Boxing Day Frugivores

Cedar Waxwing

Recently I’ve noticed a small flock of waxwings flying outside my house from time to time. Because of the distance I haven’t been able to determine which species of waxwing, and again this morning I noticed a flock while putting the garbage out. I stopped to watch them while they circled the street before flying off. There is a small crabapple tree in the yard across the street from mine, and I’ve been waiting for the last month for either the Bohemian Waxwings or Pine Grosbeaks to discover it. However, the waxwings didn’t land in the tree, so I went back to gathering my green bin and recycling box from the garage. It wasn’t until I made a second trip out to the curb that I realized I could hear a few Cedar Waxwings calling. I looked up, and in the tall deciduous tree next to the crabapple tree I saw about 25 Cedar Waxwings perching.

Our subdivision is filled with ornamental crabapple trees, so once I was done with the garbage I went out for a drive to see if I could find more waxwings. I’ve been watching for flocks of frugivorous (fruit-eating) birds in these trees for the last two months, to no avail; large numbers of Pine Grosbeaks have irrupted south this year, and Bohemian Waxwings and Cedar Waxwings have been present this fall as well. While flocks of American Robins and European Starlings are also possible, I haven’t seen either species in the neighbourhood for a while now.

Cedar Waxwings

When I reached the intersection of Stonehaven and Grassy Plains I immediately noticed a flock of birds flying into the crabapple tree in front of the school. There are five fruit-laden trees in this area, two of which are next to the road with three more along the side of the school next to the parking lot. As it is a holiday, and schools are closed for the foreseeable future due to the second Ontario Covid-19 lockdown this year, I pulled into the bus lane in front of the school and parked where I had a good view of the birds. There were about 45 individuals altogether, and all were Cedar Waxwings. I watched them for about ten minutes before about half of the flock flew away. Then, just as I was thinking about heading somewhere else, I heard the call of a Pine Grosbeak. I drove ahead to the next crabapple tree and watched as almost a dozen Pine Grosbeaks and a few Cedar Waxwings flew into the tree closest to the road. I was creeping closer in my car when I noticed some of the grosbeaks were feeding on the fruit on the ground – something that I don’t see very often. Unfortunately they all flew off again before I could get close enough for any photos and landed in the trees next to the building.

Feeling pleased with my success at finding both Cedar Waxwings and Pine Grosbeaks in my own neighborhood, I headed out to Stittsville to look for a Boreal Chickadee visiting a feeder regularly if sporadically on someone’s front lawn. I spent a fruitless 30 minutes watching before I gave up and headed back to Emerald Meadows (honestly I felt it was a little creepy sitting in front of someone’s house for so long, but I’ve seen eBird checklists of more than an hour from the stakeout, so maybe I should have stuck it out). I thought about going out to one of the NCC trails close by, but as it was getting late in the morning and the sun was coming out I figured the trails would be crowded and returned home instead. I took several side roads on my way back, and noticed a pale bird flying into a tree next to the parking lot at Scissons Park. I pulled into the parking lot, and was shocked by the number of waxwings present. At first I noticed about 40 of them in the bare branches of a deciduous tree. Then I saw more on the ground beneath the tree, in the cedar hedges behind it, and in the conifers along the path.

Cedar Waxwing

I immediately doubled my estimate to about 80 birds, and scanned the flock for other species. Two goldfinches chased each other through the tree, and I found a single Bohemian Waxwing in the flock.

Bohemian Waxwing (r) with Cedar Waxwing (l)

Bohemian Waxwings (the larger waxwing with the gray body and the rusty undertail) show up in Ottawa in most winters, usually in enormous flocks where they feed on crabapples, Buckthorn berries, and other fruiting shrubs. Cedar Waxwings (the smaller waxwing with the yellow belly and white undertail) are summer residents. It is always a delight to hear large flocks of Bohemian Waxwings giving their soft, musical trills as they feed, but I only saw one in the flock.

Cedar Waxwings breed in Ottawa in the summer, when they are most frequently seen in large flocks. Although most of them leave in the winter, some small groups attempt to stay, and can also be found where there are lots of fruit trees. Mud Lake and the Arboretum are good spots to look for them, as are neighbourhoods like Bridlewood and Emerald Meadows, and buckthorn-rich areas of NCC lands such as Shirley’s Bay and Hurdman Park.

Cedar Waxwing

Like the Pine Grosbeaks I’d seen earlier, the Cedar Waxwings were flying down to the snow beneath the trees. They weren’t eating the seeds or berries there, however; they were eating snow. Other waxwings were eating snow in the trees, and even on the roof of the house next to the park. I thought they looked cute with the snow on their beaks.

Cedar Waxwings

Cedar Waxwings

The waxwings were a bit skittish, and most would fly up into the trees when people passed by on the path a few metres away. I was standing right next to a small conifer, and the birds were flying into and out of the tree while I was there. One was only about double my arms’ length away and watched me the whole time I stood there!

It was cold, with an insistent breeze that made it feel like about -13°C so after getting the photos of the Cedar Waxwings I started circling around to take some more photos of the Bohemian Waxwing before I left. It was gone; however, a flock of Pine Grosbeaks had flown in! They perched in one of the bare shrubs closest to the road, and flew down to a crabapple tree as I watched. I slowly made my way over, though Pine Grosbeaks are not used to people and are generally tolerant of our presence. I am not sure why they didn’t stay, but before I was able to get any photos they immediately flew to the crabapple tree across the street. I followed, and this time I managed to get a few images. These are all females or young males; only mature males are a dark pink colour.

Pine Grosbeak

Pine Grosbeak

Pine Grosbeaks do not irrupt south as frequently as Bohemian Waxwings so most birders are thrilled when they do come south and take every opportunity to see them. They’ve been at Old Quarry Trail for over a month now; I’m not sure whether this is the same flock, or a different one. I counted 11 individuals at the school on Stonehaven and only 6 at Scissons Park so I’m not sure how many are in the subdivision altogether. Like the waxwings, they keep flying around without staying in one spot for very long; in fact they flew off once again while I was watching.

I don’t know how many frugivores there actually are in my neighbourhood, but they really brighten up the winter and I hope they stick around!

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