ON THE WING

Cemetery walk yields bird sightings

Posted Feb. 18, 2011, at 9:02 p.m.

Arelatively mild break in a frigid weather pattern recently brought me to Evergreen Cemetery in Portland for a walk with a friend. She had explained it was a great place to walk during the winter as the roads bisecting it are kept clear of snow and ice.

Its 239 acres, which include a park area, four ponds and a network of wooded trails, make it an ideal place to go birding, as well — in fact, it is a hot spot for birds especially during spring migration.

Although not yet time for spring migration by any stretch of wishful thinking, I thought I’d see a few birds of note and so had brought along my binoculars. I wasn’t disappointed.

We were approaching a three-way intersection; on one side of the crossroad was a heavily laden crab-apple tree, its red fruit bright against the background of muted conifers and snow-covered grounds. On the other side of the crossroad stood a copse of tall maples, the tops of which held several dozen birds. It appeared they were using the maples as a protected staging area, flying up from the crab-apple banquet at the approach of people, and returning when the coast was clear.

As we drew closer, I immediately identified the high-pitched, lisping call notes as belonging to waxwings, but which kind — either cedar or bohemian — I wasn’t yet able to determine. You can expect to see both in winter, although the appearance of bohemians is a little more unpredictable. Their breeding range encompasses Alaska and far northwestern Canada, but in winter they are highly nomadic, traveling far outside of their ranges in search of superabundant winter fruit crops. Such fruit crop production is highly variable from year to year, so it is not always a given we will see them in Maine.

Cedar waxwings, on the other hand, breed throughout much of the United States and southern Canada. Although they, too, are nomadic and seek out winter fruit crops, they are much more likely to be seen during winter in Maine. They are certainly a common sight in summer — in fact, a pair of them have often nested in the cedar tree next to my deck.

So the question was which bird was I seeing — of course, I hoped it would be the bohemians. As soon as I got the glasses on them, however, it was clear they were cedar waxwings.

These two songbirds are probably the easiest to differentiate from each other despite being very similar in appearance, especially in what would otherwise be difficult conditions. They were high up in the maples when I saw them, so all I could see at first were the undersides of their bodies. The white undertail coverts (feathers) immediately told me they were cedar waxwings, as bohemian waxwings have deep chestnut undertail coverts.

As the waxwings perched lower in the maples and began returning to the crab apple to feast on the fruits, I got great looks at them and wished I’d had a camera with a good zoom lens. Their deep buff upper-body feathers contrasted with their black eye “masks” and creamy underbody feathers, which boasted a pale golden wash; and the waxlike red pin feathers at the tips of their secondary flight feathers and yellow terminal tail bands stood out sharply. The reflected light from the underlying snow cover lit them to perfection.

We continued on, and as we neared the finish of our walk I was treated to one more surprise: a red-tailed hawk, perched high on a dead snag. Nearby, a gathering of crows had vocalized, but did not appear to be mobbing the raptor as would be expected. The hawk remained in the tree for several minutes before lifting off and sailing over our heads to a distant tree line.

Not bad for a winter’s day visit to the cemetery.

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