I don’t know as much about birds as I should, but I enjoy seeing and hearing the songbirds that roll through the region every spring en route to points farther north. With help from others who know more than me, I’ve learned to recognize a few of the less obvious species by the calls that emanate from the woods of the family getaway in northern Minnesota.
My favorite is the veery thrush, a small songbird with a call described by the “Audubon Guide to North American Birds” as “a rich downward spiral with an ethereal quality.”
The call of the veery thrush definitely qualifies as ethereal, but I’ve also described it as a kind of circular spinning sound, and I’m not the only one. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “All About Birds” website describes the call as resonating “as if whirling around inside a metal pipe.”
Hearing a veery thrush tells me it’s summer in the same way chorus frogs tell me it’s spring.
My latest memorable songbird encounter started last Saturday morning, when a friend from Minneapolis texted about seeing a huge flock of waxwings in a nearby stand of hackberry trees.
“Very striking. Not a sound,” he said of the encounter. “There must be hundreds of them.
“I’ve never seen anything like this.”
The day was cool and breezy in northern Minnesota, perfect for working in the yard, and I spent the next few hours mowing and sweeping up grass clippings in areas where the lawn had grown particularly long.
It wasn’t all work, though; I also found time to pick a batch of wild asparagus, of which there is a bumper crop this year.
The lawn chores complete, I took advantage of the afternoon sun to enjoy a cold beverage on the porch, which is next to a large flowering crab tree that was in full blossom.
The tree was buzzing with honeybees.
I was admiring the flowering crab and enjoying the rewards of my lawn work when I noticed the branches of the tree were rustling.
This wasn’t honeybees, and it was more than just the wind, which was largely masked by the dense grove of trees to the north.
Eventually, the source of the rustling came into view — waxwings. How many is difficult to say, but there were at least a dozen. Like the honeybees, they were enjoying the blossoms of the flowering crab and dining on the delicate white petals.
Not being a bird expert, I wasn’t sure if they were bohemian waxwings or cedar waxwings but I was able to get a close enough look to see the fine markings, which included a yellow band on the tip of the tail and a tiny patch of red on each wing.
These, a Google search told me, were cedar waxwings, so-named for the patch of red that resembles a dab of wax.
Like the tree on which they fed, the waxwings were resplendent. I’d seen them in the same tree on previous springs, but it had been a few years. The flowering crab most likely attracts them every spring; I just hadn’t been there to see for myself.
Not so this time. I watched the waxwings — some unseen except for the rustling branches in thicker parts of the tree — for at least half an hour. The encounter was a pleasant diversion from the yard work that had consumed the first part of the day.
The waxwings were still gorging themselves on blossoms when I left the porch to enjoy the rest of my day.
The next day, the waxwings were gone, most likely to points even farther north where they breed, even though the flowering crab remained in full blossom.
The dining session, apparently, was just a stopover I was fortunate to witness, a grand, but fleeting moment in nature’s springtime spectacle.