Cedar Waxwings

Our former house was in a modern suburb with young trees, small yards, and lots of concrete. The backyard birding wasn’t bad, but for the most part our regulars were limited to the various finch and sparrow species. One of the birds we always wanted to see, but rarely did, is the beautiful Cedar Waxwing.

We moved into an older neighborhood this past spring. Our new house is a block away from a riparian corridor and the neighborhood is filled with old growth trees. We suspected it might be better for backyard birding, and it turns out we were right.

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Over the summer we would often hear the distinctive call of Cedar Waxwings high in the treetops around the neighborhood, but never in our own backyard. They were tantalizingly close, but very difficult to spot up in the tops of the massive old trees. We eventually resolved ourselves to the fact that our yard didn’t have the right mix of trees to attract waxwings and that we might have to settle for admiring them from a distance.

Then, one day in mid-November, they suddenly showed up - a flock of at least 40 waxwings landed in our backyard.  We have a massive Privet (over two-stories tall), and much to our surprise, it produces large quantities of berries in early winter, berries that appear to be very attractive to waxwings. The flock stayed around for over two weeks, gorging themselves daily on the berries and making quite a mess on our deck (be careful what you ask for). Their feeding has slowed down for now, but we’re hoping they come back in the spring when our grand old Mulberry tree starts producing its fruit.

Photographing Waxwings

Even with so many birds around, waxwings are difficult to photograph. They mostly stay high up in trees which makes it tough to get a good angle for a photo. Fortunately, we have an upstairs bathroom window that faces out over the backyard. Shooting through window glass is less than ideal, but I was able to capture a number of memorable images with my 100-400 during their visit.

Like most songbirds, waxwings flit about almost constantly while feeding, so relatively high shutter speeds are in order (1/500 and above). They tend to feed in the shadows inside bushes and trees, so plan on high ISOs and relatively aggressive post processing to deal with the resultant noise.

About Cedar Waxings

From the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

A treat to find in your binocular viewfield, the Cedar Waxwing is a silky, shiny collection of brown, gray, and lemon-yellow, accented with a subdued crest, rakish black mask, and brilliant-red wax droplets on the wing feathers. In fall these birds gather by the hundreds to eat berries, filling the air with their high, thin, whistles. In summer you’re as likely to find them flitting about over rivers in pursuit of flying insects, where they show off dazzling aeronautics for a forest.
The Cedar Waxwing is a medium-sized, sleek bird with a large head, short neck, and short, wide bill. Waxwings have a crest that often lies flat and droops over the back of the head. The wings are broad and pointed, like a starling’s. The tail is fairly short and square-tipped.