Speaking of Nature: Nature is full of mysteries

  • This bird is clearly an adult, according to Bill Danielson. Note the length of the tail. For The Recorder/Bill Danielson

  • This bird appeared to have adult plumage, but its behavior and stubby little tail suggested it was a juvenile. For The Recorder/Bill Danielson

  • Bill Danielson

For The Recorder
Monday, August 14, 2017

August is here and things have finally dried out enough to allow me to get back to my “thinking chair.” For those of you not familiar with what I’m talking about, my thinking chair is an Adirondack chair set at the edge of a wet meadow behind my house. The chair looks north into a meadow of grasses that can grow up to 6 feet tall, and to the south there is an area of mature old field transitioning into an extensive forest of beach, hickory, pine and hemlock. It’s a great place to sit and observe nature.

Last year, I dedicated the entire summer to spending time in the thinking chair, but this year has been far wetter. I heard on the news that we’ve had 5 inches of rain above the norm, so the wet meadow has remained very wet. Every attempt to mow my trails through the meadow has resulted in a stuck mower, and I am beginning to think that I may not get the trails mowed this year.

Wet as the meadow is, however, I can still put on some junky shoes and walk down to the thinking chair. I managed to get down there at the beginning of the month, and settled in for a couple hours of relaxing nature observation. This is only possible if I don’t bring anything distracting with me. For the best results, I can only have my camera and my binoculars.

After a half hour, your mind starts to clear and you can feel yourself soaking into the landscape. Then, if you close your eyes, you can focus all of your attention on the sounds that are around you. Most are familiar and relatively close, but you really want to strain to hear faint sounds that might otherwise go unnoticed. It was during one of these little closed-eye listening sessions that I heard something that was high off the ground to the west.

The sound was a thin, extremely high-pitched whistle that instantly told me I was hearing a cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum). I slowly turned to look up to the left, and I discovered not one but two waxwings perched in the topmost branches of a dead tree. I cautiously raised my camera in their direction and took an experimental photo. Often birds will flee the moment they hear a camera’s shutter snap, but these birds weren’t phased in the slightest.

Game on!

Adirondack chairs naturally put a person in a reclined position, so there was no problem adjusting myself to get comfortable for some photography at an upward angle. The birds were about 35 feet away, which was well within the range of my lens, and it was a bright morning with a blue sky, which meant I could use a high shutter speed and a high aperture.

Everything was perfect as I started taking photos. The first bird appeared to be holding a small stick in its beak. I couldn’t quite figure out exactly what this object actually was, but it was clearly something that had been picked off a plant or a tree of some sort. The stick-laden bird then fluttered over to the perch of the second bird and appeared to be offering the stick as a gift. Aha, romance!

But, before I could see the entire interaction, a third bird arrived and upset the mood. This interloper attempted to land next to the pair (somewhat awkwardly I might add), and then ended up aborting the maneuver and settled down on a different branch close by. Then, I saw two things that suggested what was actually happening.

First, the new arrival started to flutter its wings in a manner that hinted this might be a juvenile bird that was looking for a free meal. Second, and equally important, I noticed that the new arrival had a very short tail. Still, I was confused. My yard has been loaded with cedar waxwings this summer, and the younger fledglings usually have a dull, shaggy appearance and pronounced vertical stripes on their breast feathers. This bird appeared to be in full adult plumage, but the behavior really suggested that it was a youngster, and it’s tail was only a third of the length it should have been. Also, the crest feathers seemed a little less pronounced than they should have been on an adult. Hmm …

The great thing about getting outside and paying close attention to the natural world is that you see things that you can’t always initially explain. Observations of this type usually result in simple questions like, “What the hell was that?” That almost always leads to more focused observation.

Then, before you know it, you have started down the path of the scientific method and have become a naturalist.

Give it a try. It’s a lot of fun. I know I’ll be back down by the meadow to see if I can come up with any more observations that might help me solve this waxwing mystery.

Bill Danielson has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, and the Massachusetts State Parks. He has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 20 years and he also teaches high school biology and physics. Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.