A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


Cedar Waxwing--one of our prettiest birds--is common and sometimes abundant in the county during the winter months, but Waxwings move in flocks following food availability, so they appear irregularly. A few birds may be present in Sonoma County any time of the year, but numbers begin to increase rapidly from late September, with some flocks arriving earlier. Most stay through mid-April, with a fair number lingering into early June, by which time the sparse summer population has been left behind. Waxwings like ornamental berries such as pyracantha, cotoneaster, and privet, which often attracts them to the suburbs and to parks. In wooded settings, mistletoe berries are a favorite, but Waxwings will also flycatch--flying out from a perch to capture an insect then perching again. Waxwings are named for the red tips of the secondaries that are said to suggest sealing wax. The Birder's Handbook, says these are extensions of the shafts of the secondary feathers (p. 485), although elsewhere in the same book the "wax" is said to exude from the feather shaft tips (p. 484). Note that the red tips are absent in young birds and may be difficult to observe in the field even when present, but a couple are visible in the photograph below (on the the adult bird). Waxwings are often detected first by their very high-pitched call notes. Although mostly seen in flocks, Waxwings pair off during breeding season.

The yellow band at the end of the tail, the silky crest, and black mask edged with white indicate a Waxwing. Mostly buffy brown but with a pale yellow belly and white under the tail. Wings are darker and greyer than the rest of the bird. A white inner edging on the tertials may be visible when the wings are folded. Rump and tail also dark grey, deepening in color toward the yellow tail band. The tail band color is variable (apparently depending on diet). May be more orange or almost red in some cases. Young birds are greyer overall and have splotchy streaking on the sides of the breast and on the flanks as in the bird at right in the photo below.

The only similar bird is the related Bohemian Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus), which is quite rare in Sonoma County, noted here only in very occasional irruptions. Bolander and Parmeter mention 1892, 1910-1911, 1919-1920, and 1969 as having been notable years for Bohemian Waxwing in California. That bird is larger, has rich, reddish brown under the tail (where Cedar Waxwing is white) and no yellow on the belly. Unlike Cedar Waxwing, Bohemian Waxwing will show white or white and yellow in the folded wings. Note that juvenile Cedar Waxwings seen from the front may suggest Olive-sided Flycatcher (Contopus cooperi), especially if the head is obscured from view, hiding the mask and crest.

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 101

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 404

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 372

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 416

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 522-523

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, pp. 484-485

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 309

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 376

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 266

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, pp. 81, 97, 109, 129

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, pp. 235-236

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 60

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, pg. 254

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, pg. 300

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  pg. 282

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 1st ed., 2003, pg. 361

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 587

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 283

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Cedar Waxwing



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


Cedar Waxwing: Adult (left) and juvenile. Note streaking on the juvenile bird and the red "wax" tips on adult secondaries that give this species its name. Spring Lake, October 27, 2011

Cedar Waxwing, Ragle Ranch Park, Sebastopol, January 25, 2012

Cedar Waxwing

Bombycilla cedrorum

EBird reported  occurrence in Sonoma County

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated May 30, 2013