With their distinctive bandit-style facial markings, and colorful plumage, spotting a Bohemian waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus) is certainly a memorable event, particularly as it’s likely you won’t just see one as they descend in flocks to feast on berry bushes. But where should you head to maximize your chances of a sighting? Keep reading, as we’ll be giving you some hints below.
Bohemian waxwings are named for their unpredictable, nomadic patterns of winter wandering, flocking to wherever they find a good supply of sugary berries. Once they’ve stripped all the fruit from a patch of trees or bushes, they move on.
Bohemian waxwings are winter visitors to the extreme north and western regions of the United States. From one year to the next, it’s never a certainty that they will show up, as their migration patterns are determined by the availability of winter berries further north in their breeding ranges.
As and when these become depleted, they simply move on, working their way across the local area.
When it comes to nesting, Bohemian waxwings do become temporarily more settled, although their choice of nest site and timing of breeding is heavily tied to the availability and ripeness of wild fruits. Breeding grounds are located in the extreme north of Canada, and in Alaska.
In parts of Alaska, and south into British Columbia, they are resident all year round, as suitable foraging sites are (usually) readily available in every season.
Let’s take a look at the kind of habitats Bohemian waxwings prefer, and what kinds of berries may attract flocks of these bright, busy birds for a fleeting feast in your local neighborhood.
Close up of a Bohemian Waxwing feeding on berries
In North America, waxwings have been spotted from south of the Arctic Circle to as far south as California and from Alaska in the west to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador in the east.
Bohemian waxwings are most common in Alaska. They can be found breeding throughout the taiga, and the region’s dense evergreen forests are home to year-round populations. Sporadic records of breeding pairs exist in a small area of the northern Rockies, to the south of the border with British Columbia. Otherwise, no breeding routinely occurs within the U.S.
Winter sightings have been reported in a number of regions, from the extreme northeast, but more regularly in the west and northwest. So-called ‘invasions’ may occur, when Bohemian waxwings suddenly show up in an area for a brief berry-stripping mission, but such visits are irregular and therefore, they don’t have what is termed as a usual winter range where sightings are guaranteed.
Alaska is the U.S. state with the highest number of waxwings, with resident populations in the southeast, extensive breeding grounds across much of the center of the state, and winter visits reported in the southern coastal regions.
Rare reports of breeding have been recorded south of the Canadian border, with individual observations in Washington, Montana, Idaho, Colorado and Oregon, but these are exceptional rather than common.
Winter visits have been recorded in several U.S. states further south on a number of occasions, including South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ontario, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. In ‘invasion’ years, large numbers of Bohemian waxwings have turned up as far south as California and Arizona.
Bohemian Waxwing in flight
Canada is home to North America’s largest breeding population of Bohemian waxwings. They raise their young in central and northern regions, to the south of the Arctic Circle, with Yukon and the North West Territories supporting the highest concentrations.
Resident populations are present across much of British Columbia, except for the coastal regions, and winter visitors are frequently reported across much of the rest of the country, as far east as Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia.
Bohemian waxwings breed in taiga forests, with black spruce and pine commonly chosen as nesting spots. Access to water and close proximity to foraging grounds, with an abundance of fruit trees are also a key requirement.
A pair of Bohemian Waxwings feeding on a red apple together
Due to their unpredictable migration patterns that change from year to year, and the external factors that affect where, when and if they will turn up in any particular winter, mean that a Bohemian waxwing sighting is definitely something to get excited about.
Although within their breeding range Bohemian waxwings are widespread and numerous, the very nature of the landscapes they inhabit means that they are not a species that are commonly spotted or seen on a regular basis by most residents of North America.
Of all the U.S. states where Bohemian waxwings have been reported, Alaska is the most likely to offer a prized sighting, as the state’s landscapes provide the necessary nesting and foraging grounds for breeding and wintering birds.
Sightings are never guaranteed, but if you do spot a Bohemian waxwing in winter feasting busily on a berry bush, you might want to stick around for a while, as the rest of the flock may not be far behind.
In a ‘Waxwing winter’ – or irruption year – you may be lucky enough to spot these crested songbirds in regions not generally associated with the species, across the south and west of the United States, when they may suddenly arrive in large numbers opportunistically looking for trees with an abundance of fresh berries. But these events are unpredictable and are certainly not an annual occurrence.
Alaska is one of the best places to see Bohemian Waxwings
Bohemian waxwings are diurnal birds, resting at night and foraging actively during daylight hours. Waxwings usually roost in coniferous trees overnight, although there some reports suggest that some migrations take place at night.
Bohemian waxwings are named for their wandering behavior and outside of the breeding season, they move on regularly from place to place in search of the next patch of fruit trees to raid.
While nesting, they remain close to their nest site and feed nearby, although as soon as their young reach independence, they disperse widely in search of new feeding grounds.
Bohemian Waxwing feeding on red berries on a winters day
There are no set or guaranteed ‘wintering grounds’ that Bohemian waxwings will return to year after year. Where they spend the winter months is influenced by the availability of a good crop of berries on shrubs and trees as they move around. If supplies are poor, they simply move on until they reach the next abundant location.
Older, more established woodlands with fruiting trees are likely to offer a reliable source of food each year, while lower level berry bushes may be adversely affected by the weather and cannot always guarantee a decent crop.
Waxwing flocks can quickly devour a tree’s entire berry crop, especially when a large number descend together and set to work.
Once the berries have been exhausted, the flock moves on in search of another similar spot, a process that repeats for the duration of the winter months until it’s time to head back to northern breeding grounds again.
Flock of Bohemian waxwings perched on stump in winter
Survival in winter is relatively easy for resourceful Bohemian waxwings, who instinctively know to move on when food supplies run low. They do not typically return to the same foraging grounds each winter, and will simply turn up where the fruit is for as long as the crop lasts.
Population increases and shortages of berries after poor weather may lead to ‘irruption’ years, with Bohemian waxwings needing to disperse further than usual in search of food.
On these rare occasions, large numbers of waxwings will show up in areas where they aren’t normally spotted, in search of more fruitful foraging grounds.
Summer is the breeding season for Bohemian waxwings, and they raise their young in the subarctic forests of Alaska and northwestern Canada. As well as berries, the summer diet of waxwings includes insects, and they frequently forage for these near lakes and alongside rivers.
Bohemian Waxwing feeding upside down on rowan berries
Bohemian waxwings are sociable and non-territorial, even during the breeding season. They are usually seen in flocks throughout the year, although the largest groups gather during migration and the winter non-breeding season.
Bohemian waxwings may also join larger, mixed-species flocks and are commonly seen foraging with the similar Cedar waxwings in regions where their ranges overlap.
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