Confused?

Every year when the calendar claims it is spring, we usually have snow on the ground and solid ice covering the lake. Today, the sun is shining and it’s 70 degrees outside, there is almost no snow, and there is some open water in the cove. It’s hardly surprising that we feel a bit confused. A couple of days ago, when I could not tolerate another minute indoors, I got the bamboo rake out of the basement and started raking the lawn. Something was missing, though, when I realized I was not hearing the harsh, abrupt FEE bee call of the eastern phoebe, one of the first spring migrants to arrive. Then I remembered that it’s only March, and phoebe is not expected in our yard until April. Goldfinches were making happy chittering sounds, and I heard the sweet, drawn-out DeeeDeee call of the chickadee, but there was no phoebe.

Our neighborhood crows are enjoying sailing on the mild breeze over our yard. One crow calls from the top of the big pine, sounding more like a child imitating a crow than the real thing. When another crow calls from somewhere up on the hill, the one in the pine spreads its wings, falls forward into the air, and glides away. A pine siskin calls from high in another pine tree, a rising zreeee sound, and from the direction of the woods I hear a red-breasted nuthatch calling its nasal beep beep.

Several times in recent weeks, folks have told me they have seen large flocks of waxwings, both cedar and Bohemian, but when I went to look for them I had no luck. Birds have a way of appearing when we least expect them, though. A week or so ago, I went for a walk up the ridge, bundled up in my winter jacket, wind pants, hat, and mittens. A familiar high pitched call, a thin buzzy zeeeee…zeeeee, made me look up and, in the tree above me, there was a flock of cedar waxwings.

Cedar waxwings live only in the Western Hemisphere, and can be found in Maine year round. Highly social and nomadic, they live and travel in flocks, and are attracted to areas with abundant crops of the berries and fruits that make up as much as seventy percent of their diet. During the warm months, and into early fall, they breed across the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Canada to the mountains of northern Georgia. In winter, they move out of the northernmost parts of their range in search of food, sometimes flying as far as South America.

Sleek brown and gray, the cedar waxwing has a crest, a pale yellow belly, a black mask around the eyes, and a bright yellow band at the end of the tail. The undertail feathers are whitish. The bird’s elegance, and the silky smoothness of its feathers, makes it one of my favorites. The name waxwing refers to the waxy red tips on some secondary wing feathers, that are actually extensions of the feather shaft. Some years ago, Canadian scientists D. James Mountjoy and Raleigh Robertson determined that the number of waxy red feather tips varies among individual birds. Older birds usually have more red tips, tend to nest earlier, produce larger clutches, and fledge more young, while birds with fewer red feather tips tend to be younger and less experienced. Birds choose mates who have a similar number of red tips, so it’s possible the number of red feather tips may function as an easy-to-see status symbol for cedar waxwings, as they scan the flock in winter for potential mates.

One of the things we love about cedar waxwings is their unpredictability, showing up when we least expect them and departing just as suddenly. Like the waxwings, this unseasonably warm spring weather has arrived unexpectedly, and we wonder if it is here to stay, or if it will soon disappear. It’s only March, but it’s 70 degrees outside and there is open water in the cove. To add to the confusion, we heard phoebe calling in our yard this afternoon, two or three weeks ahead of schedule.

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