Don't miss the great spring skiing out there now! The railroad track south from North Creek is going to be good for a while, past where the power line crosses the river. I also skied in towards Moose Pond off the Santanoni trail on Sunday afternoon and it was excellent skiing once the sun softened the "concrete." Everyone I met was grinning ear to ear. Unfortunately, there are few other choices around here for novices or old-timers like me, where a long distance trail (seven miles to Moose Pond) is fairly flat and the snow stays late.
On March 11, I picked my way through a foot of snow in a Warrensburg parking lot when a light, high trilling caught my attention. Above me in the small trees a flock of sleek cedar waxwings was eating the tiny dried (unknown to me) fruits. As I tried to get a better look at the birds, they would move to another tree, but they weren't about to leave the bonanza. I don't see them in winter up here, but I read that they move in flocks all winter from one area to another in search of berries - feeding until a source is gleaned bare. Unfortunately, many of the berries they find now are on invasive shrubs that spread by means of bird droppings.
Cedar waxwings get their name from the small native tree, redcedar (one word), actually a juniper, where they feed on the tiny cones. We have very few in the Adirondacks, though, they are common farther north in calcitic areas of Canada. Waxwing food is 70 percent berries, flowers and sap, with insects being an important food for the young for just their first few days. After that, the adults carry berries, up to 30 chokecherries at a time, in pouches in their necks to feed the young. They also do a lot of fly-catching from snags along the Hudson in the summer, landing on rocks in the river between flights.
Indicative of their vegetarian diet is that flocks of waxwings hang out together well into the summer when almost everyone else is busy raising young. They have been known to nest into early October, because they wait until berries mature in late summer to breed. They use berries in their courtship to feed the intended spouse and they will pass a berry down a long line of birds in a social situation. One source says that one bird that sits on a weak tip of a berried branch will pick and pass berries on down a line of birds so they can all have some. I'm not sure I believe this, but they certainly have a strong inclination to feed each other. I once saw a waxwing feeding a young phoebe that was sitting on a snag along the Hudson! As phoebes also eat dried berries early in the spring when cold weather shuts down any insect activity, this did seem likely the fledgling would eat a berry without force feeding by an over-enthusiastic waxwing.
Cedar waxwings are common throughout New York State. Because they are very "tame" and thrive in open areas with many shrubs, suburbs probably agree with them and farmland works too. Whereas many birds in these areas are decimated by cowbirds laying eggs in their nests, many waxwings either desert a nest with a cowbird egg in it early on, eject the egg, or damage it so it does not hatch. Many other species have not yet figured out how to deal with cowbirds, which have recently spread from the midwest where they followed bison as they moved through the prairie. The cowbirds had to lay an egg in a handy nest, then move on with their hosts.
The red waxy tips on the wing feathers seem to be signs of maturity, and older birds use this signal to find other experienced birds to breed with. Studies show that these older pairs raise more young than "spring chickens".
Anyone who spends enough time watching wildlife will see behaviors no one else has ever seen. I once saw and heard a waxwing singing on the top of a small balsam-and I mean singing. Nowhere can I find mention of the song, four different clear tones repeated over and over. I went back with a recorder the next day but of course the bird wasn't there.