Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Two kinds of little red things

with 52 comments

When I walked into my computer room early in the afternoon on February 22nd and looked through the window I noticed lots of birds zipping around in the trees. As little as I know about birds, I immediately recognized those as cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) that had come to devour the little red fruits (technically drupes, colloquially called berries) on the yaupon tree (Ilex vomitoria) right outside.* We have several other yaupons on the property, and when I checked I found that the birds were intermittently feeding on them, too. Over the next half-hour I did my best to photograph some of the action, both shooting through windows and walking around outside as well. For whatever reason, these yaupon-devouring cedar waxwings proved more skittish than the ones I photographed nine years earlier, and the light was dull, so I didn’t get pictures as good as on that other occasion. Nevertheless, here’s an okay photo of what was going on.

The title of today’s post promised two kinds of little red things. The second, which I don’t recall ever noticing before, is the not-always-easy-to-see red tips on the birds’ inner secondary wing feathers. Those tips reminded people of red sealing wax, and that accounts for the common name waxwing.

© 2019 Steven Schwartzman

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* We’re on the slope of a hill, and although we live in a one-story house the window in the computer room is at second-story height, which puts me conveniently at the same level as most of the fruit on the yaupon tree.

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Written by Steve Schwartzman

March 2, 2019 at 4:48 AM

Posted in nature photography

Tagged with , , , ,

52 Responses

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  1. I’ve been visited by waxwings only twice, and both times they were feeding on the small fruits of the palm trees. I learned that if the colored patch at the end of the tail is orange instead of yellow, they’ve been indulging in a non-native honeysuckle. One of my favorite poems about birds still is Robert Francis’s “Waxwings”:

    “Four Tao philosophers as cedar waxwings
    chat on a February berry bush
    in sun, and I am one.

    Such merriment and such sobriety–
    the small wild fruit on the tall stalk–
    was this not always my true style?

    Above an elegance of snow, beneath
    a silk-blue sky a brotherhood of four
    birds. Can you mistake us?

    To sun, to feast, and to converse
    and all together–for this I have abandoned
    all my other lives.”

    shoreacres

    March 2, 2019 at 5:35 AM

    • I don’t recall hearing of Robert Francis. The Poetry Foundation offers this information: “Robert Francis was born in Upland, Pennsylvania, and studied at Harvard. Although he taught at workshops and lectured at universities across the United States, he lived for over sixty years in the same house near Amherst, Massachusetts. His poems are often charmingly whimsical, presenting conundrums and mysteries with a light, lyrical touch. Robert Frost, an important influence on the poet, said that Francis was ‘of all the great neglected poets, the greatest.’”

      To Robert Francis’s question about cedar waxwings, “Can you mistake us?”, for once the non-birder that I am answers: “No, I can’t.” However, based on a question/answer on the post you linked to, I might well mistake a a Bohemian waxwing for this familiar-from-Texas species if I found myself in New England.

      Also in that post I was surprised by that statement that the cedar waxwing is “one of the few North American birds that specializes in eating fruit.” I’d have thought lots of bird species specialize in eating fruit.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 2, 2019 at 7:25 AM

      • I think the fruit-eaters tend to be more tropical. The live cams provided by the Cornell birding site include one in Panama that’s a fruit feeder. The number of species flocking to the bananas, papayas, and other fruits is remarkable.

        As for Francis, your comments here will jog your memory.

        shoreacres

        March 2, 2019 at 7:36 AM

        • Ah, how quickly one forgets—at least this one did this time. I’m not a jogger, so I’m happy to have my memory jogged.

          By the way, another thing I learned from the Naturally Curious website this morning is that “only the left ovary in [almost all] birds is functional.”

          Steve Schwartzman

          March 2, 2019 at 7:54 AM

  2. The crabapple trees here sometimes hold their fruit for a long time after it was ripe. They ferment. The Cedar Waxwings get intoxicated, interrupting their flight patterns. It’s kind of funny to watch.

    Jim R

    March 2, 2019 at 7:09 AM

    • I seem to remember you mentioning that, and I’ve read about it in several places, including the link in Linda’s comment. The fruit of the yaupon doesn’t appear to ferment, so I’ve never seen any wobbly waxwings in my yard.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 2, 2019 at 7:28 AM

  3. I am experiencing the same bird sightings on this side of the state. I also made a post and it will be up by Monday. I have to say I had the same problems trying to photograph them and I am very much the amateur. They did provide an afternoon of great bird watching.

    automatic gardener

    March 2, 2019 at 7:45 AM

    • I’ll look forward to your post. As you’ve said, watching cedar waxwings is fun but getting good photographs of the action isn’t easy, given how much and how quickly the birds move. One thing I did part of the time was to set the camera to take bursts of several pictures per second. Even then most of the pictures weren’t great, but in a few cases one of the pictures in the group caught a bird in a good position. If your camera allows for burst mode, you can try that.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 2, 2019 at 8:04 AM

  4. I haven’t seen a flock of waxwings feasting on berries for quite awhile, but it is a favorite memory. It was a treat to see, this morning here. Plus, I’ve been introduced to a new-to-me poet.

    melissabluefineart

    March 2, 2019 at 8:38 AM

    • And I was reintroduced to that poet, having forgotten the introduction three years ago.

      The waxwings are an annual occurrence here. Even if not witnessed, their feasting can be inferred from the sight of a yaupon or possumhaw full of fruit one day and completely bare the next.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 2, 2019 at 11:08 AM

      • That’s for sure, you can always tell when they’ve passed through. I just went to a program last night about birding at Indiana Dunes. Evidently it is quite the place to see birds (by the thousands, in many species) because of the funneling effect of Lake Michigan. They are very pleased to have just won National Park designation.

        melissabluefineart

        March 5, 2019 at 10:12 AM

        • I hadn’t heard about the new status as a national park. I remember it was a national lakeshore. I found more information:

          https://www.indystar.com/story/news/2019/02/15/indiana-dunes-becomes-national-park-after-century-long-effort/2882357002/

          Steve Schwartzman

          March 5, 2019 at 10:21 AM

          • Yup, they are pretty pleased about it. I would fear the new designation would increase visitors to a point they would not be pleased, but evidently they already get huge amounts of people who come. The man leading the program the other night was very gracious about that~he spoke of getting as many people out as possible, to begin helping them connect to nature and to love it enough to want nature to be a priority.

            melissabluefineart

            March 6, 2019 at 9:10 AM

            • Does the designation as a national park bring extra funding?

              Steve Schwartzman

              March 6, 2019 at 4:57 PM

              • Sadly, no. I think it is more a pride thing than anything, although it may convey another level of protection. Or then again, it might only serve to draw attention to it from Trump’s pals in the mining industry. 😦

                melissabluefineart

                March 8, 2019 at 8:50 AM

                • You’ve reminded me from the bit of reading I did at the time of our visit in 2016 that industrial companies destroyed part of the Indiana dunes a century ago. We can be thankful for the parts remaining in the state and national parks.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  March 8, 2019 at 11:24 AM

                • We can indeed. I just went to a program yesterday about Moraine Hills State Park. I’m not sure I took you there. It is a preserve enclosing an area of glacial outwash~gravel and sand. The comment was made that if it hadn’t been preserved, it would now be a large gravel pit.

                  melissabluefineart

                  March 10, 2019 at 10:15 AM

                • You’re right that you didn’t take us there. When I looked at the map just now I noticed that adjacent to Moraine Hills State Park is Reliable Sand and Gravel. That proves your point.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  March 10, 2019 at 11:52 AM

                • Ah, so it does. It is a beautiful park, but there isn’t much in the way to see botanically as far as I know, which is probably why we skipped it.

                  melissabluefineart

                  March 12, 2019 at 9:28 AM

                • Except, apparently, the plots that he studied there. They are very far off the trail and we’d need permission from the state biologist to go there.

                  melissabluefineart

                  March 12, 2019 at 9:29 AM

  5. I’ve only seen them a couple of times, and wish they were around more often
    Your first shot would make an excellent greeting card.

    Robert Parker

    March 2, 2019 at 9:41 AM

    • Agreed, and the red~green combination even suggests a Christmas card in particular. As for seeing the waxwings in action, perhaps you could find out what sort of fruit they eat in your area and then locating a source of that fruit to keep an eye on. I’m fortunate to have several yaupons in our yard and to know of two possumhaws a block away.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 2, 2019 at 11:12 AM

  6. I consider it a present each time I get to see and photograph these beauties. Thank you, Steve, they made me smile.

    tanjabrittonwriter

    March 2, 2019 at 3:22 PM

  7. I love these birds – but alas – I have only seen them in pictures – never in real life myself.

    norasphotos4u

    March 2, 2019 at 7:28 PM

    • Then let’s hope you see some in person soon, perhaps by traveling to a place where they’re common.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 2, 2019 at 10:47 PM

  8. What?! Who got close enough to see those red tips?!

    tonytomeo

    March 3, 2019 at 6:30 PM

    • I don’t remember seeing the red tips during any of my previous times photographing cedar waxwings. Getting close to birds is usually a question of using a telephoto lens, which I did here.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 3, 2019 at 9:21 PM

      • Those who named them so long ago did not likely use a telephoto lens. I suppose binoculars have been around for a long time.

        tonytomeo

        March 3, 2019 at 9:31 PM

        • The earliest attestation of waxwing is 1817, so it could have been due to binoculars. It’s also the case that people kill birds or find dead birds and get a close look at them.

          Steve Schwartzman

          March 3, 2019 at 9:36 PM

          • Yeah, I was trying to avoid bringing that up.
            You know though, the tallest redwoods were measured after getting cut down.

            tonytomeo

            March 3, 2019 at 9:42 PM

            • I guess the foresters didn’t know how to use trigonometry to figure out the heights of tall trees. When I taught trigonometry I used to send the students out to determine the height of a tall flagpole or something else they couldn’t measure directly.

              Steve Schwartzman

              March 3, 2019 at 9:48 PM

              • They were not foresters, but merely timber barons who hired scouts to find the biggest trees so that their crews could cut them down for bragging rights.
                Right near here, there is the carcass of a coastal redwood that was stripped of its bark, which was reassembled as an exhibit for one of the World’s Fairs. After being dismissed as a hoax, it was sent to a display in Washington D.C.

                tonytomeo

                March 3, 2019 at 11:13 PM

                • That’s an interesting story. It reminds me of how the platypus was originally thought by Europeans to be a hoax.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  March 3, 2019 at 11:36 PM

  9. Am wondering where waxwings are common. They are an occasional treat in the U.K. Not common here in Southern Spain either but we had our February bullfinch sighting. They don’t stay either but plucked a wild plum about to blossom for over 20 minutes. Just outside our kitchen window.

    navasolanature

    March 4, 2019 at 2:41 AM

    • I did a little searching and found that the species in Europe is the Bohemian waxwing, Bombycilla garrulus, which also has the little waxy red tips on the inner secondary wing feathers. The article at

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bohemian_waxwing

      has a distribution map that enlarges when clicked. The range shown there doesn’t include any of Spain but at the bottom of the map is this clarification: “All ranges are approximate, and many birds occur outside the main wintering range even in non-irruption years.” I’m afraid I didn’t turn up anything more specific for Spain. I’ll bet there’s a birding organization in Spain that could give you more specific information, or a Spanish language website. Mientras tanto, you’ve had your bullfinch sighting.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 4, 2019 at 6:49 AM

      • Thanks Steve, will check too. Busy outside preparing for when the heat comes!

        navasolanature

        March 4, 2019 at 6:55 AM

        • Ah, heat. In Austin we’re at -1°C this morning, unusual for the first week in March. The sky is overcast and the trees are blowing back and forth in the wind. That’s not good for the blossoms that had emerged.

          Steve Schwartzman

          March 4, 2019 at 7:03 AM

          • Oh dear, such unpredictable patterns and extremes. I have to get any clearance and bonfires done before end of March. Used to be April but dry season can be longer or we will get torrential rain.

            navasolanature

            March 4, 2019 at 9:32 AM

  10. I think these are super photos Steve …

    Julie@frogpondfarm

    March 9, 2019 at 12:27 PM


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