Just Passing Through…

Cedar Waxwings dining on fosters holly

I heard their high pitched whistles before I saw them on Sunday morning. The sound was piercing enough to serve as my early morning wake up call.  I hopped out of bed and dashed to the window to search for these traveling gifts from nature.  In the pre-dawn light, I could only see the dark silhouettes dotting the limbs at the very top of the sycamore tree but there was no mistaking the unique calls of this bird. The whistling bzeeee bzeeee, a little like a high pitched dog whistle, was coming from cedar waxwings, about 80 of them, dark against the sky.  They’ve finally arrived. They never made a stop on their fall migration but this small ‘aristocracy’ or flock of waxwings was making its way to their northern breeding grounds.

Acrobatic waxwings often eat upended!

I was so honored to welcome these well-dressed birds to dine at the foster hollies again. The three trees were full of red juicy berries waiting for their arrival. Cedar waxwings are frugivores, meaning they eat small fruit during the fall, winter and spring, but they are also invertivores, or insect eaters, during the summer months.  They are acrobatic in flight and are excellent insect catchers in mid air. I must alert my daughter in Maine that the birds are on their pilgrimage back to their nesting grounds near her. They breed around the lake near her home and entertain her as much as they do me. She once ‘saved’ a moth inside her home by tossing it from the back door… only to have a cedar waxwing snatch it in midair.

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The fosters hollies are practically cleaned of berries today. They are nibbling on the seed balls of the sycamore and may linger for another day before they are off on their arduous northward journey. If you’d like to invite these well-dressed birds to dine with you, consider planting native fruit trees or maybe their favorite, fosters holly.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

When the Going Gets Tough…

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… the tough definitely get going. Yesterday, as temperatures hovered around 19 or 20 degrees and winds gusts of 15 MPH lashed down narrow beaches, a light crew braved frostbite at dawn for the Christmas Bird Count.  The weather was harsh and inhospitable for man and beast, even dangerous, yet it was an amazing count of birds under these conditions.

Hundreds and hundreds of ducks and geese and swans were counted on the water. Angry white caps on the open water made it time consuming to identify water birds far from shore but the more experienced birders prevailed.  On the shoreline, ice flows like plate tectonics heaved to and fro in the first 50 feet of the rivers.

Inside our 15-mile diameter circle, we found most inland birds hunkered down in protection from the wind.  But eventually they must feed and during those times we counted amazing numbers and varieties of woodpeckers, cedar waxwings, vulture, sparrows, hawks, warblers, robins, cardinals,  bluebirds, blackbirds and so forth.

Although the waxwings have not visited our foster holly, we found them stripping clean Bradford Pears lining a driveway allée.  The homeowner said he would like to replace his many Bradfords that have split time and time again in storms, but the sight of birds feasting on the tiny fruit each winter holds him back.  Seeing the birds feed, I agree with him.  Eventually, he plans to replace the trees with Chanticleer ornamental pear trees that are less likely to split.

Most unusual bird spotted: a rooster.  We did not count him.  What we did not see: our eagles.  Bummer News: My camera froze after 15 photos. Best news: We managed to count all day without frostbite.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Cedar Waxwings in the Garden

cedar waxwing in foster hollyThere is a quiet lull in the garden right now.  Fall maintenance chores are complete, tools have been cleaned and put away, hoses have been drained, and the first frost has arrived in Tidewater.  For me, this time of year signals a new excitement as I view the landscape from my windows, binoculars in hand, camera ready, and Sibley’s bird guide at my side for it’s all about birds and migration now.  Much of what I have chosen for garden flora has been for the birds, their nesting, their food, and their winter protection.

One bird that I am eagerly awaiting is the cedar waxwing. My daughter in Maine delights in the arrival of cedar waxwings each spring that remain and breed in Maine, dining voraciously on her blueberries and honeysuckle berries and insects all summer.  Before migration, she watches as they begin to flock in August over a fast running stream near her community, diving and swooping over the rapids chasing insects.  It is such a spectacle that she makes the pilgrimage back to the rapids to watch the incredible show each August.

Now she has alerted me that she no longer sees her resident waxwings. Have they left Maine? For me that can mean only one thing; they’re migrating my way.  And I am ready, checking the trees, listening for their high pitched calls, looking for movement around the cleaned and filled birdbaths.  They could be here any day from now till March but I know they will come for the waxwings and I both favor one variety of our trees: the foster holly.  I love it for its beauty and the food it brings my feathered friends. The waxwings love a variety of berries but this holly is their ‘caviar’ of berries on our property.

The slender, 20 – 30′ tall foster holly is a hybrid, the The arrival of cedar waxwingsoffpring of the female Dahoon Holly and the male American Holly.  I planted 3 of them massed together off the corner of the house as a vertical accent.  They produce tons of berries that are bright red against the glossy, dark leaves that are less spiny and softer than other holly leaves. These hollies are beautiful during the summer but they seem to save themselves for their brilliant berry display in the fall and winter.  I check the trees each day, looking for movement or the high pitched call of the cedar waxwings.  They could come today or they could come in January for they wander widely as they move south.

When the flock of birds do arrive, the scene is reminiscent of a piranha feed on the Amazon River.  The hollies are under attack for 24 hours until nary a berry is left. The gluttonous feeding habits of the bird are a far One waxwing with a red tail from consuming honeysuckle berries.cry from the image of the proper looking bird with its elegant silky feathers in shades of browns and yellow. The adults sport a distinctive black mask outlined in white that extends broadly over the face.  The adult wings end in secondary feathers with red waxy tips and the tails of most end in yellow tips.  However, since the 1960’s, there have been sightings of orange tipped tails due to eating the pigments of berry from a newly introduced variety of honeysuckle while the feathers are still growing.

After two days of feasting on foster hollies, cedars, cotoneasters, and wild cherries, my fascinating friends are off for a feeding frenzy at another location.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester