Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing

A black metal fence surrounds a small cemetery just off the hiking trail at Horizons Park. The handful of grave markers, those not yet lost to time, are dated to the mid-1800s. A few yards away, a massive holly stands in an open field. Hollies are slow-growing trees, and, given the girth of this one, it seems certain to have witnessed the interment of those buried there.

There are two hiking trails at Horizons Park that are worth exploring for bird watchers. Loop A is 1.03 miles and Loop B is 1.23 miles, and you must hike Loop A to get to Loop B. You can find the small cemetery and the old holly near trail marker B6.

There are lots of up and downs along the trails, and a short section at trail marker B10 is steep enough to be considered strenuous.

The two trails traverse many acres of mixed hardwoods with patches of pine trees along the way and several footbridges cross a trickling stream if a drought hasn’t dried it up.

This park hasn’t been invaded by non-native plants as badly as many area parks, and several dormant wildflowers were evident on a late autumn hike. Cranefly orchids — leaves green on top, purple on the underside — and spotted wintergreen are common along the trail, and Christmas ferns — so named because they’re still green at Christmas-time — are abundant.

The raucous call of a pileated woodpecker can often be heard while hiking these trails. Horizons has enough mature woodland to sustain a pair and when you have the good fortune to see this crow-size bird — the largest North American woodpecker — you can consider it a reward for venturing out on a chilly day.

When you return to the park entrance, take a moment to appreciate the many stately trees near the parking lot and the disc golf course. During this same hike, a pair of red-bellied woodpeckers and a family of titmice were feasting on the nuts of two ancient beech trees near the big red barns. Beeches don’t produce nuts every year, but they’re laden with them this year and will continue to attract birds throughout the winter.

Several eastern red cedars dot the landscape in this area as well. Their berry-like seed cones are certain to attract large flocks of cedar waxwings someday soon, but just when they will do so remains a mystery. Waxwings are nomadic outside the nesting season, and when they will decide to descend on these red cedars or the giant holly is anyone’s guess.

Waxwings are named for tiny bright red markings on their wings that look like the wax that was used to seal letters long ago. A black mask trimmed in white, a perky crest and tail feathers that look as if they’d been dipped in butter combine to adorn this bird most elegantly.

Several sibilant whistles may be what first tips you off to their presence. However, the calls are so soft and high-pitched that you may not hear them at all unless it’s a big flock like the one I saw a few years ago estimated at 250 waxwings. Or the flock reported back in 1905 near Camden, S.C., that contained an estimated 50,000 waxwings.

Now that must have been a sight … and sound.

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If you have a birding question or story idea, write to Bird’s-Eye View in care of Features, Winston-Salem Journal, 418 N. Marshall St., Winston-Salem, N.C. 27101, or send an email to birding@wsjournal.com. Please type “birds” in the subject line.

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