By Kate Crowley
In a recent column I talked about the unexpected encounters with birds that add to our daily enjoyment of nature. A week ago Mike and I were out cross-country skiing near our house when we heard a flock of birds making an unfamiliar sound. We stopped and looked up into the top of a Jack Pine and saw them moving from branch to branch. Because it was a sunny day, it was hard to see their colors clearly because they were so strongly backlit, but we both came to the conclusion that they were Waxwings. The question was; Cedar or Bohemian? Neither one of us had binoculars, but Mike has better long distance vision than me and he was able to see their features better.
In order to bring them closer I started ‘pishing’. I have talked about this technique before. It is just as it sounds. You purse your lips and make a ‘pishing’ sound –sort of like ‘shushing’ someone in the library, but using a ‘p’ at the front. In more cases than not, this sound will intrigue the birds enough to bring them closer to you. Gradually, this flock of waxwings moved from the pine to an oak tree that was closer to us. They still stayed in the top of the tree, but moved from branch to branch. I’m not certain what they were looking for because typically waxwings eat dried fruits in the winter months.
I continued to ‘pish’ and they continued to move around giving us a better look at their plumage. Both Cedar and Bohemian Waxwings are very pretty birds with a soft grayish body plumage, a bright yellow marking on the edge of their tail and some red waxy looking ‘droplets’ on the tips of their secondary wing feathers. Both have a crest of feathers on their heads, although it is not always raised up and both have a black mask and some rusty colored feathers on their heads.
What we were able to see from our position below were rufous colored under tail coverts and some white wing bars. This was all we really needed to ID these birds as Bohemian Waxwings – a very exciting discovery, since we have never seen them in our neighborhood.
Bohemian waxwings tend to spend more of their lives in the far north of Canada. Each winter some might wander south in search of better food sources, but in the past we have only seen them far up the North Shore. Their calls were different than the Cedar Waxwings too and as soon as we got home we went on-line and listened to recordings of the birds; this was another way of confirming what we had seen.
The name Bohemian was given to these birds because of their wandering habits, supposedly like the Gypsies of Bohemia. They are the size of a starling and have broad, pointed wings and short tails. While fruit is their preferred food, in the summer months they will hunt for flying insects. We often see Cedar Waxwings in Banning State Park perched in trees along the river’s edge. They will fly out from the tree, grab an insect in the air and then return to their perch.
In winter, waxwings will eat birch seeds, juniper berries, rose hips and crabapples, but they especially love the fruit of mountain ash trees. Any fruiting tree or shrub that is not denuded by squirrels or other birds are attractive to these elegant birds.
I recently put my ‘pishing’ technique to use in the mountains of Montana. My son Jon and I were cross-country skiing in an area called Hyalite Canyon. The groomed trails used old logging roads, so we were surrounded by Lodgepole Pine and Douglas Fir trees. It was quiet in these woods, but at one point we stopped and heard the high pitched chittering of Chickadees. If there are any birds susceptible to pishing, it is Chickadees. Their innate curiosity causes them to quickly search out this unusual sound. Within moments, a small flock of Mountain Chickadees converged on the branches of the trees close to us.
I admit that at elevation I have a bit more trouble keeping up this constant sound, but for as long as I did it, they hopped around, calling to one another. There may have been a Black-Capped Chickadee and a Red-Breasted Nuthatch in the bunch, since they too are drawn by these calls. My son has seen me do this before, but it is always a thrill to feel like Dr. Doolittle talking to the animals.
I encourage you to try ‘Pishing’ sometime too. It may not work every time, but when it does, it’s magical.