Like drops of bright red sealing wax, pigment is enclosed in the translucent sheathing of extended secondary feather shafts, giving waxwings their name.
In the midst of the 11-minute walk from our apartment to our school in Ulaanbaatar earlier this week we heard a familiar “wheezing” sound from nearby treetops. The friend we were walking with must’ve thought we were crazy as I abruptly spun around and began crossing the road toward the origin of the sound. But Barbra knew what it was about. “Waxwings!” I exclaimed as I approached the tree where they were perched. Barbra confirmed the sighting. “Yep! Look at their crowns.”
For the past few days, small flocks of Bohemian waxwings have been putting smiles on our faces. On their way to nesting grounds in the conifer forests of Siberia, these flocks don’t hang around long. Until recently the southern edge of Ulaanbaatar near the Tuul River was covered in berry bushes, poplars and willows. Each year, less and less of this habitat remains as Ulaanbaatar’s human population grows…
…but here and there a small patch of what it used to be remains. Every little bit of this habitat is increasingly critical. Even a few berry bushes edging apartment buildings helps.
If you’ve never seen waxwings in good light, I’m not sure I can adequately describe them. Their primary wing feathers are streaked with pure white and edged in yellow the color of daffodils in sunlight. The just-dipped-in-paint sheen on these feathers is reminiscent of crayon gone over with watercolor paint. But it’s the candy apple tips of their secondary wing feathers that give waxwings their name. The red is not on feathers. Rather, it’s opalescent pigment encased in modified, translucent feather shafts.
During their nesting season, waxwings often eat insects. The rest of the year, it’s berries, berries, apples, and more berries – sometimes hundreds of berries in a single day. We walk past these bushes every day and never noticed the winter-preserved berries still clinging to them. But the waxwings noticed. They need this fuel as they fly on to Siberia.
You could be almost anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere and never see a single waxwing. Ottawa, Canada; Sacramento, California; Clarion, Pennsylvania; Sapporo, Japan; – to name a few places where waxwings may or may not be. And, in the wrong light, you might pass right by them and dismiss them as robins or sparrows.
Wheezing. That’s what gives them away. If you hear birds wheezing, look closely. Get them in the right light. You won’t believe what you see.
The only bird with a brown crest – as though the black eye paint and warrior feathers weren’t distinctive enough.
My first sighting of waxwings occurred many years ago on western Pennsylvania’s North Fork of Redbank Creek. I was fly-fishing in early spring, and as I worked my way around a bend in the stream I came upon a leafless poplar that was as lit up as a Christmas tree with waxwings. I thought I’d never seen anything as beautiful in my life. The paint-dipped tips of their feather seemed to glow in the evening light and I stood motionless in the water, mesmerized till they suddenly filled the sky.
This photo shows that the waxwing’s red wing tips are featherless extensions of wing shafts.
In mid-winter, they light up the holly bushes on the campus of the College of Charleston where I earned my master’s degree.
In Sacramento, they filled the camphor tree in our front yard – gorging on berries, wheezing their calls to each other, brightening our day.
The birds we encountered in the lower 48 were cedar waxwings, smaller relatives of bohemians. But here we are, many thousands of miles removed from Pennsylvania trout steams, holly bushes in the Deep South and a lovely, mid-town bungalow in California.
Connected by waxwings.
A pair of waxwings look north against the pale dusk in Ulaanbaatar. They still have hundreds of miles to go before reaching the conifer forests of Siberia where they’ll build their nests and bring the next generation of waxwings into the world. Not many berry bushes here anymore, and a hunk of metal overlooking a construction site makes for a cold roost.