide down its throat into its tummy! Mmmm good! A large flock of waxwings can eat a very large, tall Mountain Ash heavy laden with its orange-red berries clean in a heart-beat!
Seeing Bohemian waxwings is special at any time, observing them in winter adds joy to the sometimes overcast gray days. I remember when I saw my first Bohemian. I was attending an academic conference in Edmonton, Alberta in the 1980s. I knew that Bohemian waxwings were in the city, and I knew they were traveling up and down neighborhood streets feasting on mountain ash berries. I gave a paper that day. At the end of my presentation I asked whether anyone could steer me to the neighborhood where the Bohemians were currently hanging out. “It was life bird for me,” I reported. Academics from the University of Alberta obliged even though it must have seemed like a strange request from an academic attending a conference on ethnic groups of the Canadian Prairies! It gave everyone a bit of a chuckle!
Christmas in April triggered a memory of my first sighting ever of a Bohemian waxwing! I also think the Bohemians may have been joining those in Calgary that are turning on their Christmas lights to honor those who are serving on the front lines during covid-19. While we don’t see Bohemian waxwings on the Peninsula, we do see cedar waxwings. They are uncommon in spring, but become more common in the spring. Watch for flocks of cedars looking to decorate the fruit trees and shrubs of the Peninsula soon. It could be an early Christmas for us!
”Common Birds of the Long Beach Peninsula,” by Kalbach and Stauffer, is available from the Chinook Observer, Bay Avenue Gallery, Time Enough Books and the Long Beach Peninsula Visitors Bureau.