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Birds of El Paso County Cedar Waxwings


Last updated 12/1/2021 at 1:38pm | View PDF

Doug Harling

It is great to see the Cedar Waxwings back around. Although they spend the winter in our area, the Cedar Waxwings are not always easy to find. It has been a couple of years since I have seen any. The weather has been mild and the berries are plentiful, so this may be a great year to look for them. Some past pictures had shown up on my Facebook memory from the same exact date in years past so I decided to go look this year. I was blessed to find a small flock in the same exact spot that I have seen them before. I was watching a bunch of American Robins and European Starlings feeding on some Crabapple berries and one flew in.

It certainly helps to know what you are looking for and where to look. Before I had ever seen my first Cedar Waxwing, I assumed they were much bigger. This is true with many of the birds I find. When you see pictures of birds, they are usually taken with a big camera lens or the image is cropped so you can see the beauty of the bird. Without a size reference in an image, it is difficult to know what you are looking for. I had seen a flock for the first time and I assumed they were Sparrows. Luckily, I had tried to get closer to get pictures of American Robins eating berries and a Waxwing flew in. I knew right then it was a Cedar Waxwing. That was when I realized that that flock of birds were Cedar Waxwings. The American Robins were staying in the berry trees eating away, but the Waxwings would fly in, grab a couple berries and fly right back to the flock.

Cedar Waxwings spend the summer north in the upper parts of the U.S. and in Canada. They will start moving south in the fall. They may arrive to our area by September but often the berry trees and shrubs still have leaves on them. Cedar Waxwings are very small. They are about the size of a Sparrow but a bit longer body. Being so small, if there are leaves left on a tree or shrub, the waxwings can be impossible to see. The best time to find them is in late fall and early winter. That is why I chose to highlight them this month. There are still some berries left on some of the trees and shrubs and with the leaves gone, now is your best chance. Plus, they are very beautiful to see and photograph in the berries. Cedar Waxwings love the fruits and berries. The name "Cedar" actually derives from their appetite for cedar berries in the winter. The name "Waxwing" comes from the waxy red secretions on the tips of some of their wings. Mature Cedar Waxwings show the birds amazing coloring the best. Young Waxwings will be a more dull grey. All Cedar Waxwings will have the telltale bandit mask.

The best place to start looking is anywhere you know there are plenty of berry trees and shrubs. I decide to look where I see a heavy concentration of Robins in the fall. All of the images were taken at the same place I had seen Cedar Waxwings in the past, and the first thing I noticed when I looked for them was a heavy population of Robins feeding on berries. If you have seen Cedar Waxwings in the past, mark your calendar and check the same area the next year. Waxwings will return to the same trees year after year. Don't waste any time. You can see from the images in this column that some of these trees are loaded with berries. Three days later, there wasn't a Waxwing in sight and almost every berry was gone. The Waxwings in these images were feeding on Crabapple berries. There were Robins, European Starlings and Juncos all feeding on these so they go fast.

Once winter sets in, look to the Juniper trees. The berries on the Juniper trees will last longer into the winter. Also focus your search near creeks and streams that have some moving water through the winter. They are a small bird and like any other bird, they want everything they need to be close in proximity. When the Waxwings move to the Juniper trees, they present a new challenge. Junipers are an evergreen so they don't lose leaves. They stay dense all year. One big Juniper can hide a couple dozen Cedar Waxwings and you won't even know it. In the winter, if you can find some Junipers that are close to a creek or river, you will almost certainly find some Cedar Waxwings. Take your time and move slowly around them. They are a flock bird. If you spook off one, you spook them all!

I actually planted some Crabapple trees a few years ago to try and attract some Cedar Waxwings. The trees are just starting to produce a good number of berries. I did get a few Robins this year who cleaned them all off. Maybe next year the Waxwings will follow them in. I am also going to put out jelly early this year. I normally don't start putting jelly out until spring for the Robins and the Orioles. The main problem with this in the winter is freezing. I'll probably have to bring the jelly in at night and only put it out on sunny days. If you do put out jellies, make sure you freshen it up regularly. Fruit jellies and berries can actually ferment and become intoxicating and even deadly to a small bird. It isn't uncommon to walk up on a berry tree or shrub and find intoxicated birds or even an entire flock dead. Berries still on the trees and shrubs can ferment after the first freeze of the winter, so late fall and winter are the most common times to see this!

Doug Harling

Challenge yourself and see if you can find some Cedar Waxwings this year or see if you can attract some to your yard. They are a tough bird to find. They are small and move around a bunch. What you see today, you may not see tomorrow. When I post pictures of hard to find Raptors or unusually marked birds to my Facebook page, I will almost immediately start getting messages asking where that bird was. This very seldom happens with any other birds. When I post Cedar Waxwings, my message board blows up with people asking me to tell them where they were. Thats how I know they are especially hard to find. The challenge is on. Happy birding!

Facebook: Doug Harling

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