Sunday 5 February 2017

Waxwing Lyrical in Gloucestershire 4th February 2017

Bourton on the Water lies just over the Gloucestershire border from my home in northwest Oxfordshire. A pleasant enough large village, much loved by tourists and as a place to which to retire.

It is  but a twenty minute drive, via Stow on the Wold, from my home, and early this morning I decided to pay Bourton a visit based on the report of four Waxwings that had been found feeding there on a berry tree yesterday. A pleasant, still, cold morning greeted me at seven thirty as I followed the Satnav directions to the location, a single, ornamental tree well laden with white berries on a quiet road at the entrance to a private block of housing called Pegasus Court, in a  well to do area of the village

The berry tree outside Pegasus Court
Parking the car I found Richard, who lives in another nearby village,  already there and he pointed out the four Waxwings perched high in a large tree opposite the berry tree. A classic Waxwing situation where they loaf about, perched loftily and secure in a larger tree before flying down to the smaller tree to wolf down berries as fast as possible for a few minutes, and then, when they have filled their crops fly back up into the larger tree to digest the berries for fifteen or so minutes before repeating the process.

In the larger tree they sat content, fluffed up, rotund and very much at ease, often preening. They perched a few feet apart from each other unlike the larger flocks I have seen where the individual birds often perch almost shoulder to shoulder.

When they were about to descend their plumage was sleeked down, they developed a purposeful air and usually one of their number initiated the descent to the berry tree, followed soon after by the others. It was not always a direct approach but sometimes via a telephone wire or another tree but all the while getting lower in stages, whilst checking all was secure, before making a final flight onto the berry tree. Once in the berry tree it was a free for all, the birds contorting and often hanging upside down to pluck the berries or triumphantly raising their heads with a white berry held momentarily between their mandibles before swallowing it. On one occasion a Waxwing even managed to seize and swallow two berries at once!

Today they had competition in the form of a belligerent Mistle Thrush which had decided to commandeer the tree and the berries for itself, seeing off the Waxwings and any other bird for that matter, with an aggressive flight and a dry rattling call, but my efforts at shooing off the thrush plus the Waxwings persistence meant that the Waxwings had plenty of opportunities to get at the berries and soon the Mistle Thrush lost interest, flew off and they had the tree to themselves apart from a couple of Blackbirds which had no concerns about sharing the berries with the Waxwings.

Mistle Thrush
During the Mistle Thrush's brief tenure of the berry tree the Waxwings just transferred to a nearby tree bearing scattered hips and haws and spent their time consuming these much larger berries although they were obviously happier with the white berries.

I watched one Waxwing with a huge, red rose hip in its bill which looked impossible for it to swallow. I need not have worried as the images below will confirm the Waxwing had little problem with the berry.

As it was fairly early on a Saturday there were hardly any people about, all having a lie in I guess and after Richard departed I was left to my own devices and had the opportunity and time to do as I pleased, standing in the road taking  pictures of the Waxwings and chatting to the occasional curious dog walker.

Waxwings really are special and beautiful birds made all the more appealing by the comparative infrequency with which they are seen in Britain, and especially this far south when they do visit these shores. These four comprised what appeared to be four females as looking at my images no bird had more than three of the tiny red waxy appendages on the secondaries of each wing and from whence they get their name. According to the Identification to European Passerines by Lars Svensson which is the bible in these matters, young females in their first or second year of life have between 0-5 red waxy tips on each wing whilst males of a similar age have between 4-8. Two of the birds had considerably more yellow on their wings and a larger yellow band at the tip of their tails than the other two which had virtually all white on their wings and appeared duller in comparison, if a Waxwing can ever be called dull. 

Second calendar year Waxwing with no yellow in the wing

Second calendar year female Waxwing showing yellow in the wing and a
greater amount of yellow at the tip of its tail

When not gobbling berries they flew high up into the huge tree opposite, spending much of their time preening, and why not, as their livelihood depends on their ability to rove far and wide looking for food sources, which at this time of year consist of a rapidly diminishing supply of berries, and then later they will have to make the perilous journey back across the North Sea to breed in northern Scandinavian and Russian forests.

I spent over an hour looking at them and just enjoying this special time on my own in a quiet corner of the village before leaving, just as a welcome sun broke through the grey morning cloud.

As my route home went  through Stow on the Wold it seemed remiss not to take the opportunity to go and make my re-acquaintance with the long staying adult male Blue Rock Thrush, still, according to reports, patrolling the roof tops and the gardens of another well to do Cotswold town .

I was none too sure if anyone else would be around as the bird has been here for so long that most birders who wanted to, have seen it already, but I soon found three or four birders  looking at it sat on top of its preferred chimney pot on its favourite roof top. The views were distant but eventually the thrush was evicted from its perch by a Jackdaw and dropped down into one of the gardens below. 

It has transferred its alliegance to another garden now, not very far from its original choice that was at Number 7 Fisher Close, so we walked round into Maugersbury Road and after a wait it suddenly arrived on a garden wall right by the road, sitting there for thirty or so seconds before dropping down into the garden behind the wall to feed with some Common Starlings and where we could not see it. But it was not gone for long, re-appearing on the wall, then flying to perch in a tree before flying once more up to its favourite chimney pot, there to sit for a half hour before descending to the garden. 

Blue Rock Thrush-adult male
Looking at my photos I was amazed to see how different its plumage looked when it was in different situations. On the wall it looked very blue but in the trees and on the roof tops it looked much duller almost grey.

This untouched image was taken thirty minutes later than the ones above, in
brighter light and goes to show how variable the plumage can appear. 
The Blue Rock Thrush then disappeared, only to re-appear over the road behind us on the roof top of Number 9 Maugersbury Road where it became apparent that it had, in the intervening period of absence, taken a bath as its feathers were now sodden and bedraggled. A session of 'peek a boo' then commenced as first it sat on top of the roof, then dropped down the other side, only to pop up again.

Blue Rock Thrush - post bath!
A regular trickle of birders came and went, one person had come from as far as Sheffield and another two from Leicester to see the thrush. I  confess to feeling  a little uneasy birding in housing estates although the residents here were fine about it as far as I could ascertain.To have powerful telescopes, binoculars and cameras trained on the front of your house, albeit looking at the roof, must be disconcerting and with this in mind I left my fellow six birders to it and headed home for some lunch at just after noon.

For a change a really pleasant morning of local birding in lovely weather. Who could ask for more? 


  1. Hi Ewan
    I believe the adult waxwings are best identified from immatures by the white angled 'ladder' on the primary tips, and males from females by the amount of yellow on the tail. Looking at the photos they all look like immature birds. Hope we get some waxwings down here in the Witney area soon - we're running low on berries!

  2. Hi Jeremy
    Thanks for your comments.
    I checked Svensson and it would appear from this that all four birds are in fact second calendar females! I live and learn!
    Best wishes

  3. I should of course have said 'second calendar year females'