Thursday 31 January 2019

More Waxwing Antics 28th January 2019

Today, the weather, although it would be very cold was also forecast to bring sun all day.  I decided to head for some more Waxwing action while the opportunity presented itself. After all, the opportunities to catch up with these beige feathered, berry gobbling northern invaders are not that frequent. This time it was a party of thirteen birds frequenting an industrial estate on the outskirts of Hertford, some two hours drive away from my home in Oxfordshire

If you like your birding to be in beautiful, peaceful surroundings you may as well forget waxwings for the most part. Their preference is often for precisely the opposite. Nine times out of ten they are to be found in this country frequenting the most unattractive and unlikely of places from an aesthetic point of view and where any other self respecting bird will only occasionally venture. The attraction to waxwings being that superstore car parks, suburban streets and modern industrial estates are all cosmetically adorned with small trees which often bear a profusion of berries in autumn and winter. The rationale being that such trees which flower in Spring bring some visual relief to the depressing concrete and urban surroundings in which they are planted.

The fact that such a beautiful bird from vast unpopulated pine forests in Scandinavia should choose virtually the complete opposite in terms of environment when they get to this country always strikes me as an anomaly but then I remind myself that they are not here from choice but because their food crop has failed in their homeland, they are hungry and are desperately looking for food to survive. 

Waxwings feed on berries in winter and by the time they reach Britain most of the natural berries such as hawthorns have been stripped by those other avian Scandinavian visitors, Fieldfares and Redwings and indeed our own Blackbirds, so the numerous ornamental, brightly coloured berry trees in urban areas, which for the most part are shunned by the two migrant thrushes, provide them with an available and potentially life saving food source.

And with the Waxwings come admiring birders and photographers or a combination of both. Today, on arriving at the industrial estate in Hertford, and not quite sure where to find the waxwings I was soon left in no doubt where they were as, on turning onto Mead Lane, the road indicated by RBA's directions as to where to locate the waxwings, there on the pathway beside the road was a phalanx of around forty people, every one of them  with a camera trained on one particular small tree bearing a profusion of berries.  

The small ornamental tree still with plenty of berries
I can recall when I commenced birding many years ago it was just a minority hobby and something to be almost kept quiet about but birding has now burgeoned in popularity and transformed into a huge, multi million pound industry in the developed world. Similarly with photography the digital revolution has done away with film and made cameras and photography comparatively cheap and accessible to all and so this is now following the same pattern as birding. Birders and photographers are for the most part compatible, indeed many birders carry a camera these days but like everything else it only needs one or two to transgress the bounds of acceptable behaviour for the other side to point an accusing finger. 

Today everyone behaved sensibly so there was no complaint from either side.

The waxwings were, typically, perched in a larger tree for security, near to the smaller tree with berries, and would periodically fly down to the smaller tree, located on the corner of a cul de sac of industrial units. The tree in question still retained a mass of bright orange pink berries, gleaming in the bright sunlight. Unfortunately the berries were so numerous and clustered in such dense profusion that it was almost impossible to get a clear image of a waxwing, as when they came down to feed they were always deep amongst the berries and consequently hidden to a greater or lesser degree for most of the time. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth, especially from the pure photographers complaining about the lack of a clear shot and I could understand this.To compound our frustration there was also a belligerent Mistle Thrush that took it upon itself to defend the berry tree. The minute a waxwing descended to the berries, the hitherto unseen thrush would fly into the tree with a threatening rattling call and the waxwing would flee back into the larger tree.

Part of the Waxwing fan club standing below the larger tree
where the birds spent most of their time. Note the clusters
of mistletoe in the branches and extreme top left some of
the perched Waxwings
Eventually the Mistle Thrush departed and the waxwings took their opportunity and descended in one's and two's onto the berry tree but they were obviously very nervous due to the Mistle Thrush's random appearances and after frantically plucking berries for no more than a minute or two would hastily fly back to the sanctuary of the larger tree. A Redwing, hardly larger than the waxwings and not known for its belligerence then arrived in the tree and the waxwings already thoroughly spooked by the aggressive Mistle Thrush gave it a similar wide berth until it too departed.

So the  morning passed, with huge trucks moving up and down the road and the continuous noise from a busy industrial complex carrying on all around us. For their part the Waxwings idled for long periods in the  bare branches of the larger tree, some of the branches bizarrely adorned with waxy, green leaved, spherical clumps of mistletoe. For an hour we watched the waxwings periodically visit the berry laden tree.

Realising that today I was never going to get the classic full on image of a Waxwing that everybody present craved I decided to see what I could record of the waxwing's antics and the attitudes they adopt as they gobbled the berries.

It was nigh on impossible to gather yourself when the waxwings descended to the berries for you had literally only a minute of them in the tree before they departed again. You had to just find a waxwing in the tree, focus the camera on it and then hope and shoot as fast as you could. On reviewing the images you then hoped and prayed that some revealed the extraordinary contortions the birds had gone to as they stripped the berries and swallowed them at an incredible rate. Locust like they swarmed over the berry clusters, creating a mayhem of feathered activity, then retreated to their favourite tree to digest the berries and quietly trill amongst themselves until hunger compelled them once more to descend for another berry fest.

The morning was the best time as the birds came down regularly but only in ones or twos, rarely as a whole flock. Around noon a change came over their behaviour  and they flew off from their favourite larger tree, departing with wavering rattling trills to some taller poplars much further away and there they perched for over an hour. Then they returned and, possibly tired of the continual harassment by the Mistle Thrush, commenced to feed on the mistletoe berries in the larger tree and ignored the berry tree for the best part of another two hours. In the early afternoon it became rather boring as the birds just stayed in the larger tree or fed on the mistletoe berries, which gave no or little photo opportunities.

Waxwing eating mistletoe berries
By mid afternoon they were perched at the top of the larger tree, in the sun, and gave some better photo opportunities but then, as one flock, they flew fast and high, up and away over the industrial roofs and I decided to head for home.

It was a frustrating day in many ways but to be in the virtually continual presence of Waxwings for half a day was surely no hardship.

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