For about two weeks a large flock of cedar waxwings has gathered each morning in the highest branches of the tallest tree in my backyard. One day I counted nearly 200. Back and forth they flew to a nearby black cherry overloaded with a bumper crop of fruit. Apparently a wet spring and a hot dry summer created ideal conditions for cherry production. And the fruit-loving waxwings are enjoying an extended banquet.
More handsome than beautiful, waxwings keep themselves immaculately groomed. Their silky feathers seem never out of place. Only a distinctive crest disrupts the body's streamlined, aerodynamic form.
Named for spots
Waxwings are named for the wax-like red spots that decorate the tips of their wings' secondary feathers. No one knows the function of these curious structures, 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. In good light, however, the waxwing's brown coloring 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 treats 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.
Golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets are two of the tiniest songbirds in North America. Both species are 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 hawk or cat, 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.
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. Great horned owls are the classic "hoot owl" so many people hear, but seldom see. Listen for a series of three to seven simple hoots. A five-syllable call may suggest the phrase, "Don't kill owls, save owls!"
Fall is the best time to hear great horned owls. Their 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 in an old crow's nest.
One of the most common and mysterious sounds of fall originates on the forest floor during broad daylight: "Chuck, chuck, chuck, chuck, chuck, ..."
To the uninitiated, it might sound turkey-like. But it may continue for minutes without a break. Sometimes it sounds close by, and sometimes there are many singers. Yet there's not a turkey in sight. Every year I get letters from frustrated readers who describe the sound perfectly, but can't find the source.
Look closer, on a rock, stump, or a log, and you'll find the singer. It's a chipmunk. Or often, there are several. In between mad forays for acorns and other nuts, chipmunks pause to announce their presence, irritation, or alarm.
Listen more closely, and you may hear three other phrases in the chipmunk's vocabulary -- a single high-pitched chip, a rapid series of chips, and a chip followed by a trill. At times these sounds warn other chipmunks: "Keep out! This food patch is mine." Often, however, they are warning calls uttered when a hawk, a weasel, or a curious observer gets too close.
Fall's clear skies and cooler temperatures provide the year's best conditions for walking and wildlife watching. It takes just a few minutes each day to enjoy this most delightful time of year.