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Waxwing poetic

Bohemian Waxwings
Mark Faherty
Bohemian Waxwings

On two occasions over the last week I found myself driving slowly around some back streets in Yarmouth Port, craning my neck, looking like a cat burglar casing the neighborhood. Or more likely around here, an overly aggressive realtor looking to pounce on a potential new listing. But I was neither of those things – I, of course, was creeping on the latest rare bird. To find the frugivorous species in question I was rubbernecking every potential fruiting tree or shrub – every picked over crabapple, every cedar, every feral privet hedge. My quarry was the nomadic and mysterious Bohemian Waxwing, a big, rare, northerly cousin of our local Cedar Waxwings.

These are plump, starling-sized and shaped birds, mostly arrayed soft browns and greys, but actually quite gorgeous with close looks. The face has a dramatic, swept-back black mask and an intense red eye, all topped by a long and wispy crest. The undertail and parts of the face are rusty orange – this and the dramatic wing markings separate them from Cedar Waxwings. The wings are marked with thick, bright yellow and red waxy deposits, all gathered from the fruits they eat. As in Cedar Waxwings, the tail also looks dipped in yellow wax.

Like the free-spirited lifestyle of the same name, Bohemian Waxwings ultimately get their names from the region of Czechoslovakia once known as Bohemia, once a stronghold of the itinerant Romany. Bohemian Waxwings are found across the higher latitudes of northern hemisphere, and are the only waxwing species in Europe. In North America they breed in the northern boreal forest, mostly in western Canada and Alaska.

Like several other boreal birds, including crossbills and redpolls, they irrupt southwards at unpredictable intervals in response to food shortages. For the waxwings, food means sugary fruits of trees and shrubs, like those of Mountain Ash further north. Around here they love crabapples, cedar fruits, and various invasives like multiflora rose and privet. It’s the latter the waxwings in Yarmouth are mostly eating, at least according to the photos I’ve seen – I haven’t managed to see the bird, sadly.

Around here, Bohemian Waxwings have mostly appeared on the Outer Cape, I suspect after crossing the Gulf of Maine from maritime Canada. I’ll never forget the Christmas Bird Count years ago when I was so excited to see a single Bohemian Waxwing on the west side of Rt 6 in Eastham. When I proudly shared my discovery later at the data compilation, I was flatly informed that others had seen massive flocks of many hundreds of Bohemian Waxwings less than a mile from where I was, just across Rt. 6, an unprecedented invasion that I had just missed.

If you don’t see the Yarmouth bird before it wanders off, there’s at least an off chance there may be more, as a mini irruption seems to be underway from upstate New York to coastal Maine and as far south as North Central Mass, all appearing in the last two weeks. Sometimes they show up in pure flocks, but also look for a bigger bird in with any Cedar Waxwing flocks, and listen for their lower pitched, ringing trill.

Truro and especially Provincetown have always been the best places to find them, as one would expect for a Bohemian, I suppose. You could try my method of creeping slowly around neighborhoods looking for fruiting trees and shrubs, just note that someone will inevitably call the police. If they catch you, just do what I do - hide your binoculars under your seat and tell them you’re a realtor.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.