Exploring my little piece of the planet

Bohemian Waxwing

Bombycilla garulus

In a corner of our neighbour’s back yard, behind their garage and feet from the standard chain-link fences installed by the oil companies who originally planted our houses here in the 1970’s, hunkers a stunted but stalwart crab-apple tree. Its delicate springtime blossoms and bitter fall fruit go mostly unnoticed, almost hidden as it is among the utilitarian structures of adjoining neighbours’ storage sheds. I can see it though, and I watch it closely at certain times of the year since I know it is a favourite of the properly nomadic, bohemian waxwing.

I usually hear them first, their amicable and indeed garulus gabble precedes the synchronized flight of the flock, gathering for their communal winter foraging in November or returning to town in April to clean out the fruit before setting up their nests high in the pines, deep in the boreal forest.

I’ve seen their call described as abrasive, and indeed some of the audio files I came across researching this article are true to that descriptor. However, even close up I find the sound of a flock whirring through the air or busily feeding on mountain ash or my neighbour’s crab-apple tree, soft and pleasant, comforting even, like the mellow slide and sloosh of a forest stream over smoothed rocks.


With the grace and rarity of Japanese dragon kites, the undulating flight of an ear-full or museum of waxwings (who decided on and who agreed that these would be the collective terms for waxwings, I do not know) fleetingly enliven the early spring and late fall skies and draw me outdoors to clamber through new or rotting snow to visit my neighbour’s crab-apple tree.

Although watchful, with confidence or bravado, these glossily-adorned and elegant beauties have often allowed me to come to within a few metres of them as they gorge and quarrel, and often share the rotting fruit.

Waxwings get their name from the elongated yellow beads that extend from their secondary feathers, but their whole sleek bodies seem expertly crafted from softened wax, or silken fabric, fresh dyed with rich spices and woven more sturdily at wing- and tail-tips; the saffron yellow and Syrian Rue red procured from the masters. Their generic name, Bombycilla, comes from ‘silky tails’, the term directly used for their name in some eastern European languages.

Adroitly darting about on tapered wings, their limber bodies nimbly bending and twisting, keenly intent on nourishment, I am mesmerized by the intensity of exotic colour flashing through the pale winter grays, and entertained by their determination and single-mindedness.

A metre of snow may have covered a winter’s accumulation of dropped fruit, but anything visible is not wasted, the fresh layer easily mined.

Although possibly declining, the bohemian waxwing is numerous and has such a broad range (circumpolar in the Northern Hemisphere) it is considered a “species of least concern” by the IUCN Red List. See the IUCN listing for Bombycilla garrulus and Environment Canada species listing.

Recommended:
Wonders of the Waxwings: Cedar and Bohemian Waxwings
by Robin Robinson
Wobbling Waxwings by Next Door Nature

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13 responses

  1. Cindy, these photos are lovely. I always think they look like they don’t have feathers. They look so sleek and smooth.

    April 15, 2012 at 7:14 pm

    • Thank you Sybil, they are my favourite visitor – sleek is the perfect descriptor.

      April 15, 2012 at 7:40 pm

  2. Wow Cindy – these are the most beautiful waxwing photos. You did a masterful job with these! The lighting was just right and the snow a great backdrop. You must be very proud of this series 🙂 And as always, your prose is poetic – I love reading your work as much as looking at your photos.

    April 15, 2012 at 7:41 pm

    • It was a beautiful morning and they were quite preoccupied, so I kind of went crazy, snapping about 200 pics! Still learning the lens, so had lots of time to experiment with the manual settings to get the right exposure in a few of them. Thank you for your compliments, Shelley.

      April 16, 2012 at 7:02 am

  3. This is a wonderful tribute to one of my favourite species. They are truly gorgeous birds, made even more desirable by their fleeting tenure in my backyard every year. You’ve done an amazing job capturing them in these shots, Cindy. The lighting, especially, is truly stunning. I keep meaning to do a sketch of one and your photos have inspired me, so maybe I’ll finally get around to it.
    I’m glad to see you’re enjoying your new lens and doing some great work with it already. Thanks for sharing.

    April 15, 2012 at 9:23 pm

  4. Thank you, Heather. I’ll look forward to seeing your sketch, Heather. You couldn’t so an awesome job on Illustrator too. It was dark, cloudy and snowing most of the weekend, so I was lucky to get out Sunday morning to enjoy this lovey period of early light before it clouded over again. I really love these birds too.

    April 16, 2012 at 7:05 am

    • Good grief, I just read that. I can’t imagine where my head was…What I meant to say was that you could do an awesome job on illustrator!

      April 24, 2012 at 7:06 am

  5. Beautiful and educational celebration of an astonishing bird. It’s a bird that I’ve never seen, but hope to one of these days. Until then, it’s a joy to experience them through your lovely words and images, Cindy. And those are two fine collective nouns that are new to me as well! Thanks ever so much for sharing this gorgeous garden glimpse…

    April 24, 2012 at 8:51 am

    • Oh, you must see these, Julian. They are so beautiful. The collective nouns used for animals are fascinating – not that they were ever used by individuals, but that so many very strange ones have become part of the accepted ornithological lexicon. Thank you for stopping in and for the compliments. I am always inspired to learn about the critters and plants that I see and photograph and sharing has become part of the fun.

      April 30, 2012 at 9:16 am

  6. One year, I found a nest of waxwings in the front yard. Just prior to flying out of the parental home for the last time, the offspring looked like a bouquet of masked bandits as they attempted to cram all their matured bodies into the nest.

    June 10, 2012 at 7:55 am

    • What an exquisite image, Amy-Lynn – “…a bouquet of masked bandits”. I love it!

      June 10, 2012 at 10:56 am

  7. All I can say is, Wow! What incredible shots. We had a pair that stayed here one summer and would perch in the same tree every evening at sunset. I still look for them, such beautiful birds.

    July 16, 2012 at 7:16 pm

    • Thank you Cait. I was excited to get so close. I think I would have had to run right into the tree to coerce them to leave off eating. How wonderful to have had a pair of ‘your own’, predictably visiting. I only ever see them in flocks and then only in spring and fall. I hope ‘yours’ decide to return one summer.

      July 16, 2012 at 8:00 pm

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