Cedar Waxwing

This afternoon I nipped out briefly to look for a flock of Cedar Waxwings in nearby Hudson. I found about 150 along Main Road near Finnegan’s Market. Seeing Cedar Waxwings always remind me of two events. The first major, the second minor and here for your entertainment are those events recounted along with a lousy photo of one of today’s birds.

Way back in the day I used to run Nottinghamshire Bird News, a county wide information service that carried local rare and scarce bird news for an eager birding public. During the winter of 1995/6 I had been receiving numerous reports of Bohemian Waxwings, their numbers increasing day on day and with most of the activity taking place north of Nottingham City Center on a main route called Mansfield Road. The birds seemed to have a developed a circuit whereby they would come into the city from their roost north of the City. They would then gather around along a minor road off Mansfield Road before dispersing in groups to feed. They were very keen on the many ornamental Rowan Trees that fruited around the city, and if you staked out some along their route they were likely to be visited by a group of Bohemian Waxwings at some point during the day.

The flashing red light of the Birdline machine indicated whether there was an incoming message and, if you were in the room at the time and with the volume up, you would hear the caller’s message straight away, it could be very distracting. I was in the process of writing a bird report for my local patch, Colwick Park, and so frequently sat at the computer with the machine volume turned down, checking every hour or so to see whether I needed to do an update.

On Tuesday 20-February 1996 I was particularly engaged in the writing, I’d done several Bird News updates already, mostly involving tracking the Bohemian Waxwing’s meanderings around City. Late in the afternoon I noticed the light flashing again but ignored it for a while until I’d finished the section I was writing. Once the writing was done I turned the sound up, pen in hand ready to write down exactly which road the Bohemian Waxwings had descended on. The voice on the line was Pete Smith’s, a regular waxwing reporter who worked not too far from the regular spots the birds favoured on Mansfield Road. His message was a bit hesitant and for good cause, he thought he had seen a Cedar Waxwing with the Bohemian Waxwing flock. He kept stressing that it was only a possible and that he needed confirmation of the ID, the message was 30 minutes old!

I got in the car and just drove at speeds guaranteed a ticket if caught and possibly a ban. I arrived just as the last few waxwings moved off to roost for the day, missing the bird by minutes. It transpired that Pete and a chap called Eric Burkinshaw had been watching the Bohemian Waxwing flock when Pete noticed one with pale undertail coverts. He had been looking at Cedar Waxwing in a North American field guide pondering on the possibility of seeing one, now perhaps he had but he couldn’t rule out the only other possibility, an escaped Japanese Waxwing.

I went home and read up, then I rang a number of people including the National bird news operators to discuss the bird, the circumstances and of course, the observers. I was confident that Pete had seen what he claimed and said so but stressed that the identity of the bird was not confirmed. If it turned out to be a Cedar Waxwing it was effectively a first, a previous record form Shetland had been incorrectly assigned to the escape category. This was later corrected and the Shetland bird elevated to its rightful position as a UK first. The news was broadcast widely but put out as only a possible because that is exactly what it was. Pete was justifiably cautious and, to be fair to Eric, he didn’t really know much apart from what he saw, a waxwing with a pale undertail. The next day would be interesting.

At dawn, about 30 people were milling around the sighting area. Just after first light a few small flocks of twinkling waxwings passed quickly overhead but didn’t stop. I told another birder that I knew where they were going and we left together for the site containing some Rowans about half a mile to the south. When we got there we found a large tree full of waxwings. The other birder was first onto the Cedar Waxwing through his scope and he just said he’d got it and it was one. I was onto it myself by the last syllable and, sure enough, there amongst the 507 Bohemian Waxwings adorning the crown of the tree was a Cedar Waxwing. With the record confirmed I called Pete to tell him of our success and put the news out by updating our Bird News service and calling the Nationals.

The Cedar Waxwing quickly became a major celebrity, attracting hundreds of birders from all over the UK. One morning Mansfield Road was actually blocked by admiring birders for a while, even making the traffic news! The Cedar Waxwing’s feeding circuit naturally matched that of the Bohemian Waxwings and it was tracked as they moved around the city maiing it easy to predict the best places to find it. It became the second ever for the UK and was part of a real purple patch for rarities in Nottinghamshire, a place often just considered to be a land-locked county with little avian appeal.

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This is a scan from my one and only attempt to photograph it, can you tell which one it is?

My second memory concerns a flock at a state park in California in 2000. We had been touring California in a 25′ RV and were at the El Valle SP south of San Francisco on our last full day before heading off back to the UK. We’d been ultra-careful with the RV to that point but had still managed to rip the TV aerial off the roof on a low branch while searching out Pygmy Nuthatch. It didn’t matter too much as American TV has too many ads anyway and the aerial was easily replaced.

While driving from the RV around the park we drove past a bush covered in Cedar Waxwings, the first we’d seen on the trip. Naturally, I immediately slammed the RV into reverse to go back for a better look. I’d forgotten that the road had just split and that the split was marked by a substantial rock. The sudden stop meant that Sandra ended up on her back in the RV and a sickening crunch informed us that the impact had pushed the rear steps a good foot to the right.

When we took it back the RV people were OK about it, charging us 35 bucks to put it right, it could of been much worse. On the up side, we had great views of the Cedar Waxwings!

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