Christmas Bird Count 2018, Anstine Audubon Preserve in Vista. Our small group climbs a hill and checks for birds. Craning my neck, I mutter, “I hear Cedar Waxwings.” We all start scanning the tops of trees, the sky, in all directions. Nowhere to be seen. As the enumerator, I could just mark down “1” and move on, since we know we heard at least one. But waxwings rarely travel without a major entourage. Can we maybe get an estimate? Those shrill yet vaporous trills taunt us as we circle the preserve, but the flock eludes us. “Find me those birds,” I hiss to our close friend and birder par excellence; he offers an “I’m trying” shrug. Finally, at a large opening in the canopy, the flock streams across—65+ individuals! Done and dusted.
Cedar Waxwings are indeed most often heard before they are seen. Their high-pitched, thin whistles and trills waft down from high in a tree laden with fruit. This call is an ethereal sigh that barely brushes the upper reaches of the human register. The birds vocalize constantly in flight; and even though the call seems to lack substance, it is audible for surprisingly (and sometimes frustratingly) long distances. Their flight is fast and undulating—at times almost reckless, given the close proximity of other birds in the tightly packed flock. An arriving flock typically claims the highest branches of several trees.
Distinctive and distinguished, an adult Cedar Waxwing cuts a sleek, rakish figure. With a warm gray-brown, almost pale butterscotch back, the adult has a dramatic black mask edged with white; a black area under the chin; a number of red, wax-like “droplets” on the tips of the secondary feathers; a pale yellow belly; and a yellow band at the tip of its tail. (Males and females can’t easily be distinguished in the field.) Although waxwings have crests, the crest feathers droop over the backs of their heads most of the time. From the sweptback crest to the yellow-tipped tail, every feather on the adult seems flawlessly hand-painted and meticulously placed.
Sugary fruits make up the diet of the Cedar Waxwing seven months of the year: pokeweed, strawberries, serviceberry, cherries, blackberries, just to name a few. In the summer, waxwings add insects to the menu, but fruits still dominate. The birds move in flocks of dozens—if not hundreds—feeding on the berries of ornamental plants at least as willingly as they do on the fruits of wild plants: Sweetgum, Peruvian and Brazilian pepper, palms, and fig rank among the cultivated shrubs and trees that waxwings now rely on. Once the summer fruit bounty fades, toyons, junipers, mountain-ash, crabapples, and hawthorns provide important winter fare.
With a scientific name of Bombycilla cedrorum, the genus name (Bombycilla) should have been Latin for “silk tail” (the German common name for this bird). But, not understanding how Latin actually works, the namer accidentally dubbed the genus “little silk.” (Bombyx means “silk” in Latin; –illa is a diminutive suffix.) Oh, well. The species name—cedrorum—is Latin for “cedar.” In eastern North America, the most common juniper has the misnomer of Eastern Redcedar and the species name reflects the bird’s fondness for these juniper berries in that region, especially in the winter. (And while we’re on misnomers, the juniper “berries” that waxwings like so much are not really berries, but small, extremely fleshy cones.) The common name “waxwing” arises from those red droplets at the end of the secondary feathers, resembling beads of wax. The red comes from carotenoid pigments found in their fruit diet, concentrated in flat, expanded extensions of the central shaft of the feather. (Immature birds have few or no droplets; the number and size of these droplets gradually increase with each basic molt, at least for the first few years.) Really, though, the entire body of a Cedar Waxwing seems poured from wax.
Cedar Waxwings breed in northern U.S. and Canada, moving south for the winter. They begin to appear in San Diego County in September, with the peak period from November to April. In winter, they band together in large, wandering flocks that can show up anywhere. Given their reliance on unpredictable clusters of fruit, waxwings are highly nomadic within an area and even across long distances. Some winters, waxwings appear in vast numbers in the county. In 2014, 1221 individuals were reported in the Oceanside-Vista-Carlsbad Christmas Bird Count (CBC)—an irruptive year and high count for the last 10 years. From 1999 – 2017 (excluding 2014), an average of ~425 individual waxwings were documented in this CBC. So 2018’s report of nearly double that average (819!) suggests a likely irruptive year as well.
You just never know when or where these beauties will show up. How many waxwings will visit this winter? As one birder noted, “Cedar Waxwings are extremely common where found in large numbers.” That’s as good a guess as you’ll likely get. Just keep your ears open and your eyes on the skies.