Cedar Waxwings Open the Holiday Season

Today has been a spectacularly beautiful fall day – sheets of heavy white frost in the morning across the grass and tops of shrubs, followed by a cool, crisp, sunny afternoon. Our home and neighborhood are surrounded in the bronze-brown colors of white-oak leaves, at their fullest and most handsome now, turning light golden against a clear blue sky.

Eastern Towhees called from bushes, and Eastern Bluebirds from treetops facing the sun. An American Goldfinch called a wispy potato-chip as it flew overhead. An American Robin stood in a grassy yard; Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Wrens, Northern Cardinals, House Finches, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and Downy Woodpeckers chattered and rattled and peeped. Eastern Phoebes sang and called tsup. Northern Flickers called kleer! Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Brown-headed and White-breasted Nuthatches called, too, in their different ways. Several Chipping Sparrows flew up from the roadside, into the low branches of trees, where their rust-red crowns looked especially bright. A quiet Northern Mockingbird sat in the bare branches of a crape myrtle. One Black Vulture and one Turkey Vulture soared.

Near some scrubby trees and shrubs along a small hill, I stopped when I heard the loud, buzzy fussing of a Carolina Wren – and sure enough, lots of small birds began to appear. Chickadees, Titmice, a second Carolina Wren and a third, a pair of Cardinals – and two Ruby-crowned Kinglets flitted low in the trees with a sliver of ruby showing in the tops of their heads. As one moved quickly from branch to branch, it seemed to be trembling all over its tiny body, flicking wings and tail. Both kinglets were fussing, too, a stuttering jidit-jidit-jidit. Two Golden-crowned Kinglets also showed up, a little higher in the trees, their striped crowns bright. A big Red-bellied Woodpecker clung to a trunk – while tapping sounds from across the road came from a White-breasted Nuthatch working on the trunk of a pecan tree with its long, powerful bill.

One bird I did not come across today was a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, though I’ve seen them fairly often recently, so I know they’re around. The same is true for a Hermit Thrush, and I probably just didn’t listen for them carefully enough. But I also could not find a single Yellow-rumped Warbler – a much more worrisome bird to miss. I couldn’t even hear a chip note here or there, while in years past there would have been dozens scattered all through the neighborhood, maybe even hundreds. I’ve seen a few around this fall, just not nearly as many as in the past. They used to be so common here in winter that I never thought I’d say this – but I miss them.

There were, however, Cedar Waxwings – the first ones I’ve seen here this season, or almost the first. I began hearing their very high, thin, elusive calls several days ago, but hadn’t been able to see them until today. Moments after I heard their calls this time, a small flock of about a dozen or more flew into a large Savannah holly tree. As always, their sleek, smooth plumage and colors – taupe-brown and pearl-gray, with a pale lemon belly, narrow black mask and warm brown crest, and a gleaming yellow-tipped tail – looked exquisite, like gleaming ornaments perched among the leaves of the evergreen tree.

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