Birders look at December as a child looks at Christmas. There are lots of goodies under the tree, but we don’t know what they are yet. It’s one of the exciting things about birding in Maine. Every winter is different. Some species can be seen readily one year and be totally absent the next. It depends on food and weather. When conditions are bad up north, the birds come down south. These irruptive species include the seed-eaters we discussed last week. This week we cherish another group of wandering nomads: fruit-eaters.
Fruit-eaters are called “frugivores.” They’re lots of fun — colorful, cheerful and tame. One of the most common is the Bohemian waxwing. You never know when it is coming, but it comes every winter, often in large numbers. A couple of years ago, I witnessed a flock of more than 2,000. They breed in northern climates completely around the world, but on this continent their nesting is confined to western North America.
When winter approaches and they become nomadic, they are as apt to come east as go south. It’s common to see them in mixed flocks with cedar waxwings, which also wander through Maine in the cold months. You can tell the difference by the Bohemian’s slightly larger size and grayer coloration.
Those familiar with the cedar waxwing’s reedy whistle will recognize the same whistle from the Bohemian, except lower in pitch. The easiest field mark is the color of the undertail. If it’s ruddy orange, it’s a Bohemian; if it’s whitish yellow, it’s a cedar waxwing. Since most of the time they will be sitting above your head in a fruit tree, it’s obvious.
Another fruit-eater is the pine grosbeak. They were nearly missing last winter but widespread the previous year. A flock of these reddish birds sitting in a crab apple tree is a happy sight … and sound. They are very chirpy and tame.
Both waxwings and grosbeaks are easy to notice when present. They have a fondness for ornamental trees in populated places. I’ve learned not to park my car under the fruit trees outside the Bangor Public Library in winter. The ornamental gardens on the University of Maine campus are an excellent place to find these birds. If you see a flock of small birds in the fruit shrubs next to highway exit ramps, suspect waxwings.
One of the particular joys about these birds is that most are subarctic breeders with little exposure to people. Humans are not regarded as a threat, and it is sometimes possible to approach within a respectable distance.
Mother Nature is an extraordinarily thoughtful provider. As winter begins, the fruits of many trees are too firm to be edible. But as the freeze-thaw cycles of weather progress, the fruit softens up. Thus, just as the birds have nearly exhausted the local supply of edible berries, the larger fruits become available, sustaining the birds all winter.
American robins eat fruit in winter. I can recall several good years when the January sky darkened with thousands of robins around Quoddy Head State Park in Lubec. There are a lot of mountain ash and berry bushes on the road into the park. If you see a robin in winter, take a closer look. Some are from the race that breeds in Newfoundland. It is darker overall, with a breast of deeper red. It is slightly larger than the typical Maine robin, and the head and back are a uniform gray color.
And while you’re looking at robins more closely, be on guard for two western rarities that sometimes wander into Maine. The Townsend’s solitaire is a grayish bird that is slightly smaller than a robin. At home, it feeds almost exclusively on juniper berries in winter. One vagrant entertained local birders in Etna for several weeks last winter, feeding in a small orchard.
The varied thrush is easy to find in Portland. By that, I mean Portland, Ore. This left coast bird looks and acts very much like a robin, though with a striking black mask across a face of deeper orange. When one wanders east, it is unaccustomed to our food sources and it is likely to hang around a well-stocked backyard feeder for long periods. Neither the Townsend’s solitaire nor the varied thrush is an annual visitor, but they do show up. Stay on your toes.
Bob Duchesne serves in the Maine Legislature, is president of the Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon, created the Maine Birding Trail and is the author of the trail guidebook of the same name. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.