More birds of Winter
with Mike Lushington
Back in late summer, I opined that there would not be a particularly heavy crop of Mountain Ash berries this fall. I was wrong. Now that the leaves are off the trees, great clumps of these bright red berries provide the largest single source of colour in the late fall woods. The birds love them: large flocks of robins seem to be just about everywhere where there is a concentration of the trees, and they, in turn, attract other birds. I have seen good numbers of Purple finch, Cedar waxwing, and various sparrows taking part in the feast. For several days a week ago, I also had the fun of watching a large and determined flock of Ring-billed and Herring gulls attack some of the more exposed hedgerow trees until the berries had been just about completely stripped. (Gulls will not venture into the deeper sections of hedgerows where they may entangle their wings, so their feasting is confined to the more open sections adjacent to clear fields.)
From the size of the crop that is now visible, I suspect that there is going to be food for robins and others well into winter this year. The robins will stay, probably not in the numbers currently present, but abundantly enough to be noticeable even to non-birders. And other winter visitors will arrive to take advantage of the largess.
One bird to watch carefully for is Bohemian waxwing. These close relatives to our native Cedar waxwings follow an unusual migratory pattern. In years of good Mountain Ash crops in the eastern half of North America, these western birds will forego any southward migratory movements and head east instead. In such years they become a noticeable and very attractive addition to our winter bird populations. Waxwings of both species are, in my eye at least, among the most elegant of the small birds. From jaunty crest to warm chestnut plumage with brilliant little grace marks of yellow and red in wing tips, a perched waxwing etched against a brilliant winter sky is a study in natural beauty. And their habits match their appearance; it is a common sight for those who choose to watch them to see one bird pick a berry from a nearby clump and pass it along to its neighbour, who will then pass it down along the line so that everyone has an opportunity to feed without having to jostle and fight for position on small twigs near the source.
Most Cedar waxwings move south even in good food winters. However many will stay behind, seemingly to act as a welcoming committee for their slightly larger western cousins. Thus, one often encounters mixed flocks of the two species, necessitating a bird by bird check to see how many of each species is within a flock. The two look quite similar at first glance, but there is one conspicuous and always reliable field mark to distinguish them. Bohemian waxwing always has a large, deeply chestnut brown patch directly under its tail and spreading ahead toward the lower section of its belly. Cedar waxwing is always much greyer and nondescript in this area. This chestnut patch shows up even in poor light and is, as I said, a completely reliable identification mark.
Speaking of chestnut colouring, I was watching a small flock of sparrows at my feeders the other day when I caught sight of a larger sparrow scratching busily away at sunflower seed beneath my feeder table. Just as I saw it, it moved into a patch of sunlight and I saw its long, chestnut coloured tail. A second later, I saw its heavily spotted breast and I knew that I was looking at my first (and perhaps only) Fox sparrow of the fall. These are not common birds locally so seeing one is always something to remember. And that leads me to my final bit for this column: late fall is a very good time to watch for vagrant sparrows of different species, so, the next time you spot a bunch of "little brown birds," don't be in too much of a hurry to dismiss them - there could well be some very interesting strangers in the group