There 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 offpring 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 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