Waxing poetic: A photo appreciation of Alaska’s Bohemian waxwings

Big flocks of the highly vocal, berry-gobbling birds can be entertaining to watch in winter.

Bohemian waxwings circled and swirled near downtown Palmer this week in flocks of hundreds. The mostly gray, fine-feathered birds have a smooth, velvety appearance and give a splash of color to winter scenery with their rust-colored faces and a touch of brilliant yellow and red on their wings and tails.

Native to northern latitudes around the world, Bohemian waxwings are agile fliers and feed in summer by catching insects in midair. But in the Southcentral Alaska wintertime, they are notorious for feeding on berries, such as those found in fist-sized clumps on mountain ash trees popular with urban landscapers. Roving the city is a community endeavor. They swarm from one tree to the next in big groups, their arrival announced by a collective, high-pitched call, more a rhapsody than a cacophony.

Each bird perches and plucks with an athlete’s precision, twisting their shaggy-crested heads in all directions to get their fill. It also appears somewhat joyful. Sometimes they pitch the berry into midair before sending it down the hatch.

It can be a messy affair. Leftover berries and stems litter the snow beneath the tree when they’ve moved on to the next one. When it’s time to go, they sometimes depart in near-unison, hundreds of wings, partially translucent in the low-angled sun, fluttering against the brisk air.

Then they rest and digest, side-by-side, in nearby treetops until they are peckish again.

Marc Lester

Marc Lester is a multimedia journalist for Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at mlester@adn.com.