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Flocks of Cedar Waxwings and BirdLife on the Move

Large numbers of Cedar Waxwings are showing up now.

Each Spring in the Lowcountry, there are signs that winter is nearing completion, and often the presence of flocks of birds is the truest indicator. Recent observations of flocks of cedar waxwings, red-winged blackbirds and robins sound the alarm that the seasonal cycle is changing. Local flowers currently in bloom tell a tale of mild temperatures in Colleton County, but the birds can move across the South and stay in the optimum climate. Consider taking a moment to watch the cedar waxwings gorging on red berries because they can be here today and gone tomorrow.
Cedar waxwings arrive in early March and their gregarious nature makes them easy to spot. They congregate in groups or flocks, from 15 to 150 birds or more, and are often seen marauding holly trees and cedar trees. Birders might recognize their high-pitched heeee-heeee call first since that sound is absent from the Lowcountry most of the year. Cedar waxwings are grey with a yellowish belly, a black eye mask, a distinguished tuft on the head and a notch of yellow at the tip of the tailfeathers. They are quite striking, but they tend to stay towards the tops of trees, so binoculars or camera equipment improves viewing opportunities.
Flowers in bloom already include forsythia, quince and azaleas and they all are subject to overnight cold snaps that might bring a sudden freeze. In general, temperatures have not been severe enough to kill buds, while the rainfall and river flooding remains the headline news. My rain gauge in Western Colleton County collected eight inches of rain during February. Birds and other wildlife don’t have to look hard to find something to drink, but the end of winter means that food supplies are dwindling. When you see flocks of red-winged blackbirds and robins moving along the ground, they are being opportunistic feeders looking to eat enough food to stay ready for the next warm spell when they move on.
Anyone venturing down to the coastline this time of year will find relatively empty beaches with most visitors waiting on summer weather. Birding along the coast is on the uptick right now regarding waterfowl and shorebirds. Ducks that overwinter in the Lowcountry can be seen bobbing in the saltwater not far off the coast, and shorebirds are moving in flocks to their favorite barrier islands. On Sunday, March 1, I observed 1000 or more small white shorebirds flying down the coast at great speeds in one flock after another. Edisto Beach lies between the ACE Basin and Deveaux Bank and is a hotspot for shorebird synergy in the Spring.
Our most colorful birds return to the Lowcountry in Spring and may linger until the onset of winter. Now is a good time to tune up bird feeders and replace old or moldy birdseed. The consistent wet weather can make bird feeders unhealthy if old wet seed is clumped up in the corners. Clean out the feeder with a stick that can reach into tight spots and then set it out in the sun for a few days to let all surfaces dry out. You may miss having the feeders out for a few days, but the best birding of the year begins very soon and clean feeders and the fresh seed will increase your chances for success.
Neotropical migratory birds are the easiest to spot thanks to their bright colors. Painted buntings, blue grosbeaks, Baltimore orioles, and summer tanagers are but a few of them. Ruby-throated hummingbirds will also be in the mix, so washing out residue from hummer feeders prior to their arrival is important. Yellow warblers, the brown-headed nuthatch and other birds are not as likely to come to your feeder since they prefer other food sources, but if you have plenty of other birds being active at your stations, then sometimes these more secretive birds fly down to take a look. Some birds like the yellow-billed cuckoo will arrive, but since they almost always stay out of sight, identifying their presence via their calling is the way to go.
For those that enjoy viewing our feathered friends, this is a lifelong hobby that never gets old. Being prepared for Spring migration also means preparing for the unexpected because while some of the birds expected to arrive are always on the ‘menu,’ something as unpredictable as nature can change things up and bring something different into view. A few examples of birds I have seen infrequently over the years, but would gladly welcome back include the male rose-breasted grosbeak, male scarlet tanager, male orchard oriole, and the male Indigo bunting. Keep your eyes peeled from migratory birds from March through May.
Jeff Dennis is a Lowcountry native. Read his blog at LowcountryOutdoors.com

Jeff Dennis
Jeff Dennis, Contributor (394 Posts)

Jeff Dennis is a Lowcountry native. Read his blog at www.LowcountryOutdoors.com