Monday, February 23, 2015

Birding with a beret: the Bohemian Waxwing at Sandy Hook

Ah, the Bohemian Waxwing.

The name sounds like something out of one of those caricatures about nutty bird watchers: "yes, we saw the crimson-bellied saw whet and the Bohemian waxwing."

Thing is, it's a real bird, and at least one, maybe two, have been sighted over the last week or so at Sandy Hook. Normally, this time of year it's somewhere in lower Canada or the northern states of the Midwest or Western U.S. These misguided avian visitors apparently decided a trip to the Jersey Shore was a good way to spend part of the winter.

Yes, they spent Washington's birthday weekend at the Sandy Hook that's been totally frozen this winter. According to the many hearty birders who've seen the Bohemian there, it's been very cooperative, happily eating berries from the hollies near the flagpole at the scout camp.

Bohemian Waxwing, courtesy Lisa Ann Fanning.
A combination of the weather and workload kept Ivan and me from taking a look, until the unusually warm (for this winter, anyway) Sunday of Washington's birthday. Though I'd wanted to hobnob with George and Martha at his headquarters in Morristown I wanted to see the waxwing even more. This beautiful creature, even more distinctive than its dapper cousin who's a New Jersey regular, has been on my "must see" list for quite some time.

"Bohemian" brings up thoughts of bongos and smoke-filled Greenwich Village coffeehouses, but this bird eschews the hep cat life for a diet of fruit in the winter, supplemented by insects during the breeding season. The first part of their name comes more from their said nomadic journeys, much like the European Bohemians of old. The "waxwing" part comes from the crimson markings on some of its wing feathers, which makes them appear dipped in red sealing wax.

Seeing either waxwing, common though the Cedar waxwings are, is always a treat. Unlike the usually stark differences evident between feather colors on most birds, the waxwings' bodies appear almost airbrushed, greys evolving into browns, and the yellow of the Cedars' breasts gently transitioning from the brown surrounding it. If your only exposure to one came from a painting, you'd be excused for thinking that something so beautiful couldn't exist in nature.

The Bohemian, while still very dignified, is larger and more colorful than the Cedar, making it a "want" not just for my own life list, but because I want the joy of seeing it for myself. Enough that yes, I'd be happy to head to ice-encrusted Sandy Hook to see it.

How cold was it? Sandy Hook Bay was frozen.
So, off we went, thankful for the 40 degree weather that usually passes for "normal" this time of year in New Jersey. Reports were also that a Vesper sparrow was hanging out near one of the parking lots at the base of the Hook, but the Bohemian was our top priority.

We weren't the only ones looking. After stopping at the Nike base on a hunch that a guy with a scope set up had the bird in his sights, we found a scarce spot in the small parking lot near the camp. Other birders returning to their cars said they'd heard the bird was with a flock of robins, but they hadn't seen it.

Thus started a couple of hours of wait and see, wander a bit, chat with other birders, and just one sighting of a waxwing of either kind. The hollies at the camp flagpole were still pregnant with berries, but alas, no birds were there to feast on them. Perhaps the waxwing had decamped to a spot deep within Sandy Hook's enormous holly forest, far from the prying eyes of appreciative birders. Wherever it was, we didn't find it. My usual mantra about chase birds once again came true: if it wants me to see it, it will be there. I guess it just wasn't my time.

The Vesper sparrow on the other hand, was a bit more cooperative, though barely. Flocking with a bunch of Song sparrows, it finally sat long enough for us to spot it among some weedy grass on the north end of B lot. While it already made my life list just before Hurricane Sandy, they're not always an easy find in New Jersey, so this little guy was a nice consolation.

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