For the Birds Radio Program: Bohemian Waxwings!

Original Air Date: April 11, 2011 Rerun Dates: April 3, 2013

When a big flock of Bohemian Waxwings turned up in Laura’s yard, she was ready!

Duration: 4′19″


This weekend, while other Duluthians were driving to the Twin Cities to watch the UMD hockey team win the National Championship, I was working indoors, at least up until the moment my neighbor Jeanne Tonkin called me to say there were bazillions of Bohemian Waxwings in my backyard. I grabbed my new camera and ran out. The trees in my backyard and my neighbor’s were filled with waxwings, as were a couple of mud puddles and my neighbor’s pond, where the birds were drinking. So many were flying back and forth that it was raining bird poop—allowing me to add Bohemian Waxwing to my pooped upon list. I had to take shelter under the overhang of my neighbor’s garage in order to safely photograph them without damaging my camera.

The birds were so focused on the last crabapples and the pond that they ignored me. I took almost 600 photos. Many were unusable because as I snapped one bird, another flew past. But I got dozens of gorgeous close-ups. My camera zooms between 100 mm and 400 mm—I had to pull it in for a lot of the photos because the birds were so close.

Bazillion was a good estimate of the numbers—I tried to count them, but there were so many moving about at any given moment that my best estimate was somewhere between 1000 and 1600. The wonderful wildlife photographer Dudley Edmondson lives in my neighborhood—what we think was the same group visited his yard too. He focused his video camera on the sheer numbers in his trees, and all the noise and bustle when they’d take off, and posted a great compilation video on facebook. I focused mostly on close-ups of individuals because I’d never had such an opportunity to photograph them before.

Bohemian Waxwings breed in Alaska and northwestern Canada down into northernmost Washington. They wander eastward every winter, dipping into the northern half of the American West and into eastern Canada and the northernmost tier of eastern states. When I first moved to Duluth in 1981, they were regularly abundant in winter in neighborhoods with mountain ash and crabapple trees all the way up the north shore, and often in Port Wing, Wisconsin. We don’t see them on as many days anymore, but due to the sociable nature of waxwings, on the days when we do see them, we often see a whole lot.
In summer, Bohemian Waxwings eat both fruit and a wide variety of insects, but in winter they focus entirely on fruit. A flock leaves plenty of evidence long after it’s moved on, in the form of purple droppings. My husband wasn’t home while the flock was in our yard, but the moment he came home, he noticed how spotted our garbage and recycling containers were.

Bohemian Waxwings, like Cedar Waxwings, are extremely sociable. I always think of them as the Pickwick Club birds, convivial gluttons who never stop chatting—their scientific name is even Bombycilla garrulus. They’re so gregarious that they don’t even defend a territory during the nesting season, though males do act a little concerned when other males approach their mate. Whether on their wintering or breeding grounds, Bohemian Waxwings are surprisingly tolerant of people. The time I spent with them on Saturday was one of the most magical experiences I’ve had in the 36 years I’ve been birding. And this time I’ve got the photos to prove it.