Mob

No, there isn’t a mob in my garden; no large group of kangaroos have arrived for March in my garden. But there are lots of Cedar Waxwings.  Lots and lots and lots.

A migratory bird that winters in Central Texas, the Cedar Waxwing, Bombycilla cedrorum, is gregarious, always as a part of a group, rarely seen alone.  In the last few days, I’ve had more of these birds visit en masse than ever before.

I usually hear them before I see them as they’re rapid, high flyers, and they whistle while they work.

Typically, I see dozens at a time, flying from treetop to treetop in flocks of 10 to 30, vocalizing with their signature shrill calls, flitting in to settle along the branches of my trees,  and maybe, contemplating a dip in the pond. As a group, they’ll swoop down to take the bath and also grab a drink while they’re at it.

Recently, their numbers are in the hundreds and they’re certainly making their presence known:  garden feature-hopping, whistling as they go.

 

This little group (fella at the left notwithstanding–he’s telling the others how it’s done) are head-down, front-facing as they drink from the bog.

And this group, not wanting to follow along with the crowd, strike a similar, but different pose:  head-down and tail-facing.

I wonder if this waxwing is engaging its partners in conversation as to whether front-facing or back-facing is best.

 

Cedar Waxwings are stunning birds.  Soft and elegant tan-to-grey colors their back and wing feathers, morphing to butter yellow bellies.  Dramatic black masks which are rimmed in white, accessorize their jaunty faces.   Atop their lovely heads is a crest, but often it lies flat.

The name ‘waxwing’ comes from the brilliant red tips at the ends the secondary flight feathers, which may be related to attracting mates.  Not all waxwings have these red tips.

The tips of the tail feathers are bright yellow, a well-appointed echo of the yellow belly.

When I first downloaded the photos of these merry birds, I noticed that this individual,

…appears to have orange, rather than yellow, tail feather tips.  If you click on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology link at the beginning of the post, under “Cool Facts” there is a mention that starting during the 1960s, it’s been observed that some birds in Canada and the United States sport orange, rather than yellow, tips on the tails.  Apparently, if a waxwing eats berries from a certain non-native honeysuckle during growth of the tail feathers, the tip will be orange.  Cedar Waxwings winter here and southward, but they breed and raise chicks in the far north of the U.S. and well into Canada, so this orange-tipped Cedar Waxwing must have come across the honeysuckle berry at some point during its adolescence.

Photos don’t adequately capture the exuberance and energy of these flighty birds as they whoosh to the pond from the trees and flap in the water with verve.  Always on the move, they regularly change places and positions with one another, chatting all the while. 

Back and forth they go–tree to pond, pond to tree–eventually settling together along limbs, sociably fluffing and drying with their comrades.  

Then, at some signal I’m not privy to, they dart away with wings aflutter and calls sharp.  Sometimes they circle round again, not having had quite enough of my garden’s offerings, but often, they fly away–as a mob–to their next adventure.

Cedar Waxwings enjoy perching in the trees.  They like to preen and look pretty, and it’s a good time to get a quiet shot of these beauties.  Catching one alone?  That’s a real feat.

Eating fruit almost exclusively, when they decide that it’s time to for a meal, a group of Cedar Waxwings will strip a tree or shrub of berries in a matter of an hour or two.  In my own garden, they eat the berries of the native Possumhaw holly, Ilex decidua and the non-native Burford holly, Ilex cornuta.  I’ve never witnessed it, but many folks in Austin (and elsewhere, I’m told) report seeing drunk Cedar Waxwings after consuming overripe berries.  Tipsy birds might seem comedic, but in fact, waxwings can die because of fermented berries.

Here’s another, less dire, but still obnoxious, result of the berry diet.  Do you see it?

And in this photo.

And in this photo.

These rocks are not polka-dotted, they’re bird poop-dotted, as is a good portion of my back patio and several walkways in my neighborhood.

Perhaps when I’m out, I should don a hat.

Despite the less-than-appreciated output of these birds, I’m thrilled at their visits in winter and early spring. Their high-pitched calls from the sky, their penchant for companionship wherever they go, plus their gorgeous good looks, brings cheer my heart and a smile to my face.

Purple Martin Magic

Many people are familiar with the Mexican free-tailed bats who live in and around the Austin area, especially those inhabiting the world’s largest urban bat colony found under the Ann W. Richard Congress Avenue Bridge.  Austinites and tourists thrill at the site of the 1.5 million bats leaving their roost late each summer day for their nightly insect foraging, before migrating to Mexico for winter. Less well-known, but also a remarkable natural event, is the annual migration of the Purple MartinsProgne subis.

Photo courtesy of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology  All About Birds

The Purple Martin is North America’s largest swallow.  Like many other species of birds, they winter in South America, but breed in North America during spring and summer, migrating back and forth during the course of their lives.  Purple Martins are gregarious birds and it’s long  known that they’re comfortable around human habitation. According to the Audubon Society, Native Americans learned that the Martins were valuable assets to their crops and placed hollowed gourds to encourage the Martins to nest nearby.  The Martins chased crows away from crops and vultures away from drying meat.   In modern times, most Purple Martins nest in human provided housing during their breeding season throughout a large area of North America. From July to early August,  they leave their individual nesting sites and converge in enormous roosts preparing for their migration to South America for winter.

Here in Austin,  Purple Martins gather by the hundreds of thousands, roosting in trees along I-35.  Austin is located along one of three major flyways for this Neotropical bird. This year, the birds decided to change things up a bit and instead of roosting in oak trees at Highland Mall, as they have for a couple of years, they’re roosting in trees at the nearby Capital Plaza Shopping Center.

At about 8pm, you can witness a few birds in the air,

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…and a few Austinites on the parking lot, settling into their lawn chairs, getting ready for the show.

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Travis Audubon  hosts Purple Martin Parties on weekend evenings from mid-July to early August and have knowledgeable volunteers ready to answer questions about these cool birds and their life cycle. The evening we visited, one of the volunteers told us that there were an estimated 400,000 birds roosting for the night. It takes a while for the action to kick into gear, but by sundown, there are thousands of birds congregating above the parking lot.

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Swirling in flocks, the Martins fly in unison, flitting into one tree, then another, seemingly indecisive about where to rest their weary beaks for the night.

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The birds are chatty, beautiful and swift flyers, and downright doodee dangerous if you’re standing nearby and don’t hold an umbrella over, or sport a hat on your vulnerable head.

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If you know what I mean.

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I always wear a hat when I watch the Martins.

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The Husband didn’t wear a hat this year and he had to wash his hair when we came home that evening.

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If you know what I mean.

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As more birds gather, they swoop and sway in the air and by sundown, many are perched in the trees for the night.

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I ventured closer to get photos of the roosting birds.

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Yes, I was wearing my hat.

It was very windy that particular evening and I had a hard time getting clear shots of the birds in the swaying branches.

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Most of these birds are females and fledgling chicks, though there are males here too. The male Purple Martin is a deep, iridescent purple and the female is drab, with a light gray chest and white tummy.

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Martins are insectivores who fly fast and high, catching prey on the wing.  They feed during the day, resting at night.

I once placed a Purple Martin house on our property, but it was an abject failure at attracting these lovely birds.  Martins like open space in which to fly and hunt and there are too many large trees around my home to attract these birds.  Most Martins nest in human provided houses, though Martin lovers must contend with European Starlings and House Sparrows who will aggressively displace Purple Martins from their homes. Those wishing to attract Martins must be vigilant in removing the invasive birds if they want Martins to breed.  Older, male scout Purple Martins arrive as early as February to check out  nesting sites, followed a few weeks later by the females and the younger males.  They are fun and interesting to observe during their breeding period and fascinating as they prepare for their trip to South America.

Purple Martin magic.

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Ain’t nature grand?

Thanks to the enthusiastic Travis Audubon members who teach others about the importance of birds, to the businesses who encourage visitors to view the roosting Martins, and to the many Purple Martin lovers who host them during breeding season. You’re all part of the solution.

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Have a good migration, Purple Martins, and a safe trip back next February.  Swing by and say “Hi!”.