A Waxwing Winter

March 23, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

Cedar_waxwing_Slidell_2021_5Cedar_waxwing_Slidell_2021_5A cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) sits on the end of a branch of a cherry tree in Slidell, Louisiana. What a winter with the waxwings! I see cedar waxwings in Colorado, but not for long and certainly not in large flocks. 

This was my sixth winter visiting Louisiana, and it was the first time I spent the whole winter here due to some family health issues. That gave me an opportunity to really see how the season changed — from the final lingering leaves of fall to the popping of the brightly colored flowers on the azalea bushes and wisteria vines. But something I experienced this year didn't happen in previous years — or I wasn't as tuned in with it in previous years as this year. 

Cedar_waxwing_Slidell_2021_1Cedar_waxwing_Slidell_2021_1A pair of cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) sit on a branch on a sunny morning in Slidell, Louisiana. This winter seemed to bring an abundance of cedar waxwings to southern Louisiana. I have not heard one way or the other if it was an especially abundant year for the unique looking birds, but some people did tell me they always see them each winter.

Cedar waxwings love berries and they always travel in flocks. What I had never noticed before was all of the ornamental trees in the landscaping of the shopping centers — holly bushes, cherry trees, and dogwood trees — in New Orleans and surrounding suburbs. I would sit in the parking lots, checking my phone for messages or email before heading into a store, and all of sudden hear that distinct "chee chee" made by the waxwings. A quick look up and I could easily identify the flock of two or three dozen birds.  Cedar_waxwing_Slidell_2021_3Cedar_waxwing_Slidell_2021_3A cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) sits in a holly tree in Slidell, Louisiana.

But then one day in early March I came across a flock of waxwings sitting in a cherry tree near Walmart. There were probably four or five dozen in the tree. I pulled out my camera and spent about an hour with the birds. I didn't see them feeding very much, which seemed odd, and I didn't even see anything for them to eat. The cherry trees must be sterile because they didn't have berries on them. But then in a rush of fluttering and "chee chee" the whole flock flew down to the bushes below the trees.

Cedar_waxwing_Slidell_2021_2Cedar_waxwing_Slidell_2021_2A cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) flips a berry into his mouth on a cloudy day in a shopping center parking lot in Slidell, Louisiana. I  still don't know what kind of bush they went into but they were pulling out these large berries, so large the birds were struggling to swallow them. As soon as they would swallow one, off they went back up to the cherry tree. 

So why weren't they eating them in any quantity? I stayed for a while and learned the answer. 

About an hour later I started hearing things hitting my truck. Plink...dink...dink...plink. The seeds of those berries were bouncing off of the truck, as well as some poo from the birds. It appeared the berries took about an hour to digest because as soon as the flock was finished digesting the berries, down they came again for another round. Cedar_waxwing_Slidell_2021_6Cedar_waxwing_Slidell_2021_6A cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) sits on the end of a branch in Slidell, Louisiana.

The light was tough in morning — backlit by the rising sun — so I anticipated nice front light in the afternoon. I came back about 90 minutes before sunset but did not calculate time for the setting sun getting lost behind the Bed, Bath and Beyond and Dollar Tree stores in the shopping center. I had about 30 minutes before I lost the nice light but it was enough time to catch a round of feeding, and realize the flock had more than doubled in size.

I returned again the next morning. The day was overcast so the backlighting wouldn't be as much of an issue. I also tried to park in a different location so I could shoot down the row of bushes and trees rather than directly at them.  Cedar_waxwing_Slidell_2021_7Cedar_waxwing_Slidell_2021_7A flock of cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) sit at the top of a cherry tree in Slidell, Louisiana.

When I arrived I was astonished to see not just one tree full of waxwings, but four of those cherry trees covered with the birds. I counted at least 400 birds. The word had spread throughout the waxwing world and it seemed every waxwing in a 50 mile radius had descended on the shopping center. 

Cedar_waxwing_Slidell_2021_4Cedar_waxwing_Slidell_2021_4A cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) sits among the blossoms of a cherry tree in Slidell, Louisiana. With that many hungry birds it didn't take long before those bushes were cleaned out of berries. About two days later I started noticing the flock was dispersing and within a week all I saw was about one or two dozen birds fluttering from one area of the shopping center to another finding other tasty meals — a holly tree behind the Olive Garden, another holly tree by the Raising Cane's, a few wild vines across the street from the parking lot exit.

It was a fantastic couple of weeks with the birds. By the third week of March most of the waxwings were gone from the region in general. Either I didn't get the memo on the new berry trees or the birds were beginning their journey north like me. 

Photo Tips:

- Use your car as a blind. The birds won't fear the car, especially in a parking lot, but as soon as you get out, their flight instinct kicks into gear. Use a bean bag for your door, like the Nature Scapes Skimmer Sack, to keep your camera steady.

- When shooting from the vehicle, turn the engine off. Even the slight vibration of a running engine can cause camera shake. 

- Try to find a location where you are eye level with the birds. These particular waxwings liked sitting in the higher branches of the trees. I didn't want photos looking up at the birds so I waited until they were on lower branches or in a shorter bush. 


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