Every so often when the berry crop fails in Scandinavia and Russia, hordes of starling size beige coloured birds form up into compact flocks and head out over the North Sea and into an unknown future. They have no choice, as to stay where they are means potential starvation and death whilst the alternative is to risk death flying the North Sea in the hope that they will find that there is a plentiful supply of berries when they make landfall in Britain. This has been the case this winter.
I am of course talking about Waxwings, one of the most charismatic and engaging of bird species that visit us for the winter. It is not every winter mind you, but only when their food source is too limited in their home range, so three maybe four years can pass by before another invasion reaches our shores.
They can arrive in quite large flocks, up to six hundred have been recorded in Inverness this winter but often numbers are smaller, in low double figures. They will remain wherever they find a good supply of berries but slowly the flocks work their way down the length of Britain commencing in the far north of Scotland where many make landfall from Scandinavia and now, as I write this they have reached my own county of Oxfordshire and some have even been seen further south in Sussex in the last few days
They are a beautiful bird with an overall beige, fawn plumage with feathers so dense and compacted that it looks like they have been sprayed onto the bird. Their crown feathers are massed into a compact and formidable crest that stands to attention when they are perched and gives them a distinctive profile, the tips being ragged and almost hair like
Their face pattern of black bandit mask sweeping up under the crest and black chin and throat give them a fierce appearance, the very epitomy of those ancestral invaders from Scandinavia, the Vikings that ravished our northern shores centuries ago. There are other markings such as on the wing feathers where the male has its flight feathers fringed with bright sulphur yellow and the inner white ones tipped with red appendages-hence the name Waxwing. The tail has a broad band of bright yellow at the tip and the undertail coverts are a rich reddish brown. The combination as a whole is very attractive and due to the compactness of the plumage the birds always have a dapper appearance with seemingly never a feather out of place.
This year I encountered my first flock in Sheffield of all places, in a not so salubrious area on a street called Windy House Lane. Hugh and myself had been driving around Sheffield for a while trying to locate some Waxwings as we knew they were in Sheffield from regular reports on RBA but everywhere we looked we were disappointed. We found many Redwings feeding on berries in Waitrose's Car Park but nary a sign of Waxwings. We drove out of the city centre to another area they had been reported from and at last our luck changed, as we crested a hill and looking down the road there was a sight that never fails to thrill. A bare tree stood by the road, its topmost branches festooned with dark shapes perched in ranks along the thin branches - Waxwings,
Although it is nice to see any Waxwing, for me the ultimate is to encounter a flock of over a hundred such as this. There were one hundred and sixteen in total. It is as if the delight of seeing a Waxwing is multiplied by one hundred percent. We stopped the car and got out.Typically the Waxwings were very tame and you could walk up to the tree and look up at them. They are supremely sociable and do everything together and here in the tree they perched close to one another, their distinctive faint trilling call a constant background accompaniment.
At an unknown signal they would sweep in unison out of the tree and in tight formation would swirl around until they crossed the road and descended onto a small ornamental tree bearing a huge number of bright pink berries.
They settled frenziedly in the tree with a noticeable sound of rushing wings and a gobble fest then ensued as every bird wolfed down as many berries as possible in the shortest amount of time. It was in startling contrast to their gentle untroubled demeanour when perched in the larger tree. Never more than a few minutes in the small tree passed before the entire flock, bar a few stragglers caught unawares, flew back up to the larger tree where they felt secure. They repeated this manouevre a number of times, squabbling in the berry tree, flapping and hovering to pick off the bright pink berries. It was a chaos of activity, flashing wings, yellow and white tipped feathers, birds upside down and right ways up, all tugging at the berries, swallowing them whole and then with an audible whoosh they scattered out of the berry tree and ascended back into the larger tree.
I could have remained here all day watching these delightful birds but the flock suddenly split and a good number of the birds headed off over the houses in one direction whilst the remainder split into smaller groups and headed off in their own directions. There seemed no reason for this as there were still plenty of berries on the small tree but the birds obviously had other ideas.
In summer Waxwings eat mainly insects and only change their diet to berries, fruit, buds and flowers in the winter. There are up to fifty thousand pairs in both Sweden and Finland and up to a million in Russia and it is from these populations that our invaders come. They have a preference for the berries of ornamental trees, much favoured by urban developments rather than our native wild hawthorn and that is why they can often be found in the most unlikely of places such as a superstore car park, a modern landscaped industrial park or housing estate. No berried bush or tree can be too small if they take a shine to it and they have no compunction about seeking out berries in the most unsalubrious and urban of environments.
Hopefully I will see a lot more of them before the winter is finished.