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Cedar waxwing finale

On a cloudy, overcast day last week (3/17) as I was conducting my weekly bluebird nest box inspections, I noticed a large group of birds flocking to, then quickly bolting from, a yaupon holly next to one of our office buildings here at the museum. The birds wanted desperately to get at the bright red berries on the tree, but just as they seemed settled, something would spook them and they’d scatter with a big woosh of wings, circle and regroup in a nearby staging tree. They were cedar waxwings.

Frenetic back and forth, grabbing the fruit as they go.

Volunteer Sam and Ranger Martha had mentioned they’d seen large numbers of the birds feeding on the hollies near the museum’s main building earlier that morning. These birds were no doubt part of that gathering.

Waxwings feeding on bright red berries in yaupon holly.
Waxwings flying overhead.
Unmistakable silhouette of cedar waxwing.

From where I stood I could see well over a thousand birds. I can only guess at how many were actually there.

A portion of the total flock circling and staging.

The flocking will continue until the trees are nearly bare of fruit, perhaps only a few red berries left.

Look for waxwings wherever there are berries.

Cedar waxwings nest sporadically within North Carolina. If at all, the piedmont or more likely, the mountains are preferred. In summer they may be seen fly-catching airborne insects or gleaning small caterpillars, scale insects, or beetles from vegetation.

It’s the winter, though, when you’re most likely to see them. They form flocks from perhaps a dozen to thousands of individuals scouring the countryside for fruit, fruit, and more fruit.

I’ve seen over three thousand of them descend on a crab apple grove, clean up and move on. I watched them drop in on a pair of junipers, strip them of their fruit and depart, much to the dismay of the local mockingbird. Time and again I’ve witnessed them make sudden raids on berry-heavy mulberry trees leaving them bare, the resident catbirds and thrashers scratching their heads in awe. It’s what they do, nomadic masked raiders from the sky.

At the museum, I see them occasionally in October, then more consistently in January through May, It’s hollies and pyracantha in the fall and winter, and mulberries in May.

Waiting their turn.

An elegant looking bird with a glutinous appetite for fruit.

Barely a feather out of place.

I walked past the tree a few days later. It was striped clean.