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Berry Eating Waxwings At Sandy Hook

Another cold morning around Lower New York Bay. Temperatures were in the mid 20s with a sharp north wind.

Yet, the sky was blue and sunny. At Sandy Hook National Recreation Area the trees were filled with scores of Cedar Waxwings, one of my favorite winter birds.

Their soft, thin high-pitched voices could be heard first, sort of like a lisping trill. A very distinctive call. The waxwings were around somewhere. It was just a matter of time.

Not long, I spotted one perched atop an oak branch above me. Cedar Waxwings are sleek, elegant birds with a unique buff brown crest on the head and a narrow black eye mask extending over their face. Both sexes look alike. Their backs are mostly brown fading to a pale yellow on the belly and fading further to slate gray on the rump and with a tail that seems dipped in yellow. A stunning bird characterized by their soft, silky plumage. A real treat to see with your eyes.

Waxwings seemed to be everywhere. I counted at least 200 birds moving through the trees near Horseshoe Cove.

The birds were there to feed. They had found the main meal of the day. The brilliant ripe red berries of wild Swamp Smilax, better known to many folks as catbrier.  The fruit stays intact through winter, which birds will eat to survive and spread the plant’s seeds around in the animal's droppings. The waxwings were taking turns flying to and from each fruiting thicket and vine to feast. I suspect there will be many more catbrier berries around next season.

Cedar Waxwings love to eat fruit, especially berries. Some would say the birds are almost addicted to fruit. They just can’t seem to resist the sweet sugary flavor.  In fact, Cedar Waxwings are one of the most specialized fruit-eating bird in North America. They can survive only on fruit for several months. The waxwings will eat on a wide variety of berries, including sumacs, hollies, junipers, winterberry, wild cherries, and, of course, the berries from cedar trees.

Even though the birds are highly nomadic during the winter, moving about irregularly in search of food, flocks of Cedar Waxwings can be seen just about every winter at Sandy Hook. Owing to the fact that this modest peninsula has lots of fruit bearing trees or shrubs for hundreds of bird to survive and wait out the winter.

The waxwings usually arrive to Sandy Hook sometime between November and December, with sizeable flocks spotted in February and March. They fly in from nesting territories either nearby or sometimes as far away as southern Quebec and central Newfoundland, or other places where there was the availability of fruiting trees and shrubs. The birds winter range is typically independent of their breeding range or even sometimes where they spent the previous winter. So it’s hard to distinguish where the birds are coming from and if it’s the same flock every winter or a series of different waxwings wandering about in search of food. Studies by ornithologists suggest that the average distance traveled during migration for Cedar Waxwings is over 1,000 miles and the winter range can extend from southern Canada as far south as Costa Rica and Panama.

Cedar Waxwings are very sociable birds. It’s rare to see just one. The birds do almost everything together. Often times the waxwings will flock together with other birds during the winter, including American Robins. A large flock of waxwings and robins will provide the birds more of an opportunity to find food that perhaps one bird has already stumbled upon, and provide a better chance of spotting a predator or another hazard, which lowers the chance of danger for any single bird. Important strategies for survival during a cold and harsh winter, like this one.

Believe it not, waxwings are also one of the most courteous birds around. They might not say please or thank you, but the birds are one of the few avian species I know to have an organized feeding system worked out. Some birds will eat, while others courteously wait their turn, probably out of respect for age or to look out for danger. Either way, the waxwings seem to spend the day politely feeding together so everyone gets a few berries. This trait is unlike a flock of gulls, which will often fight over or steal food from one another. Birds have personalities.

Cedar Waxwings are truly a delight to catch sight of every winter. Even in the harshest of winters, this little silky feathered bird gives the impression of being cheerful and content as it wanders through woods and wetlands  in search of tasty berries. It’s certainly worth getting outside in very cold temperatures and looking for a flock at Sandy Hook.

For more information, pictures and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay, Raritan Bay, and Lower New York Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://natureontheedgenyc.blogspot.com

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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