From my office window I spotted a small flock of birds flitting about the high branches of a tall oak. My binoculars were in the car, so I struggled to see just what they were. I went out onto the deck for a better look.
From the deck, I noticed they had small pointed crests. The air was filled with bird song on that morning, but I could hear the faint fluid call notes telling me these were cedar waxwings.
Cedar waxwings are nomadic birds that sometimes turn up in large flocks for brief visits at various habitats throughout our region. Typically, you see them once and then they are gone, scattered with the wind a few moments later. Ironically, these birds are perhaps the most beautiful of all the passerines (perching birds). You need only to see one at close range to appreciate what I am describing. From a distance they appear as ample mid-sized cream-colored birds.
However, what you often can't see are the various shades of tawny painted on the head, the morning-dove-gray back, slate rump and hint of blue on the short tail feathers. They have a champagne-colored upper breast that mellows into a pale yellow underbelly and gradually fades into white underneath or just before the end of the tail, which is dipped in bright sunshine yellow. Across their faces, waxwings wear a black mask outlined in white, and their wings are highlighted with a blood-red shiny wax tip.
Yet, it isn't just their beauty that makes this bird so memorable; it is the ephemeral essence of their nomadic ways that makes the encounter wholly yours. That's precisely the reason why when every time I hear their high thin notes drifting down from the canopy I am immediately taken to a special place away from the concerns of my hurried life: in the far northern reaches of the Green Mountains, at our family cabin, cedar waxwings are abundant.
It is there, among the fir and spruce, where I watch the cedar waxwings feed on winged insects along the edge of my secluded pond. Sometimes, while floating on a raft, I will look up to see them fly out over the water and catch dragonflies with daring aerial acrobatics. They feed this way all through the day, easy to see.
Through the summer they will feed on insects and worms, but generally after the nesting season, cedar waxwings return to eating their normal diet of fruit and will again become the nomadic fleeting birds we know here in southern New England. I guess the cedar waxwing, like beauty or summer itself, is just that way, never staying long enough to be taken for granted.
Robert Tougias is a Colchester birding author. He is available for presentations. Email him your birding questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.