The bohemians have returned to Anchorage, which brings me great delight. Few sounds are more soothing to my ears—and spirit—than the soft, reedy trills of bohemian waxwings. And few creatures create such a spectacle in Alaska’s urban center as these beautiful songbirds, which at their annual peak form flocks that number in the thousands, individual members swirling and swooping through the air in synchronized flight.
Like ravens, bohemian waxwings flock to Anchorage each fall and winter, drawn here by an abundance of food. But unlike their corvid cousins, who seem to relish the pickings they can find in dumpsters and fast-food parking lots, waxwings come here not for human leftovers but the fruits of our species’ desire for trees that ornament our urban yards and city parks and trails.
For most of the year, waxwings fly clear of our city. I can’t recall ever seeing a bohemian in and around Anchorage during our warmer months, April through September (and I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who has). It’s only when they begin wandering the landscape in search of food during the leaner months of October, November, and December that these widely roaming “gypsy birds” (thus the bohemian tag) turn their attention to Anchorage.
Waxwings typically begin to appear in late October or November, often arriving in pairs or small groups of a dozen or less. As the days and weeks pass, they’ll join in ever larger bunches that in some years reach into the thousands.
Local birder and longtime CBC compiler (now retired from that position) Dave DeLap once told me he’d seen flocks of 3,000 or more waxwings and knew others who’d watched 5,000 or more in flight, something hard to imagine. I’ve been fortunate to see groups of 1,000 to 1,500 birds flying above our city and even that was breathtaking, birds visible everywhere across the sky. Also impressive is the record number of waxwings tallied on a single day, during Anchorage’s 2008 Christmas Bird Count: 22,245 bohemians, a remarkable number.
This year I first noticed a flock of waxwings on Oct. 27, while Denali and I were traversing Kincaid Park’s Bluff Trail. Close to a hundred of them perched on the bare branches of a large cottonwood, quietly murmuring among themselves. Now and then a dozen or two bohemians would fly to some nearby mountain ashes to eat the trees’ berries, then they’d return to the cottonwood while another group went dining.
A couple of weeks later I heard, then saw, a flock of 200 to 300 waxwings flying through my West Anchorage neighborhood, a kind of gleaming energy on a darkly cloudy and drizzly day. Their presence brought a smile to my face, as it always does.
It’s not only their song and synchronized flights that cheer me. Bohemian waxwings are among the handsomest of birds to inhabit our continent’s northern regions. Slightly smaller than robins, their bodies are mostly covered by a gray suit of silky feathers, tinted russet around the crested head. Their feathered finery is further decorated by a tail brightly edged in yellow, a black eye mask, and white-striped wings that bear the small red “wax” bars that give the birds their name.
Once settled into Anchorage, the waxwings stay here for weeks to feast on the afore-mentioned mountain ash berries, along with elderberries, chokecherries, bird cherries and crab apples. Roaming the city in flocks big and small, they move from neighborhood to neighborhood and street to street, descending on yards and greenbelts to strip trees of their fruit.
In those flights around the city and their frenzied feedings in local trees, the bohemians enliven the Anchorage landscape during our darkest and harshest season of the year, a true gift to those who await and welcome their presence each winter.
And here’s one more thing I love about waxwings: their lives remain largely a mystery. From what I’ve been able to learn, even local birding experts don’t know exactly where the bohemians come from, what specifically triggers their migration toward the city, where they go after leaving, how long they remain in large flocks before dispersing, or why their numbers in town may rise and fall dramatically from one year to the next.
All of this too is a gift, a reminder there’s so much we humans still don’t know, will likely never know, about not only waxwings, but all our wild neighbors, the world we inhabit. As I’ve commented before: this, for me, is both a humbling and marvelous thing.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at firstname.lastname@example.org.