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

On Instagram: @unionbaywatch

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Winter Waxwings

Cedar Waxwings are strikingly beautiful birds.

It almost seems ironic for such a striking bird to have such subtle coloring. Among adults, the sandy-buff coloring around the head changes to yellow on the lower belly and a contrasting grey-brown on their primary wingtips. Where exactly these color changes occur can be difficult to pinpoint. 

The bright red "wax-like" drops on their secondary wingtips and the band of yellow at the end of the tail do create contrast. However, even in these cases, they are relatively small and rather refined little splashes of color.

Some Waxwings do not even have the red waxy tips - for which they are named. Plus, with a slightly different angle or a change in lighting the subtle changes of color on the body seem to shift about and become even more challenging to locate. 

Another obvious point of color contrast is the face mask. Solid black around the eye, partially outlined with white against the beige background of the head. In adults, the mask is generally well-defined. Although, it can make locating the eye a bit more challenging.

However, even on the head, there is additional subtlety involved. Birds of the World says a) That the bills of younger birds are a browner black than the pure black of adults and b) the width of the black area under the chin is generally wider on males than females. I find these differences quite difficult to observe in photos - I cannot imagine seeing them reliably in the field.

Based on the extensive darkness on this bird's chin, I am thinking he might be a male Cedar Waxwing.

In this case, the smaller dark chin area makes me wonder if this could be a female. Still, in many species, female characteristics can also be shared by young males. The absence of yellow on the belly also makes me think this might be an immature bird. 

In addition to all this, the shadows, which automatically occur on the chin area, do not help with gender identification. As a species, I propose that Cedar Waxwings deserve the ultimate "Certificate for Subtlety"

This photo was taken on the day the snow started falling in Seattle - Thursday, Feb. 11th, 2021. A few flakes can be seen starting to accumulate on the leaves.

For the most part, while feeding, the individual Waxwings seemed to ignore the snow.

As a whole Waxwings do migrate. Although, since they are also locally nomadic - they apparently randomly move to fresh fruit - their migrations are somewhat difficult to study. This dynamic eBird map which displays Waxwing sightings for every week of the year makes me feel very lucky to see Cedar Waxwings in Seattle during the winter. It might even give you the idea that Cedar Waxwings do not like snow. 

Since I have seldom seen them in the snow, I was very curious to see how they behaved.

One of the first things I noticed was how they puffed out their feathers - especially in the upper chest and neck area. Trapping more air seems to be a fairly well-shared characteristic of northern bird species. The increased pockets of air in the feathers no doubt helps to improve their insulating ability. 

Wouldn't it be nice if we could instantly increase or decrease our heat retention without changing clothes?

They also seemed to slow down their feeding - apparently sitting still loses less of the warm insulating air in their feathers. Although, they did seem to preen a lot. I assumed they were fluffing up feathers in spots where they felt cold.

The result was a series of little Waxwing fluff balls sitting on fairly bare branches.

From time to time the amount of fluff could increase or decrease without the bird appearing to move at all.

If I was birding by the shape of the bird's outline, I don't know if I would have recognized these birds as Cedar Waxwings.

In this case, the chin area just looks like a shadow. I can't see if there was any black present at all. 

Although the Waxwings stayed close together during the snow they were not huddled tightly together for warmth - as I have seen smaller birds do. 

Their relatively close proximity made me wonder if it was a social need or possibly more of a mutual defense system. 

It would be hard for a predatory bird to sneak up on the group if one of the Waxwings was watching in every possible direction.

The next day, the Waxwings were still there. They appeared to handle the snow and the cold without any obvious problems.

They found snow-free fruit when they needed it. 

It is amazing, as you saw on the ebird map, they can live just fine in Mexico in the Winter, where the weather is often in the 70s...

... and Cedar Waxwings can also handle 30 degrees and snow in Seattle, as well.

This is the first time I remember seeing this subtle change in the yellow fringe on a Waxwing's tail feathers. There is a chemical in the fruit of an Asian Honeysuckle that causes the "yellow" feather tip to be orange - if the fruit is eaten while the feathers are growing. For more information about this Click Here. I was aware this was happening on the east coast, but apparently, we have some of the fruit in our area as well.

Waxwings have another somewhat striking color change. In addition to the yellow fringe on their tail feathers, their light-colored under-tail coverts also contrast with the longer and darker tail feathers. Of course, this is often hidden and seldom seem. Nonetheless, they are certainly subtle, beautiful, and hardy birds.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where nature lives in the city and Black Birders are welcome!


Recommended Citation

 Witmer, M. C., D. J. Mountjoy, and L. Elliott (2020). Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.cedwax.01

Spring Forward:

During the last year, I have been especially appreciative of the Washington Park Arboretum. It is (partially) supported by Seattle Parks and Recreation and the University of Washington Botanic Gardens. However, much of the funding, for both upkeep and improvements, is secured via donations to the Arboretum Foundation.

This year's Spring Gala & Auction will be an online event. (I happen to know there will be a unique birding opportunity on Whidbey Island in the auction - which will include a night at the Langley Inn.)  There will be many other wonderful opportunities to bid and benefit the Arboretum. Please join us! Registration is free.

Click Here to register!

Note: All of the current photos in this week's post were taken in the Arboretum. Nature in the city needs our support!

Going Native:

It is important for each of us to watch and protect our local environment. 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. I hope 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. 

(By the way, my friend Tom Brown pointed out that the application named 'Wildflower Search' is extremely helpful. Click on the highlighted link to see for yourself.

Also, Jane Lundin has created a small package, with a lot of critical information that looks quite handy, and light, for backpacking in the mountains in Springtime. It is titled, Mountain Wildflowers of Washington.)

What species of plant is this? Is it native to Union Bay?

Scroll down for the answer.


Cotoneaster Lacteus: It is not native to Union Bay. It originated in China. However, our native Cedar Waxwings and American Robins were very happy to have fresh fruit as last week's storm moved in.


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 workaround is to set up 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

A few more photos:



  1. I always love your posts and impressive, beautiful photos. Thank you !