A pretty mixed flock of Cedar Waxwing and Robins are finding plenty to eat on Cape Ann, dining on crabapple fruits, and the fruits of native Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) and Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana). Plant, and they will come <3
Within a recent flock of visiting Cedar Waxwings one pair was courting. Touching bill to bill and animatedly sharing insects and torn off bits of budding trees, we observed the same behavior last spring. It’s very sweet to see. I wish it hadn’t been so hazy but still lovely.
Here is this spring’s pair of lovebirds –
Cedar Waxwings are frugivores (fruit-eaters) and they subsist mainly on fruit, although they eat plenty of insects, too. Reportedly, they are becoming increasingly more prevalent in backyards because people are planting more ornamental flowering and fruiting trees.
A courting pair in 2020 –
A beautiful thing to see – Cedar Waxwing male and female pair courting. They were feeding each other, hopping through the branches and passing insects and fruits back and forth.
If you would like to attract Cedar Waxwings to your garden below is a handy list that I compiled of some of their most favorite fruits and berries –
What to plant to attract Cedar Waxwings to your landscape
Dogwood (Cornus florida, C. alternifolia)
Creeping Juniper (Juniperus horizontals)
Common Juniper (Juniperus communis)
Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana)
Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)
Holy (Ilex opaca)
Crabapple (Malus sp.)
Hawthorn (Crataegus sp.)
Tall Shadblow (Amelanchier arborea)
Smooth Shadbush (Amelanchier laevis)
Canadian Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis)
Mulberry (Morus rubra)
Winterberry (Ilex verticilata)
Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)
During the last weeks of summer, I was blessed with the great good fortune to come across a flock of Cedar Waxwings. Everyday I followed their morning antics as they socialized, foraged, preened, and was even “buzzed” several times when making too quick a movement or crunched on a twig too loudly for their liking. They were actually remarkably tolerant of my presence but as soon as another person or two appeared on the path, they quickly departed. I think that is often the case with wildlife; one human is tolerable, but two of us is two too many.
The Cedar Waxwings were seen foraging on wildflower seeds and the insects attracted, making them harder to spot as compared to when seen foraging at berries on trees branches. A flock of Cedar Waxwings is called a “museum” or an “ear-full.” The nickname ear-full is apt as they were readily found each morning by their wonderfully soft social trilling. When you learn to recognize their vocalizations, you will find they are much easier to locate.
These sweet songbirds are strikingly beautiful. Dressed in a black mask that wraps around the eyes, with blue, yellow, and Mourning Dove buffy gray-brown feathers, a cardinal-like crest atop the head, and brilliant red wing tips, Cedar Waxwings are equally as beautiful from the front and rear views.
Cedar Waxwings really do have wax wings; the red wing tips are a waxy secretion. At first biologist thought the red tips functioned to protect the wings from wear and tear, but there really is no evidence of that. Instead, the red secondary tips appear to be status signals that function in mate selection. The older the Waxwing, the greater the number of waxy tips. Birds with zero to five are immature birds, while those with more than nine are thought to be older.
Waxwings tend to associate with other waxwings within these two age groups. Pairs of older birds nest earlier and raise more fledglings than do pairs of younger birds. The characteristic plumage is important in choosing a mate within the social order of the flock.
By mid-September there were still seeds and insects aplenty in the wildflower patch that I was filming at when the beautiful Waxwings abruptly departed for the safety of neighboring treetops. Why do I write “safety?” I believe they skeedaddled because a dangerous new raptor appeared on the scene. More falcon-like than hawk, the mystifying bird sped like a torpedo through the wildflower patch and swooped into the adjacent birch tree where all the raptors like to perch. It was a Merlin! And the songbird’s mortal enemy. Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks, too, had been hunting the area, but the other hawks did not elicit the same terror as did the Merlin.
Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks
A small falcon, the Merlin’s short wings allow it to fly fast and hard. The Merlin is often referred to as the “thug” of the bird world for its ability to swoop in quickly and snatch a songbird out of the air. The day after the Merlin appeared, I never again found the Waxwings foraging in the wildlflowers, only in the tree tops.
Within the sociable ear-full, Waxwings take turns foraging. Some perch and preen, serving as sentries while flock-mates dine. Cedar Waxwings eat berries and they love a wide variety. The first half of their name is derived from one of their favorite fruits, the waxy berries of cedar trees. During the breeding season, Waxwings add insects to their diets. Hatchlings are fed insects, gradually switching to berries.
Juvenile Cedar Waxwing with adult Waxwings
If you would like to attract Cedar Waxwings to your garden here is a handy list that I compiled of some of their most favorite fruits and berries –
Dogwood, Juniper, Chokecherry, Cedar, Honeysuckle, Holy, Crabapple, Hawthorn, Serviceberry, Mulberry, Raspberry, Grapes, and Strawberry. Cedar Waxwings are becoming increasingly more prevalent in backyards because people are planting more ornamental flowering and fruiting trees.
Life at the Edge of the Sea – Cedar Waxwing Baby Masked Bandits
For over a month I have been filming a flock of Cedar Waxwings. Exquisitely beautiful creatures, with their combination of soft buffy and brilliantly punctuated wing patterning, along with graceful agility, it’s been easy to fall in love with these birds and they have become a bit of an obsession.
I filmed some wonderful scenes and will share the photos and story as soon as there is time but in the meantime I wanted to share these photos of a juvenile Cedar Waxwing so you know what to look for. Waxwings are often found high up in the treetops. They are most easily seen on limbs bare of leaves. Their repetitious soft trilling song gives them away and if you learn the sound you will begin to see Cedar Waxwings everywhere. They have an extended breeding period in our region and because it is so late in the season, this juvenile may be one of a second brood.
While I was shooting for my short short story, the Waxwing flock was mostly on the ground in a wildflower patch devouring insects. Cedar Waxwings are more typically berry-eating frugivores. During the spring and summer they add insects to their diet and I think it may have to do with keeping the hatchling’s bellies filled. It wasn’t until they moved back up into the treetops that this little guy began appearing amongst the flock. He has the same masked face, but the breast is softly streaked. You can see the yellow feathers tips beginning to grow in.
Much more commonly seen in our neighborhood are Gary Squirrels so it was a real treat for my daughter and I to see this little Red Squirrel on a recent walk at Halibut Point. He scampered over a quarry pool frozen with thick ice and then retrieved from a midden, hidden in a jumble of granite rocks, a sprig of what appeared to be Bayberry. The little fellow then proceeded to devour both the fruits and twig before retreating deeper into the wood.
Red Squirrels eat a wide range of foods including seeds, bark, nuts, insects, fruits, mushrooms, maple tree sap, and pine seeds and pine cones. Occasionally, Red Squirrels also eat young birds, mice, and rabbits. And as we can see from the photos, Bayberry fruits and twigs.
Going, going, gone
Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) is a wonderfully easy native plant that doesn’t mind salt, compacted soil, and is both heat tolerant and very tolerant of flooding. The waxy winter fruits of Bayberry are eaten by myriad bird species including Tree Swallows, Chickadees, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Gray Catbirds, and Eastern Bluebirds. The wax coated fruits are high in fat, making them a great source of energy for migrating birds such as Cedar Waxwings and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Bayberry thickets also provide excellent nesting habitat for songbirds, offering protection from raccoons and other nest predators.
By Kim Smith
Cape Ann provides welcome habitat for a menagerie of creatures beautiful, from the tiniest winged wonder to our region’s top predator, the Eastern Coyote. Last year I posted a Cape Ann Wildlife Year in Pictures 2016 and I hope you will find the wildlife stories of 2017 equally as beautiful. Click on the image to find the name of each species.
Winter: Only partially frozen ponds allowed for dabblers and divers such as Mallards, Mergansers, and Buffleheads to forage at the freshwater. Mr. Swan had his usual entourage of quwackers and daily heads to the other side of the pond to get away for his morning stretches. Sightings of Red-tailed Hawks and other raptors abounded. Although photographed in Newburyport, the owl photos are included, well, just because I like them. An Eastern Screech Owl (red-morph) was seen daily perched above a playground and Barred Owl sightings too were reported throughout the winter. Raptors live on Cape Ann all year round but are much easier to see in winter when the trees are bare of foliage.
The beautiful green eyes of the juvenile Double-crested Cormorants were seen wintering at both Niles Pond and Rockport Harbor. And during a warm February day on a snowless marsh a turkey bromance shindig commenced.
In early spring, a male and female American Wigeon arrived on the scene making local ponds their home for several weeks. In the right light the male’s electric green feathers at the top of his head shine brightly and both the male and female have baby blue bills.
Meadow and marsh, dune and treetop were graced with the heralding harbingers of spring with photos of a Red-winged Blackbird, a pair of Cedar Waxwings, Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, Eastern Towhee, Eastern Kingbird, Tree Swallow, and Grackle included here.
The Great Swan Escape story made the news in Boston as Mr. Swan eluded captors for hours. He had re-injured his foot and someone took it upon themselves to call the animal rescuers, which would have surely meant death for our beloved 27-year old swan if he had been wrangled into captivity.
M is clearly for Migration through Massachusetts and the month-long arrivals and departures did not abate. Short-billed Dowitchers, winsome Willets, Yellow Legs, and Ruddy Turnstones are just some of the migrating shorebirds spied on Cape Ann beaches and marshes. The best news in May was the return of the Piping Plovers. Of the five or six that camped at Good Harbor Beach to investigate potential nesting sites, one pair bonded and built their nest mere yards from the nesting pair of last year. Could it be the same pair? The nesting Piping Plover story took up much of the spring and by early summer four little Piping Plover chicks hatched over Fiesta weekend. Hundreds of photos and hours of film footage are in the process of being organized with a children’s book and documentary in progress.
The survival of one Piping Plover chick was made possible by a wholesale community effort, with volunteers covering all hours of daylight, along with Mayor Sefatia and her team, Ken Whittaker from the conservation office, Chief McCarthy, and animal control officer Diane Corliss all lending a hand.
Sadly, several Northern Gannets came ashore to die on our Cape Ann beaches, struck by the same mysterious and deadly disease that is afflicting Northern Gannets in other regions. During the summer season they are typically at their North American breeding grounds, which are six well-established colonies, three in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Quebec, and three in the North Atlantic, off the coast of Newfoundland.
By mid-July many of us were seeing Monarchs in much greater numbers than recent years. Nearly every region within the continental United States experienced a fantastic Painted Lady irruption and butterflies of every stripe and polka dot were seen flitting about our meadows, fields, and gardens.
The tadpoles and froglets of American Bullfrogs and Green Frogs made for good eating for several families of resident otters, who are making their homes in abandoned beaver lodges. Little Blue Herons too, find plentiful frogs at our local ponds.
In early August we see the Tree Swallows begin to mass for their return migration. They find an abundance of fruits and insects in the dunes, headlands, and beaches. The Cedar Waxwings and Ruddy Trunstones were back again observed foraging on their southward journey, along with myriad species of songbird, shorebird, diver, and dabbler.
Tree Swallows Massing
The Late Great Monarch migration continued into the fall as we were treated to a wonderfully warm autumn. Waves and waves of Monarchs came ashore and more butterflies arrived on the scene including new batches of Painted Ladies, Clouded Sulphurs and Common Buckeyes (nothing common about these beauties!).
A pair of Northern Pintails called Cape Ann ponds and coves home for nearly a month while we seem to be seeing more and more raptors such as Red-tailed Hawks, Osprey, Bald Eagles, and Peregrine Falcons. Juvenile herons of every species that breeds on Cape Ann lingered long into the fall—Black-crowned Night Herons, Yellow-crowned Herons, Great Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets, Great Egrets, and Green Herons.
Just as Mr. Swan and the Young Swan appeared to be warming to each other, the Young Swan, who has yet to learn to fly, became trapped in the ice at Niles Pond. He was rescued by caretakers Lyn and Dan and is now spending the winter at a cozy sanctuary built by Lyn and friends.
Thank you to all our readers for your kind comments of appreciation throughout the year for the beautiful wild creatures with which we share this gorgeous peninsula called Cape Ann. If you’d like to read more about a particular animal, type the name of the animal in the search box and the original post should come up
With its expansive marshes and dunes, bodies of fresh clear water, saltwater coves and inlets, and geographic location within the Atlantic Flyway, 2017 has been a banner year for Cape Ann’s wild and wonderful creatures. I can’t wait to see what awaits in 2018!