Saturday, August 22, 2009

Bombycillidae, Insects and Cherries

Last week was unseasonably cold for mid-August, even in the upper mid-west.

Saturday was the first sunny, and relatively warm day in what seemed like quite awhile. The cerulean sky was virtually cloudless. The air was crisp, and I had to get outdoors for a walk.

I rounded up my birding partner, Tom, and we took off in the Prius around 11am. (Tom is not a morning person). After stopping for some farm-fresh produce at the vegetable stand in front of the Durand High School, we headed over to Tarrant Park, pulled the car under an ash tree and headed out to the Chippewa River State Trail.

The trees and shrubs were heavy with fruit - the dogwoods, wild plums and cherries. The familiar high pitched buzz of the Cedar Waxwings pulled our attention to the wild cherry trees. That's when I realized two different species (of cherries, not Cedar Waxwings). I was certain that I "knew" the black cherry - by fruit and bark. But I spotted another cherry that was very different. What was it?

I didn't have my tree identification book, so I pulled out my trusty iPod Nano and spun the dial to "Key to the Trees of Wisconsin" program, a free download from the University of Wisconsin. I by-passed the key and went straight to the list of plants by common name and looked for "ch" for cherry. Nothing there. I did find "chokecherry" and back in the "b" listings, "black cherry." I looked for the scientific names and found 3 under the genus "prunus:" chokecherry, black cherry and wild plum. Could it be that easy?

[It wasn't until I got home and looked at my photos that I realized my memory, the "key" on my Nano and my photos weren't enough to make me confident that I correctly identified the cherries. So, I went to my computer and discovered there are 8 species of cherry trees in the wilds of Wisconsin and only 3 in the key on my iPod. Hm... I'm going to have to go back tomorrow with my tree book and take a closer look.]

On the way back home, I took a detour to check out the Cliff Swallow nests on the Chippewa River Bridge. No sign of any swallow activity at all. The colony was now a ghost town. The mud nests on the buildings along the river were quiet too.

We headed over to the Senior Center behind the Econofoods grocery store just down river. I planned to stop in the parking lot and coax Tom to get behind the wheel. (It's been a week and he's still unwilling to get behind the wheel and drive the Prius). As I pushed the "park" button, I noticed what I thought were swallows, skimming the river for insects. But they seemed too large and their flight was not "right." What were they?

I put the Prius back in "park" and turned off the power. I pulled my Zeiss 7x42 binoculars up to my bi-focals. Cedar Waxwings! I'd seen them here last summer, skimming the river for insects - in the rain. Here they were, doing what their desert cousins (members of their scientific family - the Bombycillidae) - the Phainopepla - are known for: catching insects on the fly. There must have been a "hatch" on the river and the Silver Maples along the river were full of Cedar Waxwings - flapping furiously, soaring and diving as they caught the dinner that was invisible to us.

We sat in the shade (and comfort of our Prius "bird-blind") and watched their aerial acrobatics for about an hour.

What a show!

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