Cedar Waxwings capture Insects at Milliken Park

Cedar Waxwings capture Insects at Milliken Park

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Bob and I take regular walks to Milliken Park, in Toronto because we find that the variety of habitats found there encourages an assortment of birds and animals at any given time of the year.  Based on a tip from my sister, we hit the pavement in hopes of seeing some Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), and we were stunned by the numbers around the south pond.

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When first we arrived at the park, we were drawn to the southern perimeter of that largest pond where two or three Cedar Waxwings were flitting amongst the tree branches along the forest’s edge.  It was no surprise to find them there so close to the pond since Waxwings are attracted by the sound of running water, and there is a constant spray from the fountain in the pond.

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The Waxwings were hard to catch up with because they were so busy darting out over the water’s surface to capture insects.  During breeding season, insects make up a larger part of the Waxwings’ diet than usual, therefore Waxwings favour a habitat that includes a stream or pond where insects hatch in large numbers.  As we looked on, the birds would take brief rests in the forest canopy.

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Bob and I patiently waited for one of the elegant birds to land in closer proximity to ourselves.

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We were ecstatic when one of them afforded us a grand view of its sleek plumage, rakish black mask and the perky crest on top of its head.  Setting off the cinnamon brown and grey feathers are the trademark yellow tip on the tail and bright red wax-like tips on the wing feathers.  It was at about that time that Bob and I became distracted by the appearance of two Trumpeter Swans gliding along silently on the still surface of the pond.  We hastened over to the observation deck for a look because never before in the past had we seen these types of Swans in Milliken Park.

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It was as we observed the Trumpeter Swans from the wooden deck that we became aware of dozens of Cedar Waxwings swooping through the air over the pond, performing aerial twists and turns to take advantage of the bounty of insects that thrive next to the marshy shore.  I soon tired of trying to grab a photo while the birds were airborne, and turned my attentions to a shrub loaded with red berries on the other side of the deck railing.

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Cedar Waxwings breed later in the season than any other birds in North America. This is strategic because fruit makes up the bulk of their diet, and as fruit crops ripen in late summer and early fall, it guarantees the birds a ready source of food.  I stood at length at the railing waiting for some of the Waxwings to light in the bush and snatch up some of the juicy berries.  Of course, as soon as I got into position, there were few Cedar Waxwings to be seen.  So, I staked out the bush.

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Bob, in the meantime, had gone off in another direction and was taken up with more Waxwings that were feasting on insects in the flowerbeds adjacent to the bulrushes and stream that connects the wetland at the north end of the park to the pond.

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Little did I know that the Cedar Waxwings were nipping off berries on the opposite side of the shrub from where I was located and then dropping down into the flowerbeds to rest.  These birds are one of the few species that can survive on a diet that consists almost entirely of fruit.  In fact, they can go months without eating any other type of food.

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Early summer sees them feasting on strawberries and serviceberries, late summer offers up a choice of raspberries and cherries, while cedar and juniper berries, grapes and crabapples, and mountain ash and mistletoe berries constitute part of their winter diet.  In fact, any fleshy fruit that is high in sugar meets their requirements.  These birds eat so much fruit, in fact, that they sometimes become intoxicated and even poisoned when overripe berries have begun to ferment.

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Cedar Waxwings get their name from the cedar berries that they consume so ravenously, and from the waxy red tips on the birds’ secondary wing feathers.  Sometimes these red tips are lacking as can be seen in my photo above.

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These arboreal birds are adept flyers that can easily pluck berries from a bush while hovering in mid-air, but they are just as likely to perch in a fruiting tree and eat berries whole, one by one.  As I stood quietly on the deck, one Cedar Waxwing scooped a berry into its mouth then dipped towards the railing where I was standing.  It came right at my face and, in the nick of time, turned suddenly in the air and darted up over my head.  I could feel tendrils of my hair whisked aside by the wind from its wings.

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Not only were the Cedar Waxwings enjoying the fruit of that ornamental shrub.  A Northern Cardinal happened along and was sharing in the plentiful yield of berries.  I don’t know what species of plant this is, but I could do with one in my own garden.

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Cedar Waxwings spend most of the year in flocks, and when a good supply of berries is available, hundreds of these birds will descend upon an area to reap the benefits of the crop only to disappear again once the fruits are consumed.

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There were too many of these birds in the vicinity of the pond for either Bob or me to count.  At least two score or more dazzled us with their persistent sorties over the water, and on subsequent trips to the Park, just as many were still seen frequenting the trees that edged the pond or coursing over the water like some clumsy flycatcher or swallow wannabe.

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The nature of the habitat at Milliken Park perfectly suits Cedar Waxwings because they prefer an open forest and trees along the edge of a wooded area wherever there is a nearby source of fruiting bushes or fruit trees.  Together with the pond where they love to bathe and drink, the flying insects that provide the necessary protein for baby Waxwings, and the good supply of late summer fruits, they couldn’t be more ideally set up.  I would like to think that some of the Cedar Waxwings at Milliken Park would decide to nest there, but only time will tell.

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