Text, photos and videos by Nancy Partlow
I’ve known for quite a while that woody debris in a river creates great habitat for salmon. But until recently I didn’t realize it does the same thing for birds. My two latest blogs have been about interesting bird activity taking place on or near the log jam in the Deschutes River at Tumwater Falls Park. Less than one block from the busiest interstate highway on the west coast, this recently-created tangle of scoured tree trunks and branches seems a very unlikely wildlife haven.
That is why I was surprised once again to notice something intriguing happening there: a whole flock of birds flitting on and off the wood pile. What was going on? From far away, these birds looked rosy in color, so I thought at first they might be finches. But in checking them out through binoculars, I discovered they were cedar waxwings, and they were "hawking" - catching food on the wing.
You could have knocked me over with a feather. I’ve always thought of cedar waxwings as fruit-eating birds. Yet apparently, they really like insects too, because that’s what they were going after on the log pile. Some sort of winged insect "hatch" was in progress, and as the tiny critters zipped sky-bound from the jumble of dead wood, the waxwings were launched into a frenzy of competition to see who could grab them first from mid-air.
Some of the birds seemed to be gathered around a small shaded area of the wood pile, like campers congregating around a campfire, staring intently into the flames. But what the birds were watching for were diminutive sparks of life flying upward into the daylight – sparks that were almost instantly snuffed out by the waxwings’ prowess. Other waxwings hung out on the periphery of the log jam, their sharp eyes open for any insects that made it past ground zero.
It was impossible to discern from so far away exactly what the insects were, but my sister Janet, who one day accompanied me to the platform overlooking the river, surmised that they must be termite "alates", the reproductive form of the insect, which could be either female queens or male drones. We referred to these creatures as "salmon flies" when we were kids.
It makes sense that termites would make a home in all that dead wood. It also makes sense that birds would take advantage of such a great source of protein, because it wasn’t just cedar waxwings going after the bugs. Several Violet-green swallows swooped back and forth low over the falls, snatching any insects the waxwings missed.
A Spotted sandpiper appeared on the scene to glean bugs that had fallen into the river. It was exciting to see it. Until a couple of years ago, I only knew sandpipers as the little birds that scurry around in big flocks at ocean beaches, poking their bills into the sand. I had no idea that there was such a thing as solitary, fresh-water sandpipers until I spied one foraging along the shores of the Deschutes estuary and asked Janet about it.
This one was in full breeding plumage – dark on top with a white spotted belly and an orange beak. It blended in beautifully with its surroundings.
The waxwings too, were beautiful. One of the most nattily plumed of songbirds, waxwings seem to wear evening dress while the rest of the avian world wears workaday clothes.
Only a few of the birds that we saw had the red wing tips (not really wax, but extensions of adult secondary wing feathers) that the birds are known for, leading us to guess that most of them might be young, first-year birds.
We had learned that the yellow coloration of the waxwings’ tail feathers are the result of diet, and that in recent years some birds have been observed with orange tail feathers due to their eating of non-native berries like pyracantha.
The frenetic insect hunt on the log jam continued for several weeks, until it eventually slowed down to a just a few birds participating. Maybe the waxwings lost interest as their favorite food, berries, began to ripen in the warm summer sun.
But as I have finally learned, there will always be something intriguing happening there, even if it’s not readily apparent. I now eagerly await the next natural wonders to be revealed by the Deschutes River at Tumwater Falls Park.
Here are a couple more videos:
Here are a couple more videos:
Cedar waxwings as viewed from the other side of the log jam:
Spotted Sandpiper feeding off a log in the Deschutes River:
This link goes to a blog about a group of bird banders and their experiences with cedar waxwings. It includes pictures of birds with orange tail feathers:
Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds web site describes the cedar waxwing thus:
A treat to find in your binocular viewfield, the Cedar Waxwing is a silky, shiny collection of brown, gray, and lemon-yellow, accented with a subdued crest, rakish black mask, and brilliant-red wax droplets on the wing feathers. In fall these birds gather by the hundreds to eat berries, filling the air with their high, thin, whistles. In summer you’re as likely to find them flitting about over rivers in pursuit of flying insects, where they show off dazzling aeronautics for a forest bird.
Wikipedia’s entry on Cedar Waxwings explains how the species got its name:
These birds' most prominent feature is this small cluster of red wax-like droplets on tips of secondary flight feathers on the wings… The tail is typically yellow or orange depending on diet. Birds that have fed on berries of introduced Eurasian honeysuckles while growing tail feathers will have darker orange-tipped tail-feathers.
The Cedar Waxwing eats berries and sugary fruit year-round, including "dogwood, serviceberry, cedar, juniper, hawthorn, and winterberry", with insects becoming an important part of the diet in the breeding season. Its fondness for the small cones of the Eastern Red-Cedar (a kind of juniper) gave this bird its common name.