The wooden bridge widens just before it crosses Mattaponi Creek, allowing a couple of cars to pull off the one-lane roadway. Motorists like me, along with bicyclists and hikers, can climb the observation platform here and watch the creek meander before entering the mainstem of the Patuxent River.
A persistent series of “sree” notes turns me around. As I do, a dozen cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) come into view.
They are 100 feet away, but this is midwinter and the leaves have fallen. Standing on the elevated boardwalk, I have a good view through the bare branches of these striking birds. They are devouring berries from bittersweet vines, plucking the yellow fruit off with their strong bills and swallowing each berry whole.
The Patuxent serves as the boundary for several Maryland counties as it grows from its headwaters in the rolling hills west of Columbia to its vast mouth at Solomons Island, where it empties into the Bay. It is an extraordinarily scenic river in many stretches, and perhaps none more so than its midsection where its slides through the Merkle and Jug Bay refuges, just south of Upper Marlboro.
Regardless of the political borders, this section clearly belongs to the wildlife. On Sundays, the Critical Area Driving Tour allows visitors to take their vehicles along the one-way road that is variously covered with pavement, gravel, dirt and boardwalk. It may be the middle of winter, but I am out of my car, binoculars in hand.
Once you’ve seen one, you can’t forget it. The bird has a rich brown crest, breast, neck and back interrupted by a striking black mask edged in white. The feathers are absolutely uniform in color, giving the birds a silky, smooth look that is rare in the avian world. That brown crest often sticks out in the back, giving the bird an oddly flat top.
The pale belly has a light yellowish tinge. The rich brown back gradually turns gray and then black on the long, folded wing tips and tail. The hues are dark, but rich.
As if that palette were not enough, mature birds possess two striking splashes of color. A bright yellow band runs along the end of the tail, the product of a diet rich in carotenoids, those fat-soluble pigments that give many plants their yellow, red or orange color. In addition, small red, wax-like droplets form on the ends of secondary flight feathers of adults. These red tips serve as a striking counterpoint to that yellow tail stripe.
The wax droplets give the bird the second half of its name. The first part comes from a favorite food source. Cedar waxwings love the Eastern Red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), eating the blue-gray berries wherever those trees are found and nesting in their branches.
The cedar waxwing has just one North American cousin, the Bohemian waxwing (B. garrulus), a slightly larger bird that adds rufous and white patches to the basic color scheme. Unlike the cedar waxwing—which is found across the United States—the Bohemian is limited to a more northern range.
Because waxwings feed primarily on fruit and berries, they tend to be late breeders as the birds will not mate until summer berries are plentiful. The pairs are monogamous and breed after the first year.
The eggs hatch after two weeks, and the birds fledge two weeks later. In spite of their relatively late start, cedar waxwings will often get in a second brood in the early fall.
Both parents feed the young on the nest. An adult will gobble up a dozen or more berries and store them in its crop, the pouch in bird’s gullet that is used to hold food prior to digestion. Upon returning to the nest, the parent regurgitates the whole berries, one by one, into the waiting mouths of the young.
The bird’s diet is not limited to fruits and berries. In the early summer, they eat insects, buds and flowers.
Except for nesting periods, these pretty birds are most often seen in flocks as they descend on a rich food source such as a mulberry and eat all the tree has to offer.
Flocking is a common and highly effective means for birds to locate and exploit abundant but isolated food sources. Many eyes are better than a single pair. Once found, the source typically contains far more food than a single bird needs. There is safety in numbers, too, because they are less likely to face predation by hawks.
Winter can seem like a barren time. On these cold, short days, people flock to malls to be dazzled by flashing lights, gaudy colors and piped-in music. An uninterrupted blitz of holiday glitz stretches from Thanksgiving to Christmas and Valentine’s Day.
Here at Merkle, the waxwings offer a natural alternative. Although the trees are stripped of leaves, they aren’t lifeless. Standing on the bridge looking at and listening to these colorful, talkative cedar waxwings, I find that I have all the color and music I need on a winter’s afternoon.