Tuesday, September 8, 2009

WAXWING TIME!

A few months after moving into this streamside cottage, I was sitting on the narrow deck which spans the width of the building and overlooks the big riffle and pool below. I’d already come to think of this end as the front of the house, and the river immediately beyond as the best part of my yard.

The midday sun was bright and warm, the high September sky a soft Dresden blue reminiscent of my grandmother’s eyes. Looking across the narrow channel to the trees on the island, it was plain to see that summer had run it course and autumn was already remaking the landscape. Here and there I noted the first brush strokes of lemon yellow on the sycamore leaves, and a singular scarlet flame in the twining Virginia creeper.

I felt uncommonly at ease. No lord of any stately manor ever stood upon a high terrace and viewed his sprawling estate below with greater pleasure. Not for the first time, I thought how love so often awakens in us the desire to live a long life. Whether it’s love of a person or a place, something stirs inside and we suddenly wish for endless time to enjoy, ample opportunity to savor that which fills our heart to overflowing with wonder and contentment.

Please, God, we beg…please, please, please lengthen our allotted span that we might know completely this generous blessing.

That’s how I felt upon moving here—and what I was thinking about that glorious day on the cusp of the seasonal change four years ago; cognizant, too, that time flows ever onward, like the water purling over rifflestones in my beloved river, aware that’s it only through grace that next year, next week, or even the next minute becomes ours to claim.

Perhaps it was these bittersweet musings that caused me a certain confusion when the first bird swooped quickly across the stream, dipping low over the pool, then rose, spun in midair, made a second pass back across the pool and returned to land in a hackberry leaning over the channel.

Hey—what was that bird? Not a swift, swallow, or martin. Flycatcher? Nahhh. And why did it look so familiar?

Another bird made a fast, twisting series of passes over the pool, was joined by a second, and then there were three or four zipping and diving like midday bats above the water. As they flew they revealed flashes of bright cadmium yellow on their tails, as if the tips had been dipped in paint. Sometimes I fancied I could spot a bit of red on the wings.

The feeding birds were taking pale, rather large mayflies which I could occasionally see coming off the water. I’ve watched other birds—mostly swifts and swallows—do this along trout streams all over the country.

Finally, a bird alighted on a limb tip less than a dozen feet from where I sat—and the brief pause apparently allowed my brain time to kick into gear: cedar waxwing!

Gezze…no wonder they looked familiar! I’ve seen cedar waxwings feeding all my life—except they’d usually been feeding on fruits or berries. Moreover, they were typically in the brushy borders adjacent to fields and meadows—noisily, cheerfully, eating whatever they could find.

I simply hadn’t expected to see them acting like flycatchers over a river. Then I remembered how I’d once watched a bunch of hungry cedar waxwings save a neighbor’s apple crop.

A plague of canker worms had begun devouring the leaves on the dozen old apple trees in his back yard. Suddenly one morning, like a phalanx of caped superheros in a comic book, a flock of cedar waxwings came flying in to the rescue.

Over the course of two or three days, the birds—perhaps thirty total—decimated the canker worm population. In short order it went from several worms on each and every limb to virtually zero. In fact, if even a single canker worm survived their onslaught, my neighbor and I couldn’t find it during an hour of searching afterwards.

Of course, most of the time cedar waxwings do eat various berries and fruits, including the glaucous blue berries of their namesake red cedar. Sometime to the point of apparent gluttony. Numerous sources report finding waxwings on the ground underneath a fruit or berry tree, having so overindulged they simply fell off the limb—helpless, unable to fly, stomachs and throats stuffed with berries…and still holding even more berries in their mouths and beaks, waiting for room to swallow!

It stands to reason that birds sporting such voracious appetites would get all giddy about a steady mayfly hatch. And a bit of research confirmed this behavior as common; most accounts of cedar waxwings mention their occasional flycatcher-like behavior—especially when feeding on water-born insects.

What I’d observed was nothing new…just new to me.

Still, it was one of the things I learned when I began living beside the river. And every year since, I look forward to these transition days, when summer fades and autumn starts to brighten the woods on the island with dabs of color—because I know the mayflies will be hatching and the cedar waxwings will be around to swoop and dive over the pool, twisting and turning, delighting me with their aerial antics.

30 comments:

TheChicGeek said...

You have an absolutely beautiful blog. It is like a vacation to come here and see your beautiful pictures and read your lovely words.
Thank You!

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

ChickGeek…

Thank you for such nice words. I'm glad you found your way here and liked what you saw. I hope you visit regularly…you're always welcome on the riverbank.

Kathiesbirds said...

I first observed this same behavior last year when I visited Connecticut in the summertime. I was birding along the Salmon River in Colchester when I saw the same thing you did and had the same reaction. It is interesting to read your account. Birds constantly amaze me, which is why I love them so! Wonderful writing by the way.

Jain said...

Great post, Scribe! We've had (apparently) starving flocks of Cedars come through when the Juneberries are ripe but I've not seen them over the river. Just not at the right place at the right time, I imagine. Wouldn't it be fascinating to radio-tag a flock of Cedars and monitor their route over the course of a summer?

KGMom said...

I think cedar waxwings are such handsome birds. How lucky you are to be able to sit on your cottage porch and observe such sights.

I trust your lovely daughter is completely (or very nearly) recovered.

Brenda said...

Hi Grizz,

You write the most beautiful prose. You have a superb knack of putting into words what some hearts feel and most of us are inept to express. I must confess, I read something you wrote a couple weeks ago and found myself in tears. You had summed up something that had been tucked away in my heart, something that was aching and needed to be examined. Your words that day turned those feelings into thoughts that I could mull over and chew on and finally make sense of. (I hope that makes sense!)

Anyway, I just want to thank you again for sharing your gift with those of us blessed enough to have wandered onto your riverbank. You really must write a book with some of your thoughts (or have you?). :)
Cheers,
Brenda
P.S. How's Lacy?

Gail said...

Hi Grizz -
you write so beautifully so detailed in thought and image - you take me there and sit me down right by your side so I see what you see, feel what you feel, wonder what you wonder, enjoy what yo enjoy, learn what you learn, realize what you realize........I truly enjoyed sitting with you today it was lovely. "Thank you"

Love Gail
peace......

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Kathiesbirds…

Naturally, when I figured out what I was looking at (well, duh!) I was embarrassed at myself for being so slow and dumb—but at the time, for those first few moments, I was just so amazed…and not thinking "cedar waxwing."

Or something…

But I now look forward to seeing them do this every year—and they never disappoint.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Jain…

Well, the real treasure here, so far as the river is concerned, IS the riffle. It added the constant and changing voice which gave the the place its (perhaps too pretentious) name, Riversong. But most important, the pouring and churning adds oxygen. This aerated water is the ideal habitat for mayflies and caddis (at least certain species) and there are good hatches through the year. The riffle is also the place for fish, because of the broken water, the sound, and the hidy holes. So I'm very fortunate to have it here, for a variety of reasons.

I wouldn't have the waxwings if I didn't have the mayflies if I didn't have the riffle… (A rather awful sentence, but nevertheless accurate.)

The more I read about cedar waxwings, the more interesting they become. It would be fascinating to tag and monitor them, for sure. But I'm betting you'd have to be ready to travel a lot!

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

KGMom…

It is a great thing—both gift and blessing—for anyone who loves nature and is interested in observing all the goings on, to be able to sit on the deck, or the steps, at the picnic table or the bench on the knoll…or any of a dozen other locations around the cottage, riverbank, and yard, and just watch the ongoing world around him. I am ever so thankful, too.

Thank you for asking. I'm happy to report Lacy is back to normal, healthwise—over the bug and full of Irish mischief and blarney, not to mention a whole lot of attitude. And, BTW, the toll from that particular wedding shower is 9 sick and counting.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Brenda…

I don't know what else to say except thank you. I try and write as well as I can manage on a given day. The best compliment any writer could ever desire is that someone reads what they've written and is moved—to tears, laughter, joy, understanding, whatever—by their words. I'd love to think something I wrote helped someone in even the smallest way. Or that they got a good laugh out of a piece. Or learned something. It's not an ego thing, but one of sharing and hospitality. I love people. When you take your time to come visit me here, I want you to know you're a welcome guest—a friend dropping by, one whom I'm delighted to see.

Lacy is doing well. Back to eating and feeling pretty good. Thank you for asking.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Gail…

Confound it…I didn't miss you, I just messed up my replies order. Yeah, again—like you thought such inaptitude couldn't strike me twice? Anyway, fear not—there's no subliminal message in there other than it's late and I'm sleepy.

Now, regarding the piece—if you sat on the deck, saw the birds and mayflies and sparkling water, felt the sun…caught my thoughts and understood, then that's just wonderful. I wanted to share all that; wanted you to know it, make it your own; I wanted to take you along.

And it was, indeed, lovely.

Jayne said...

I never knew this about waxwings! Swooping to get insects... wow. Well, see, there you go. Learn something new every day. Looking forward to their return to add even more joy to your river days. :c)

Carolyn H said...

Griz: Waxwings are moving here too. I saw a flock or two fly past the hawkwatch this weekend. I love to see them. I can't hear them, though.

CarolynH.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Jayne…

Hey, I learned something, too! And the waxwings ARE here and taking mayflies daily. I made the posted photos a few days ago—on the first afternoon of their annual return.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Carolyn…

They're just beautiful, energetic birds, lots of fun. And even over the sound of the riffle, loud in their zeee, zeee, zeee calls.

The Weaver of Grass said...

They are such exotic birds Scribe - I love them. We only get them in UK when there is a shortage of food for them in Scandinavia. Last year flocks were seen all over the country and people drove miles just to see them. I hardly dare hope we shall have them again this winter. Lovely post. I am so glad you are so happy living by your river.

giggles said...

Oh I love your story-telling style........ You are so good....

Cedar waxwings are one of my favorites! (Have I already shared that fact with you?) Saw a huge flock one fall at college in middle Ohio...they were striking! Feeding on some kind of berry on some bushes around campus... Hung around for a day, then gone. Never saw another one til this summer, when my kids and I were out with a small birding group to John Heinz NWR.... Aaaaaaah, a wonderful site to behold..... They're probably around much of the time, I just haven't been paying attention!

Now: ROll call! Heard a screech owl in our back yard the other night.... Had no idea what it was, this strange spooky sound. My guesses were some kind of owl or a whip-poor-will.... Not knowing either sound, I gooogled 'em... No doubt!! A screech owl! In the dark brfore dawn I heard it again, and heard an answer fairly far away in the distance...

Also: another bird I don't remember seeing since my Ohio daze, a common night hawk. I hear they are migrating .... But I happened to see a pair flying over my kids soccer fields last week. I was tickled!

Raph G. Neckmann said...

What a beautiful post, Grizzled! It is so true that when we love somewhere/one/thing we want it to go on and on forever.

I love the description of thw waxwings and laughed at the bit where they fall off the branches so stuffed with food! (A bit like me with cake!!) Great about them eating the canker worms off the apple trees.

Bernie said...

Loved this post Grizz, your descriptions were beautiful. You live in a beautiful part of your state and to feel your joy and aprreciation of being there is a wonderful thing. Stay happy my friend and thank you for sharing,
take care......:-) Hugs

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Weaver…

They are really handsome birds, and the more I see them—up close, swooping and diving only a few yards away, and perching nearby even closer—the more I think they're far prettier than we ever seem to remember. I can understand why someone would drive a long ways to see them.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Giggles…

Nope, you're not repeating yourself yet…or it could be you are and my memory is going down the river. Either way, you're safe.

Cedar waxwings are, for me, one of those bonus species. Not something you can count on or know where to go find, but just like a shiny new penny on the ground in a WalMart parking lot—a common and delightful little treasure.

Don't get me started on screech owls. I love them. To hear their quavering call is one of my favorite things, especially late in the year, in October or November when the moon is only a sliver of old silver in the night sky and the trees are skeletal, and you just know their are things afoot out there. Oh, my! I have so many screech owl stories…

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Raph…

Thank you for your nice words.

Hey, I've been known to overeat treats and fall off a limb myself!

Something neat about cedar waxwings…they'll occasionally pluck a berry, pass it along to a fellow waxwing, who passes it on down the line, and so on and son on—and maybe it will be offered to 6-8 birds until it reaches the one who decides to eat it. I don't think anyone knows why they do this. Hospitality? Sharing the wealth? Keeping the gluttons away from the food source?

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Bernie…

I'm pleased you liked the piece. This cottage and river setting is beautiful. But I look for the beauty here, as I do everywhere. few places are without some measure of natural beauty—even the harshest lands.

I can't say he same (personally) about cities.

You take care of yourself, too.

C Hummel Kornell a/k/a C Hummel Wilson said...

You have a wonderful blog. I stumbled onto you through Weaver's site. You live in a beautiful area and, of course, your writing and photography are wonderful.

Thanks

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

C Hummel…

Hey, welcome to the riverbank! You're not the first who's wander over here from Weaver's wonderful blog.

Thank you for such nice compliments. Especially, since I've been taking a quick look through your blog. Beautiful! I intend to really spend time reading and enjoying your blog and art.

I'm glad you enjoyed your first look around here…and I hope you'll return often. You're always welcome.

Rowan said...

Waxwings are a rare sight in the UK, I've only ever seen one. They come only in really bad winters and tend to be seen more in Scotland and East Anglia - their arrival in any numbers usually prompts a mention in the national press! They are beautiful birds.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Rowan…

Then I wish you could sit on my deck any upcoming afternoon. When the sun is bright, the mayflies come off the water—and dozens of feeding waxwings dart and swoop over the pool…then take quick between-flight rests on nearby limbs overlooking the river.

You'd have a wonderful view and quite an enjoyable experience—seeing these handsome birds so close (often no more than two or three yards away) perching, and flying.

Val said...

Beautiful, dear Grizzled...just beautiful.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Val…

Thank you…always.