A day after the first hard frost of the season, a flock of nomadic cedar waxwings appeared in the backyard. I counted 42, but probably missed a few. They were filling their bellies with fruits from a bittersweet thicket.
More handsome than beautiful, waxwings always seem immaculately groomed. Only the distinctive crest disrupts the body’s streamlined, aerodynamic form. Because they wander widely in search of fruits and berries, I may not see them again until spring.
Waxwings are named for the waxy red spots that decorate the tips of their wings’ secondary feathers. The function of these curious structures is unknown, but a reasonable guess is that the bright waxy markings are social or sexual cues needed for breeding.
In silhouette, waxwings are easily confused with tufted titmice. Both are heavy bodied and crested. But at more than 55 grams, waxwings are twice the size of titmice (21 grams). And in good light, the waxwing’s brown color stands out. The bold black mask and a bright yellow band across the tip of the tail confirm a waxwing’s identity.
Waxwings are just one of several fall visitors I enjoy each year. Kinglets, more often heard than seen, also animate the treetops. Their high pitched voice is distinctive and often heard as they feast on aphids, spiders and small fleshy caterpillars in the forest canopy.
When it gets colder, they eat insect eggs and pupae and sometimes visit suet feeders.
Kinglets are two of the tiniest songbirds in North America. Golden-crowns weigh about 6 grams, ruby crowns about 7 grams. Compare that to ruby-throated hummingbirds, which weigh about 4 grams (1 ounce = 28.35 grams).
Both kinglets measure about four inches long, they have wing bars and their bellies are lighter than their olive bodies. Look to their heads for differences between these two insectivorous songbirds.
Black stripes border the fiery orange crown of male golden-crowns. The female’s crown is yellow. Both sexes also wear a broad white eyebrow stripe.
Ruby-crowns are duller. Females lack the red crown that characterizes males, though the male’s red crown is seldom visible. Only when males get excited or agitated, perhaps by the presence of a another male or a hawk, do they erect these feathers and display the colorful ruby crown.
The keys to recognizing ruby-crowns are the white eye-ring and the absence of stripes on the head.
Two familiar ground feeding birds also returned this week. White-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos scratched up a storm under the feeders searching for seeds on the ground.
The aptly name sparrow has a bright white throat and often sings during the fall and winter. Its high-pitched purely whistled, “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody” is easily recognized.
Dark-eyed juncos, or snowbirds as they’re often called, are among the easiest feeder birds to identify. The male’s slate gray head, neck, back and upper breast contrast sharply with its snow-white belly and lower breast.
And in flight, white outer tail feathers flash conspicuously. Females are patterned similarly, but their dark parts are more brownish-gray.
Autumn also adds an eerie nocturnal voice to the woods. The low resonant hoots of great horned owls can raise gooseflesh on those unfamiliar with the sound, especially around Halloween. Listen for a series of three to seven simple hoots.
Fall is the best time to hear great horned owls. Their nocturnal conversations mark the early stages of courtship, which intensifies as fall yields to winter. By late January or early February, they’ll be incubating a clutch of three round white eggs.
One of the most common and mysterious sounds of fall originates on the forest floor during broad daylight: “Chuck, chuck, chuck, chuck, chuck, …”
At first, it sounds turkey-like. But it may continue for minutes without a break. Sometimes it sounds nearby, and sometimes there are many singers. Yet there’s not a turkey in sight.
Look closer, on a rock, stump or a log, and you’ll find the singer — a chipmunk.
In between mad forays for acorns, hickory nuts and sunflower seeds, chipmunks pause to announce their presence, irritation, or alarm.
Fall’s clear skies and cooler temperatures provide ideal conditions for walking and wildlife watching. Enjoy these days before the snow flies.