It starts with a whistle, but a whistle so faint it’s a whisper across the leaves. And then the sound of raindrops, but it’s not rain. It’s the patter of falling berries, pyracantha and holly, dropping into the blanket of debris below the trees. Finally, we see the face — peeking through the branches with an ebony mask drawn across the eyes like an avian Zorro. This is my winter. It doesn’t begin until the waxwings come home.
A week ago, we heard the first trills and whistles in the pyracantha tree below our deck. They’ll be here for a few weeks, until they finish off the pyracantha and the thick bunches of holly berries growing outside our window.
For many years, I didn’t know about the Cedar Waxwings — even though I spent some of my younger times in the Northwest, a place graced by their presence year-round. I never heard them, never saw them. I didn’t know to look for them. Now, if for some reason they didn’t return to my California home, my winters would feel as desolate as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
They flush from the branches suddenly and with such velocity, I’m always careful when I photograph them close to homes and windows. I keep the slatted blinds down and refresh the UV stickers so as to give these super flyers a fighting chance against one of their greatest nemeses — the window pane. (See Being Bird Friendly for some window-collision prevention tips — from the Fatal Light Awareness Program.)
I shot the images below from my back porch. Normally, the waxwings keep their distance and I’ll take the shots I can get. But I had two cooperative birds pose close to my lens and in good light.
Cool Facts: Waxwings
- They have different calls and whistles, depending on what they want to accomplish. Listen (All About Birds website)
- Astacene (3,3′,4,4′-tetra-keto-beta-carotene: That is, the oxidation product of astaxanthin which creates the red, waxy and pigmented spots that give waxwings their name
- You can sometimes catch waxwings passing berries down the line, from bird to bird, until one bird in the line succumbs to temptation and eats
- They fly fast and in close formation which leads to frequent window hits
- You’ll find them in the Bay Area wherever you see their favorite berries ripe for the picking: pyracantha, holly, toyon, for example
- Waxwings can become intoxicated from over-ripe, fermented berries, particularly since they eat them in such quantities.
And . . . the neighbor’s gorgeous cat, pretending she doesn’t notice the ruckus in the pyracantha tree.