I went out late to take Raven for her afternoon walk today. It was nearly four by the time I finally got the skis strapped on (with the mild weather, all the snow was wet and stuck to the snowshoes when I hiked out, making my feet feel uncomfortably heavy). The skis make more noise than the snowshoes, and I had to watch where I was going because the trail out had gotten a little rough with the melt and certain un-snowshoed travelers making holes in the track. So I was nearly halfway out along the first field before the sound of the birds registered. I stopped, looked up. And there, at the top of the trees just ahead, was a huge flock of Bohemian Waxwings, all chirring in their high-pitched bell-like call. I hadn’t brought my camera. I hadn’t even brought my binoculars, figuring it was so late in the day. What to do?
I struggled only a moment before turning back and skiing as fast as my clumsy rustiness and bumpy trail would let me, glancing once or twice over my shoulder to make sure they hadn’t flown. The way I figured it, if they flew before I came back out with the camera, I hadn’t lost anything, but I most definitely would not be getting a photo if I didn’t go back for it. I grabbed the camera, switched out the lenses to the telephoto, called in to Dan that there was a flock of Bohemians (“How many?” “Oh, dunno… twenty? Twenty-five? Fairly large.”), hurried back out, strapped on the skis again, and started back down the trail.
They’d stayed. Whew! Thank you, birdies! I would’ve been disappointed not to get a photo, but not upset; it was a thrill just to discover them. I realized on going back out that the group was larger than my initial hurried estimate. In fact, when I sat down to count the individuals in the top photo of this post, I came up with a total of 85 birds. That’s a pretty good-sized flock!
I can count on one hand the number of times I’d seen Bohemians prior to this (twice). They’re an irruptive species that breeds in the far north, from the Hudson Bay of Northern Ontario, west through the boreal into Alaska, and south through the Rockies to about the Canada-US border. The closest breeding population of Bohemian Waxwings to us here in eastern Ontario would be the Hudson Bay population, some 1200 km (700 miles) away as the waxwing flies, and even there their numbers are thin.
In the recent Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas the species was detected in just 16 of about 85 100-square-km squares surveyed, with a probability of observation of just 6% (that is, the percent chance that you’ll detect the species in any given square in the region within the first 20 hours of field work – the method of data standardization used in the atlas). The first documented nest of the species in Ontario was only found in 2003.
Bohemian Waxwings feed primarily on mountain-ash berries in the winter. When crops of these berries are good in the north they rarely roam very far south. However, when crops are poor they may travel farther in search of food. Ontario birder Ron Pittaway writes a “winter finch forecast” every year where he consults naturalists from across Ontario and other parts of the country to assess tree seed crops in various regions. Knowing how food supplies are distributed about the northern forests helps him to make a prediction on what northern species might irrupt south and in what numbers. He’s usually pretty accurate. This year he indicated that mountain-ash berries are in good supply through much of the north, and so there will be low numbers coming south this year.
He also notes that while spruce, hemlock and birch crops are poor in northeastern Ontario, they’re good in northwestern Ontario and crossbills and redpolls will mostly move in that direction rather than come south this year. I haven’t seen a single redpoll yet this winter.
Slightly larger than Cedar Waxwings, they can easily be told apart by their grayer bellies and rufous undertail coverts. This is good, because when you’re looking up at a group of waxwings perched at the top of a tree, it’s often hard to see the other diagnostic marking, the white-and-yellow patterns on the wings. I pished to try to draw them down a bit closer, but they just tipped their heads and laughed at me. Yeah right, they seemed to say, we saw you walk up here, and your black wolf isn’t helping make you any more convincing.
They hung around just long enough for me to run off a couple dozen shots, and then, in one decisive movement, they all took off and departed for places west. I was pretty surprised to see them in the first place, really. Neither the 30 acres behind the house or the 100-acre woods down the road have much in the way of berry bushes, that I’ve seen, and even early on in the winter I’d noted to myself that we probably wouldn’t be seeing any waxwings as a result. So I was delighted they decided to swing by to say hello!