Sunday, February 17, 2013

Robins in Winter and the "Mythical" Bohemian Waxwing Returns

An American Robin in the snow covered branches of a buckthorn tree
Some say that Robins are a sign of spring. Well it can just as easily be said that they are a sign of winter, since we regularly have flocks of them that over-winter in the Northeast. Of course, contingent upon their stay is a ready supply of fruit. Fruit of many kinds can satisfy their needs, but here it’s largely crabapples, wild grapes, buckthorn berries and rose hips that they partake of. Unfortunately, this winter our region has only a poor berry crop to offer Robin “red-breast” and its fruit eating allies.
Robins and European Starlings are commonly found  feeding together 
That was not the case last year, when a flock of over 100 Robins were able to spend most of the winter with us. That year the berry crop was bountiful and able to sustain many birds besides the Robins. It may be strange for some of us to think of the Robins eating something other than Earthworms, but prospecting for worms in January in not a viable option. So an alteration in diet is the sensible course for a bird intent on surviving the northern winter. The Robins are not alone in changing their feeding habits come winter, many other insectivores make a similar change.

Cedar Waxwings are common  wintertime companions of the Robin 
I said that we were short on berries this year, but we do have some – and just lately the region’s Robins have been getting around to them. A comparatively modest flock ranging from 25 to 40 birds, have been making the rounds at the nature preserve, and stripping the buckthorn trees of their scant supplies.
A female Bluebird is also spotted among the mixed crowd
The Robins are not alone; they regularly keep company with Cedar Waxwings and European Starlings. These 3 species have little in common, other than their wintertime food preferences. The Cedar Waxwings lead a nomadic existence in the winter months – traveling far and wide in search of good berry reserves. We missed them for the entire first part of this winter, only to become graced by them in recent weeks.
The nearly "mythical" Bohemian Waxwing (photo taken in 2011)
The Cedar Waxwings’ larger and more exotic looking cousin, the Bohemian Waxwing, showed up this past weekend. I was walking back to the trail-head when I heard their distinctive trilled call. It’s similar to the Cedar’s high pitched trill, but tends to be louder and has more of a purring quality to it – at least to my ears. I turned toward the sound, and sure enough there was a flock of 65 of them, mingling with a greater number of starlings.
3 Bohemians (gray bodied) together with one Cedar Waxwing (yellow bodied)
I instinctively set out to retrieve a camera, in the vain hope that the birds would still be there when I returned. Bohemian Waxwings have the well-deserved status of being near mythical birds in our area. When I do find them, they rarely remain long enough for anyone else to get a look at them. “Sure you saw Bohemian Waxwings – sure you did.”
Part of a flock of Bohemians that visited the preserve in 2011
Bohemians are the ultimate winter nomads – wandering about the northern hemisphere making unexpected forays thousands of miles south and east of their breeding range, which is in the far northwestern part of the continent. I only rarely encounter them when I have a camera with me, and even when I do, invariably, the weather or the lighting conditions prohibit good photography. Apparently, nobody is going to steal the souls of these birds – at least not in my area. 
A Bohemian Waxwing (center) flanked by 2  noticeably smaller Cedar Waxwings
When I returned with the camera, my flock of unicorns – I mean Bohemians, was gone without trace. I made an educated guess about what their next stop would be and headed for it. Well, they weren't there, but about half the flock was not far off. They were down by the beaver ponds, along with a group of starlings. From a distance, I could see them one by one, diverging from their group and ascending to the stream for a drink or to bathe. When I reached the area, I was pleased that the lighting was conducive for photography; however, I just couldn't get a clear shot. There were far too many intervening branches between me and the birds. Oh well, I’ll just have to wait for their next visit, which may be in a few days, or in a few years. Whenever that is, I will be ready for them – sure I will

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