This weekend saw the clearest signs yet that we may be in for another ‘Waxwing Winter’ this year. After small numbers of one of the most enigmatic of our winter visitors arrived over the last two weeks birdwatchers in the far north of Scotland and along the East Coast of England began reporting multiple sightings on Saturday and Sunday with at least one flock in Aberdeenshire reported in excess of 100 individuals.
Pink with a crest and a tendency to be very tame and extremely photogenic, the fruit-eating Waxwing is an irruptive species – depending on food supplies in it’s usual northern European wintering area it can move many miles west and south in search of food and do so in large numbers. These irruptions don’t happen every year and are triggered by poor wild fruit crops in Russia. There have been reports that after a dryer than usual summer, the fruit crop in Russia and east is poor and this will probably drive good numbers of Waxwings to winter in Britain.
Waxwings don’t have much contact with man in their breeding range and as a result can be approachable and fairly tame when they arrive in Britain. These masked marauders roam the land searching for berries, Rowan are a favourite but they’ll turn up on Hawthorn and Cotoneaster too. They can appear in what at first appears to be the craziest of locations. They frequently get found in supermarket car parks where they gorge on berries unperturbed by passing shoppers. Many supermarkets use ornamental Rowans as decorative features and their urban locations often means the berries remain into winter untouched by Mistle Thrushes or Blackbirds.
Listen out for the ringing ‘srrrrr’ calls of a flock, they can often be heard before seen. The black eye mask and throat afford them a slightly angry look but look for the red wax tips on the primary feathers (wing-tips) from which the species derives their name.
If you’re lucky enough to have them find berries in your garden, they’ll stay until the last berry has gone and then disappear as quickly as they came, searching for their next fruity feast. Often they’ll move south throughout the winter in search of new supplies and can and do reach even our most southern counties as winter progresses.
Our Garden Birder’s Diary is written by Northumberland-based birder Alan Tilmouth who has been birdwatching for over 30 years and writing about birds in various guises for the last decade. A keen garden birdwatcher, he also manages to unearth the odd rare bird on his travels. You can find Alan on Twitter and his Facebook blog.