BY THE MASKED BIOLOGIST
Special to the Star Journal
During our recent mid-February thaw, I was fortunate to have a truly wild experience. I observed a large flock of birds swarming and chattering as they went about the serious business of getting their fill of food and water. They were foraging on dried crabapples and box elder samaras, which is the actual name of those little helicopter seeds produced by trees in the maple family. Perhaps as wild as what they were doing was where they were doing it – along one of the busiest streets in Rhinelander.
It was mid-morning, on a clear sunny day that felt more like May than February. As I stepped out of my truck, I heard a sound I couldn’t quite place; it was the chattering and buzzing of birds, but what kind? It sounded a little bit like starlings, with the sound of rain mixed in. I glanced around on the power lines where I usually see them but there was nothing there. I looked far up into the ancient oak tree that spreads across much of my yard, but couldn’t make out anything…at first. I finally spied the flapping of wings, and noted several brownish birds on a branch. The more closely I looked, the more birds I saw. I would estimate in total there were about 500 birds swarming my property and the two neighbors north of me. Their body shape and size was somewhat like a cardinal without a crest; although I am not a birding expert, I recognized them as waxwings. But what kind of waxwings?
Cedar waxwings are the default subspecies here. In fact, they are abundant across the Northwoods (really most of the state) according to the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas. I decided to snap a couple photos and ask one of my friends who is a self-proclaimed “bird dork.” Later that day he confirmed my hope, that this was a flock of much less common Bohemian waxwings. The name “Bohemian” is apparently derived from the Bohemia region where gypsies tend to come from, due to their somewhat nomadic wintertime travelling behavior.
The rain-like sound was from what the birds were dropping as they perched in the trees above me and ate their meals. Waxwings are happy to feed on tree seeds and fruits.
I presumed that what I was witnessing was migratory staging behavior, where birds fuel up to restore strength and body mass lost during long flights. It is unlikely that was the case, though, because they naturally have a group foraging behavior year-round. Bohemian waxwings use northern Wisconsin as the far south end of their winter migratory range; in the summer they move north to the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska to breed and raise their young. I find it fascinating to think there are birds that live along the Arctic Circle and come to Wisconsin to wait out the winter! These birds do not claim or defend territories, which is probably why they don’t have a clearly identifiable song; their buzzes and chirps are enough for the birds to communicate while foraging.
I don’t think anyone else noticed this scene alongside the busy street. There may have been a few people wondering why I was standing there staring blankly up into a tree trying to take a photo with my phone. These birds were not terribly concerned about my presence, but they weren’t going to let me get too close either. Consequently, the only photos I could get were somewhat distant. The birds apparently ate their fill, because within ten minutes they were completely gone.
Was this a sign that the birds have determined winter is over? I have seen an influx of Canada geese and swans in recent days, and there are definitely more birds around. Perhaps these waxwings were anxious to head north themselves. Or, maybe this was just an ordinary morning for these birds. Apparently Bohemian waxwings are common feeder birds in winter, although in this case the feeder was my tree. Either way, it was a spectacle to behold on an otherwise ordinary day in Rhinelander.
The Masked Biologist earned a Bachelor of Science degree from a university with a highly regarded wildlife biology program. His work in natural resource agencies across the country provided opportunities to gain experience with a variety of common and rare fish, plant and wildlife species. Follow The Masked Biologist on Facebook. Email questions to MaskedBiologist@charter.net.