March 29, 2015
While Gardner Bohemian may well describe how I felt growing up in this town in the 1960's, this winter it's being applied to a huge flock of rare Bohemian waxwings (some 180 strong) who flew into town in early March and have been gorging on crab apples ever since. Yesterday while visiting my dad, I had the chance to visit the crabapple trees outside of Heywood Hospital where some 130 Bohemians were feeding in the wind-driven snow.
In a typical winter, dedicated birders will drive miles to see one or two reported Bohemians hanging out with a flock of our more common cedar waxwings. Bohemians are a wandering lot, creating no permanent territory of their own. They breed primarily in the taiga far in the northwestern reaches of Canada and Alaska, where cloudberries and insects are their delicacies, traveling from there into the northern edge of the U.S. in the winter in search of dried fruit. With this winter's prolonged polar blast, snow cover, and abundant ornamental fruit supplies, an unusual number found their way into Massachusetts, mostly as individuals. A long-term visit from a flock this size is phenomenal and gives observers a chance to experience a more natural range of Bohemian behaviors.
Remote as their breeding grounds are, wintering Bohemians are more likely found near civic buildings and golf courses in northern New England towns where crab apple trees are abundant. The Gardner Bohemians have been found foraging outside of the town's hospital, Elks Lodge, courthouse, and Mount Wachusett Community College where fruit trees have provided abundant sundried apples, which they boldly swallow whole, their determined feeding reminding me of great blue herons trying to swallow fish.
Their favorite trees are still strung in holiday lights and thick with fruit. Photographing the feeding frenzy is challenging. The birds sit motionless, chatting, and digesting at the top of a nearby 50' sugar maple tree. Then they begin to stir and the whole flock lifts up, swirls in overhead, and descends like a cloud of smoke into a single tree, feeding wildly for less than 10 seconds, then grabbing extra fruit, they swirl up again and back to their resting tree. They are very sensitive to noise and nearby movement while feeding, but became comfortable enough with my unmoving presence that they finally came in to feed right next to me. I loved seeing these wild denizens of the north so boldly and gregariously eating amidst the trappings of civilization, so I chose to leave these details in my portraits of them.
Two huge wind turbines flank the field near the Bohemians resting tree providing a somewhat jarring visual counterpoint to the whole scene, though the sound did not seem to bother the birds. On my previous day's visit, the birds left their roost and flew like a large black cloud down the middle of Green St. to the community college beyond. I followed them to see where they were choosing to feed and found them dispersed on either side of the road in front of the college, taking turns joining a gathering of blackbirds and robins who were feeding on some fruit laden staghorn sumacs near the road. Good to know we also have acceptable wild fruits to sustain them on their long journey north.
As always, happy to see wildness prevail in my hometown.