Bohemian Double Dip

| March 16, 2015 | 0 Comments

It was sometime around the end of February when I started to take stock in all the sightings of Bohemian Waxwings that were being reported across the Northeast. On its own, the presence of this species in the region is enough to make any birder worth his or her salt take notice. However, this species is a life bird I have yet to see, and it was hard not to become so aware in the fact that many were being observed within a day’s drive of my home in Upstate New York. In fact, many of these birds were being spotted across parts of New Hampshire (a state I visit with regularity these days) often at locations within an hour’s drive or so from my girlfriend Lauryn’s house in Hillsborough County.

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Bohemian Waxwing sightings submitted to eBird for the months of January to March 2015

One of these locations is New London, NH which is situated about an hour and twenty minutes north of my home-away-from-home. New London is a small town of approximately 4,100 in Merrimack County, and is a perfect destination for a traveling waxwing in the winter (at least I think so) due to the presence of numerous ornamental trees bearing fruit. These ornamental trees are planted adjacent to the traffic circle, shopping plazas, and New London Hospital affording visiting birders numerous places to park and observe the trees (and birds), often at close range. Around the 1st of March there was a convincing series of  reports coming out of New London about a large flock of Bohemian Waxwings, sometimes numbering 250 birds or more, around the center of town and the aforementioned trees. The presence of this flock even made it to the local news out of Manchester (WMUR) via a report from NH Audubon. After several reports of this flock being routinely observed in town with ease, I decided that the next time I was in New Hampshire I was going to make the additional 54 mile trek north to New London in search of the birds.

A week later, when I finally made the trip up to NH to visit my girlfriend after several weeks of staying in NY, free time presented itself for Monday morning (March 9) and reports of Bohemian Waxwings were still occurring in the area, including New London from just a few days before. I decided that this would be my target flock! However, as the weekend started to take shape, and plans began to be drawn, I saw a report come out of Hollis, NH of a smaller flock of Bohemian Waxwings totaling 40 birds that was observed feeding in some ornamental trees at the intersection of Broad and Ash streets. When I asked Lauryn how far Hollis was from her house, I was pleasantly surprised to find out it was only a 30 minute drive, and as luck would have it, our Sunday plans took us south into Massachusetts and Hollis was (more or less) along the way!

After a great and wonderful experience at Wellesly College for the afternoon, Lauryn and I headed back to NH and made our stop in Hollis as planned where the Bohemians were being spotted. We arrived late in the afternoon, some 5 hours after the waxwings were already reported on the day, and agreed to devote 30 minutes to search for the birds before we had to move on to other plans and engagements. Within moments of arriving into Hollis we quickly found our way to the trees that reportedly held the waxwings as posted by other birders to the NHBirds Google Group. At first arrival the trees were noticeably bare…full of fruit, but bare with birds. No waxwings, no robins, no starlings….nothing. Having done this a few times in my life, I was positive that these were the reported trees that held the Bohemian Waxwings. This was based on the clarity of the directions given by other birders, and by the overall feeling in my gut.  However, even with the strongest intuition there is always room for doubt if a single tree or a small series of trees are the ones that were being described by others. If we’re new to an area how can we ever be sure we found the exact piece of vegetation housing our target bird(s)? Nevertheless, it was a nice reassurance to see other vehicles of birders randomly pull into the parking lot to slowly creep towards the trees to park and stare at a bunch of fruit with binoculars in hand. I couldn’t help but think that all the birders coming to these trees, myself included, were almost hoping to manifest the waxwings out of thin air from willpower alone. “If I stare long enough, they will show up.” I think at first this behavior was unfamiliar to Lauryn, even though she’s a (great) birder at heart. However, being a great birder and being exposed to the nuances (sometimes strange) behavior of birders are two different things. But, after the second and third car pulled up to look for the waxwings she responded with “so, birding really is a big deal!”. I nodded my head in agreement, which was as much for my own understanding as for hers.

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No Bohemians here! (Hollis, NH)

With our timing running low we decided to leave the parking lot and drive around the nearby countryside looking for any signs of other fruiting trees or ANY birds, waxwing or otherwise. At one point we had a flock of birds fly strongly overhead that held the right amount of birds (~40) as the reported waxwing flock, but in spite of my best driving efforts we never were really able to track them down. Before we knew it our time was up and we had to continue to make our way north back home. In the end it was a good experience to share with Lauryn, a first of its kind for us in many senses, but disappointing for both of us as we had hoped to cap the day with a successful birding adventure and a life bird for both of us.

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Driving to New London, NH for Bohemians. Live Free or Die…

As Sunday drew to a close and I reflected on the experience in Hollis, I decided that I would still try for Bohemians on Monday before heading back home to NY. With the previous knowledge of the massive flock in New London, even if the reports were from a few days before, I decided that was my best chance. So did other birders that contacted me via email after I posed the question online to which of the waxwing flocks was most reliable. The flock was so large in fact that I felt a few birds were likely to be lingering around even if the food supply in town was dwindling. I mean, a life bird can simply be A bird…it doesn’t have to be 250. A single Bohemian would do. After seeing Lauryn off to work on Monday morning, I loaded my car and was on my way to New London by 9 am. The drive was beautiful through the nearby back roads and eventually onto I-89 and I felt invigorated to be out birding again as it’s been quite a while since I’ve made a proper chase. As I made the hour and twenty minute drive north to New London I thought about the time when I was in college and made a similar trip with some friends in search of a very large flock of Bohemian Waxwings on a back road near Utica, NY. That trip was ultimately unsuccessful and rather disappointing because the flock which numbered close to 500 birds was seen just the day before we made a try. I knew that was a possibility with this trip as well, but decided to make the effort nonetheless.

But, before I knew it, I had made the drive to New London and quickly found myself making my way towards the heart of the waxwing sightings- this is a great facet of modern birding with the use of GPS that wasn’t prevalent so many years ago. As I drove into town I was struck by the opportunity- there were fruiting trees everywhere, which was great, except many did not hold a lot of fruit anymore. As I made my way past the shopping plaza towards the traffic circle, the heart of the sightings, I quickly began to realize that the trees were empty and there was little to no bird activity except for a few American Crows. My heart quickly began to sink. Had I made this trip for nothing?

“When I dip you dip we dip.”

Perhaps Freaky Nasty said it best in their 1996 hip-hop hit “Da Dip”, but I have a feeling that song wasn’t about birding and the feeling of seeking out and chasing a specific bird only to miss (dip). It might have been better if it was though, then again, it did elevate them to one-hit wonder status. However, it is that song exactly that kept ringing through my head as I spent the weekend in New Hampshire with some time devoted to chasing and finding some of the Bohemian Waxwings that have been present in the state for the past few weeks with no sightings to show for it.

I looked at the time and realized it was already 1030 am. With a lot to do on the day, and a long drive back to Wilton, I gave myself until 12 noon to find any signs of these birds. Within 10 minutes I was able to quickly drive around and scan all the places that the birds had been reported: the shopping plaza, the trees just east of the traffic circle, and the hospital. Nothing. I then retraced my route, at least three more times, and the results were the same.

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No waxwings to be found

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In spite of this tree’s large fruit load there were no waxwings in sight, at least not today

At this point I decided to expand my search radius and looked at Google Maps on my phone to discover any roads or developments in the area that looked likely to hold fruiting trees that were planted as ornamentals. This became increasing difficult however as I was trying to watch the road, monitor my GPS, and keep an eye out for any birds that even closely resembled a waxwing. More depressing was the overall lack of bird activity on the day- there wasn’t a single species observed other than American Crow through most of the morning. There was one bird that later on made a brief appearance that to this day still sits uneasy in my mind- a lone, grayish bird flying 50 feet overhead, strongly, like a starling or a finch (or a waxwing?), with the wind at its back, making its way out of sight before I could even consider what it might have been. The briefest of looks as I was driving leaves me with an understanding that I’ll never know what this bird was (which is okay), but with certainty I can say that it was NOT a Bohemian Waxwing that I could identify under the conditions. So close…maybe.

As I drove around a little more I started to become understanding that this might be exactly what I feared, another dip on a wonderful species that so many others have eagerly shared their sightings of online via the New Hampshire Birds Google Group. It’s a hard pill to swallow when you’re so close but so far. But as the reality began to set in that I would go home without another tick on my life list, I began to smile. I smiled because I knew this meant there would be more adventures ahead for this species, and isn’t that part of what birding is really about? It’s not just getting a new bird, it’s about seeing places you never would otherwise go. It’s about sharing time and space with others in the outdoors, even if it’s a trip spent from within a car.

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“Better luck next time…”

I look forward to future sightings of Bohemian Waxwings across the Northeast and New England. There’s still a chance that a flock will linger in parts of New Hampshire closer to where I typically venture for me to make another chase or two in 2015. In fact, as of today sightings are still being reported, and with a likely trip planned to New Hampshire for the following weekend, I may just be in luck. Whatever happens,  whatever the outcome for my efforts, I know that I’ll one day cross paths with this elegant species, whether on my turf, or theirs in the far north. When that time comes it will be just as it needed to be.

Bohemian Waxwings, a larger cousin to the common and familiar Cedar Waxwing, is a bird of the far north. Bohemian Waxwings have a primary breeding range of Alaska and the northern portions of several Canadian provinces including the Yukon Territory, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. During the winter months they range to the south and east, often dipping below the Canadian border into the United States, primarily through the western half of the continent. In the eastern half of North America most wintering Bohemian Waxwings are found along the southern tier of Ontario and Quebec. However, in some years they drop further south in search of food living up to their bohemian (nomadic) nature and can be spotted sporadically across many parts of New England and the Mid-Atlantic. During these irruptions, Bohemian Waxwings are often sought after by birders who normally would not be given an opportunity to see them otherwise. More information about Bohemian Waxwings can be found here.

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Chad
Chad Witko has been an avid birder and all-around naturalist since the age of 3. Graduating from SUNY-ESF in Syracuse, NY with his B.S. in Environmental and Forest Biology (2003), Chad has worked on avian conservation projects across the United States. Ranging from New England (Atlantic Puffin research in Maine and grassland bird work in Massachusetts) to the Mid-Atlantic (Semipalmated Sandpiper research on the Delaware Bay) to California (riparian and coastal scrub passerines), Chad has worked extensively throughout North America and across avian taxa. Chad is currently pursuing his M.S. degree as a graduate student at Antioch University New England in Keene, NH. Current research interests include the distribution of bird species across New Hampshire and North America. Residing in Wilton, NH with his wife, Lauryn, Chad continues to bring a holistic approach to birding while pursuing his interests of wildlife photography, nature tour guiding (eventually), and Chat Happens. For more information on Chad, please view his Bio page!

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