Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Rare Waxwings Invade Industrial Park
April 12, 2008
Steve Grinley

     There has been a show going on this past week in the Lord Timothy Dexter Industrial Park in Newburyport. No, it is not a commerce show – it is a nature show. A flock of more than a hundred Bohemian waxwings has invaded the ornamental fruit trees along Mulliken Way, Malcolm Hoyt Road and Opportunity Way. These birds have stopped here to “refuel” before continue their journey back north. They are consuming the crabapples that have ripened over the winter, and in this setting, one can watch these magnificent birds at eye level, close distance from the car, feeding in these small trees.

     If you are familiar with our more common cedar waxwings, these Bohemians, which are rare here, are larger and even more colorful than their handsome cousins. Both species have a crest, black mask and chin, yellow tip to the tail, and red “wax-like” tips to their secondary feathers on their wings (from which they get their name.) Though the Bohemian waxwings don’t have the yellow tinge to their bellies like the cedar, their wings have much more yellow and white patterning which, together with the red, is so very stunning.

     I didn’t realize how much more stunning these birds were until I watched them this past week feeding in these low trees. They would twist and turn their bodies as they pulled the fruit off the branches. Often they would spread their wings for balance, and that is when I could see the truly mesmerizing pattern of color in the wing feathers.

     While I was enthralled by the beauty of these birds, Jim Berry of Ipswich was fascinated by their eating habits – particularly the effort that it took to consume the long-stemmed crabapples on which they were feeding:

     “I watched 60-80 [Bohemian waxwings] there two days ago on and under the two little crabapple trees in front of Hero Coatings on Malcolm Hoyt Road. It looked easy, but those birds really had to work for their food!

     “First, they had to detach the berries from the tree unless they picked up the ones that had fallen to the ground. That wasn’t easy because they were firmly attached, and for every successful tug there must have been ten or more tugs that did not work. Luckily, when the berries did come off they came off without the stems.

     “Second, they had to swallow them once they had them in position. That was easier said than done because the berries are big, most of them too big for cedar waxwings, which is probably why there weren’t any cedars in the flock. I watched Bohemians take upwards of a whole minute to get some of the berries down.

     “Third, they obviously don’t like the stems and worked even harder to get them off when they found berries with the stems still attached. This was true, as far as I could tell, for virtually all the berries on the ground. A few of the birds would hunt through those and look for ones without stems, but I never saw any of them find one. Usually they would toss those aside and keep looking, but often they would try to dislodge the stem by shaking the berry. Not effective! Then, still holding the berry, they would swipe the stem against the grass or a branch to try to remove it, which was just as futile. They would usually give up after wasting several minutes. In over an hour I saw not a single bird succeed in removing a stem. Three times I saw a bird swallow the berry with the stem still attached, but it was clear that was a last resort. Waxwings have apparently not solved the problem of removing stems from valued fruits.

     “Their behavior was truly enjoyable to watch, though I pitied them a bit for not having the intelligence of corvids [crows, etc.], who would have figured out how to stand on the stem while pulling on the berry.”

     Birders and photographers have been enjoying these birds all week and, hopefully, the waxwings will stay around a bit longer. Of course on weekdays, the noise and hustle and bustle of a busy Industrial Park presents challenges for wildlife viewing, especially with loud truck traffic often scattering the flock. Weekends are quieter there and a better time to venture over to see these incredible birds!

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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4 years of service to the birding community! 
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