Mission: To promote the appreciation of wildlife and increase harmony between humanity and nature.

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Sunday, October 7, 2018

Waxwing Cuisine

Cedar Waxwings are one of my favorite birds. 

Cedar Waxwing feathers are beautifully muted with slowly shifting shades of color. I can see three exceptions to these artfully subtle transitions. The most obvious are their striking black masks, often outlined in white. The second is the vibrant yellow color on the terminal end of their tail feathers. The third exception is red waxy tips on their secondary wing feathers, which are also the visual highlight which inspired their name. Sadly, a fairly small percentage of Waxwings are endowed with these ruby red accessories.

This bird provides an interesting contrast to the bird in our first photo. What differences do you see? The crest is abbreviated. Plus, the tail feathers are shorter and staggered in length. The varied lengths of the rectrices show different stages of development. By replacing only a couple of tails feathers at a time the Waxwings retain functional tails during the molting process. 

A third indication of molting is the single red 'wax' tip, which is positioned surprisingly close to the bird's shoulder. I believe this is a secondary wing feather which is just starting to grow in. When you think about it this makes perfect sense. In order for the 'wax' to ultimately reside on the feathers tips, it must be the first portion of the feather to appear. 

Cedar Waxwings focus primarily on fruit in the fall. They seem to have two major criteria for their fruit selection. Apparently, it must be ripe and small. Waxwings appear to be completely unconcerned about where in the world their fruit originated. The color of the fruit also appears to be irrelevant. Here we see a bird interested in bright red berries. In the previous photo, the fruit was closer to pink.

This bird is fascinated with yellow fruit which has a slight orange tint. By the way, the vertical stripes on this bird's chest indicate it is in its first year of life.

On Monday, I watched a flock of fifty Cedar Waxwings descend on a single Japanese Ash tree (Sorbus alnifolia) in the Arboretum. The youngster on the right is preparing to consume a berry while the lump in its neighbor's throat shows the location of the fruit it just swallowed. 

Curiously, during the rest of the week I have not seen a single Waxwing in this particular tree. There are still plenty of berries but the flock has moved on. Off the top of my head, I cannot think of any other local bird species which will focus on a particular tree or bush for a single feeding event and ignore it thereafter. I wonder how they decide when to move on? Do they have an experienced elder who leads the way? I have seen them visit the same tree in previous years.

During the spring and into summer, when ripe fruit is in short supply, waxwings tend to supplement their diet with insects. They will often perch on branches above water and impatiently watch for something appealing to fly by.

This and the previous photo were taken in Vancouver, WA, just last week. The sun was shining brightly. I did not know it then but in retrospect, it feels like that was the last week of summer. Maybe, the Waxwings felt the same way as they 'hawked' insects above Salmon Creek.

In the Arboretum, by Monday, our local flock was feeding almost exclusively on fruit, which is their primary fall and winter diet.

One of the few exceptions might have been this bird. I suspect it caught a glimpse of a protein-rich meal on wings and momentarily forget about the surrounding fruit.

Eating primarily fruit may cause the Waxwings to miss an essential element in their diet. In September of 2015, I noticed this group working in the mud. I suspect they were searching for a critical dietary supplement.

This bird appeared to work hard to ignore the passing insect and ultimately found a nice piece of fruit in this clump at the top of the tree.

By Wednesday, the Waxwings in the Arboretum had left the Japanese Ash behind and moved to a different Ash tree further to the south. They ignored all the other surrounding Ash (or Sorbus) trees. Apparently, the fruit on the neighboring trees was not yet sufficiently ripe.

This young bird caught my eye when it came in and hovered between the branches. All the others were darting in and landing near clumps of fruit. Swallowing a few berries and then momentarily retiring to a neighboring coniferous tree. This youngster had obviously been chasing a moving target. When it finally settled on a branch my photo revealed the spider in its beak. No doubt, it plucked the arachnid off what had been a well-placed web.

Among all the other fruit-eating Waxwings this bird stood out. With a huge clump of fresh fruit hanging directly in front of it, It chose to select this older, raisin-like piece of fruit. I wondered if it was an intentional choice.

When I watched the bird swallow the fruit I had to assume the selection was not accidental. 

Afterword, the bird assumed a rather odd, but proud-looking posture. 

Seconds later, it selected another piece of fruit which also appeared to be past its prime. I wondered why. Only after I received an email from Dave Galvin, my friend and Master Birder, did I get an inkling of a possible reason. The aged fruit may be slightly fermented. Perhaps, this bird likes its alcoholic. Click Here to read a story about inebriated Waxwings.

In my experience, most adult Waxwings appear to pick a piece a fruit and swallow it in two or three seconds. Here is another young bird who may be still refining its selection criteria. 

The first attempt at consumption causes the large juicy fruit to 'pop' up out of the beak.

The youngster catches the fruit and makes a valiant attempt at swallowing it whole.

However, the fruit is still just too big.

After seven seconds the young bird is still unwilling to give up on such a nice juicy piece of fruit.

The second effort is commendable.

The result is the still the same.

At seventeen seconds the young bird finally gets the tip of its tongue on the far side of the fruit. This enables the back of the hook-like tongue to press the fruit towards its throat.

However, the increased pressure does not overcome the restriction.

After twenty-eight seconds the fruit is starting to show a few dents and dings. 

The constant attempts at crushing and consumption are taking a toll on the fruit.

None the less, the fruit pops out of the grasping beak once more.

At thirty-four seconds into the process, the bird makes a final last ditch effort.

A moment later the fruit is finally just a lump in the bird's throat. An adult bird might easily have eaten ten smaller pieces of fruit in the same amount of time. Bigger isn't always better and apparently, experience counts even among Cedar Waxwings.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where nature lives in the city!


Going Native:

Without a well-funded Environmental Protection Agency, it falls to each of us to be ever more vigilant in protecting our local environments. Native plants and trees encourage the largest diversity of lifeforms because of their long intertwined history with our local environment and native creatures. I have been told that even the microbes in the soil are native to each local landscape. My hope is that we can inspire ourselves, our neighbors and local businesses to respect native flora and to support native wildlife at every opportunity. I have learned that our most logical approach to native trees and plants (in order of priority) should be to:

1) Learn and leave established native flora undisturbed.
2) Remove invasive species and then wait to see if native plants begin to grow without assistance. (If natives plants start on their own, then these plants or trees are likely the most appropriate flora for the habitat.)
3) Scatter seeds from nearby native plants in a similar habitat.
4) If you feel you must add a new plant then select a native plant while considering how the plant fits with the specific habitat and understanding the plant's logical place in the normal succession of native plants.

My intention in my weekly post is to include at least one photo each week and visually challenge us to know the difference between native and non-native lifeforms.

What type of tree is this? Is it native to Union Bay?

Scroll down for the answer.

While not a native tree to the Western Hemisphere this Old World cedar is one of the most famous species of trees in the world. In the first photo the male cone is displayed. In this second photo, you can see the female cones on the left and additional male cones on the right.

Note: I believe the word cedar in the Cedar Waxwing's name refers to North American cedar trees, like the Western Red Cedar shown here, which I understand are unrelated to Old World cedars. 


The Email Challenge:

Over the years I have had many readers tell me that Google is no longer sending them email announcements regarding my posts. Even more frustrating when they go to 're-sign-up', hoping that will enable them to once again start receiving the announcements, they get a message which says 'Sorry, you are already signed up.' Google has not responded to my requests for help with this issue. 

My functional work around is to setup my own email list and each week I manually send out a new post announcement. If you are experiencing the issue and would like to be added to my personal email list please send me an email requesting to be added. Thank you for your patience!

My email address is LDHubbell@comcast.net


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