The mysterious visitor was first seen on the morning of Friday, Jan. 21. She (assuming it was female) was keeping company with at least 15 other individuals. She was wandering very far from her northern home, and her traveling companions weren’t immediate family; you could call them cousins. She was the odd one out.
She was a Bohemian waxwing. And her appearance in the backyard of a house in Roanoke County has caused a flutter among Virginia bird enthusiasts.
Ed and Barbara Kyle are birders who live (appropriately) on Falcon Ridge Road in Hunting Hills. Their wooded backyard is furnished with a birdbath and four feeders stocked with seeds, suet and mealworms. On winter days, the Kyles enjoy watching and photographing from inside, through a 12 by 16 foot glass wall.
“Friday morning, we were just enthralled with a large flock of cedar waxwings,” said Ed, a retired clinical psychologist. “We think they’re absolutely beautiful, so I was clicking away.”
Cedar waxwings, related to Bohemian waxwings, aren’t rare in Virginia, but the Kyles don’t see them often. With puddles and ponds frozen, Kyle figured they were drawn to the open water in his heated birdbath. Up to 15 at a time were visible through his 500 mm telephoto lens.
As Kyle was studying the photos on Sunday, Jan. 23, he noticed that one bird was bigger than the others. It also lacked the yellow belly of a cedar waxwing.
Kyle knew of Bohemian waxwings, although he’d never seen one himself. He found an online article comparing cedars to Bohemians. By this point he was pretty sure — the big one was a Bohemian. But what was it doing here?
“I knew it was greatly out of place,” he said. “Closest it would normally be to here would be about South Dakota. We’re more likely to have a snowy owl from the Arctic than we are to have a Bohemian waxwing. I put it on my Facebook page to share with my friends, and a couple of them are Bird Club members and some saw it.”
Betty Burke, secretary of the Roanoke Valley Bird Club, encouraged him to post it on eBird, a website managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Kyle’s post quickly got the attention of Matt Anthony, an eBird data review volunteer for Virginia. “If a bird is reported outside its normal geographic range…it’ll be flagged by eBird,” Anthony said. “And that will prompt us to follow up and get the documentation for those sightings.”
Anthony requested and received Kyle’s photo. Then he typed out this message to Kyle:
This is fantastic! That photo certainly leaves no doubt about the identification. Congratulations on a truly amazing find! To give you some context, there are only two previous records for Virginia and the most recent one before your bird was in 1975. As far as I know, this is also the first photograph of a Bohemian Waxwing for the state.
This is a pretty spectacular find, and I know a lot of other birders (including myself) are going to be interested in trying to come and see it…
Anthony works in student services at Eastern Shore Community College, in Accomack County. He asked his boss for a day off, and made a quick trip to Roanoke with two birding pals in hopes of sighting the Bohemian.
Meanwhile, word was spreading among Bird Club members.
Club president Kent Davis recalled the reaction. “Some of us, it was disbelief. It was like, wow! It is a very rare bird.” The Kyles issued an invitation for club members to come by.
“We became quite popular,” Barbara said.
On Monday morning, when the Kyles got up, birders were already on their back deck.
“Some birders are positive thinking and others are negative thinking,” Davis said. “I thought our chances were slim to none of seeing this bird. As a birder and chaser of rarities we had to go and give it the old college try.”
Betty Burke and her husband, Bob Crawford, came twice. “We saw the sandhill crane, that’s a rare bird, at the sewage treatment center, and that was a grand thing to see because you just don’t see them. But to have this Bohemian waxwing, that no one in my adult time of birding has seen or recorded in Virginia, and here it was in Roanoke County, was really thrilling.”
The name “waxwings” comes from the red, waxy tips on some of their wing feathers. Other markings include a black mask over a peach face, white rectangles on the wings, a yellow tail tip, and a rusty undertail.
Males and females differ just slightly. Kevin McGowan, creator of Cornell’s All About Birds website, examined Kyle’s photo for Cardinal News.
“Based on the fuzziness of the bottom of the black throat patch, I would guess this is a female,” he wrote in an email. “Not super confident of that. I cannot tell from this photo if it is a first-year bird or an adult.”
What’s certain is that this bird is living up to her name. One definition of Bohemian, per Merriam-Webster, is “vagabond, wanderer.”
“The bohemian wanderings of this waxwing make them a little unpredictable to find,” All About Birds states. “Bohemian Waxwings are movers. One waxwing banded by researchers in British Columbia was recovered 13 months later in South Dakota. Another individual flew 280 miles in 11 days.
“Bohemian Waxwing’s nomadic nature makes it difficult to predict if and when they might show up in your yard. True to their name, Bohemian Waxwings wander like bands of vagabonds across the northern United States and Canada in search of fruit during the nonbreeding season.”
It’s not unusual for them to take up with flocks of cedar waxwings. But what possessed this adventurer to travel so far from home? The obvious answer is perhaps the only one.
“Because birds have wings and they sometimes wander,” McGowan wrote. “Bohemian Waxwings are variable in how far south they come each winter, based on the food supply in the more northern part of their range. This year does not seem to be [a] particularly heavy irruption [unusual migration] year, but there are many birds around the US/Canada border and just to the north at this time. The Virginia bird is way out of place.”
Long story short, neither the Kyles, nor Anthony and his friends, nor the bird club members, saw the Bohemian again after her celebrated appearance on Jan. 24. For all they know, she has flown to the next landing spot in her vagabond life, leaving the Valley’s birders aflutter.
If nothing else, she provided an opportunity for birders to flock together on the Kyles’ back deck. “It’s just a fun experience,” said Burke. “It’s both fun socially, and it’s fun to be in different places where you can see birds so well.”
Birdwatching is a safe activity during the pandemic, she noted.
“Our membership has grown, and we’ve seen more people who are interested because people are getting out more during COVID, and we’re getting younger members. This article is a timely one for people who are looking for things to do in this time of isolation.”