Monday 26 February 2024

Nine Waxwings in Abingdon 25th February 2024

Nine Waxwings have been doing the rounds in the Oxfordshire town of Abingdon for a number of days now and so have I looking for them, but until today I had failed to intercept them. I  was always just too late to get to where they had been seen or, after waiting for some time at the location and then giving up on them, mortified to see they had returned once I had departed.

Such are the highs and more often lows, of chasing after Waxwings.

Today Peter called me at just after 9am, himself having already dipped the Abingdon Waxwings a couple of times in the past, to tell me he had at last connected with them and was watching them on the corner of Dunmore Road and Parson's Mead which are on the north western side of Abingdon. 

At first reluctant to make the half hour drive from my home, in the end I thought to give it one more go, rationalising that if I failed again to see them I could go birding at Farmoor Reservoir which lay on my route back home.

On a pleasant, sunny but chilly morning I arrived at around 1030 to find no sign of any Waxwings.The hawthorn hedge with sparse berries by the busy Dunmore Road where Peter had seen them earlier was devoid of the Scandinavian invaders. A call to Peter informed me that he had left when the birds had flown off across a playing field towards a newly built housing estate that lay beyond the hedge.

I parked the car in a convenient layby almost opposite the hedge and stood by the road with my bins  to see if the Waxwings might return. Predictably they didn't. I was joined by a small number of other Waxwing seekers,  who on learning from me that I was not watching the Waxwings wandered off in search of them. Bored with waiting I walked across the playing field opposite to the newly built houses on the far side to check if they might be there but drew another blank.

Waxwings, in between eating berries like to perch high in large trees where they doubtless feel secure.I checked all the large trees both distant and near and eventually located some likely looking silhouettes perched high in one of the more distant trees. Aha!

This was possibly the Waxwings but they were so distant I would have to  get closer to be sure. As I watched in my bins  one bird flew up from the tree to flycatch, a known trait of Waxwings. Making haste  to the distant tree and feeling increasingly confident I was mortified, on getting closer, to find they were in fact Starlings.

I returned to my car and stood looking across to the large trees that bordered the far side of the playing field. At the top of the largest tree, a Poplar, I saw a distinctive shape that was not black but tawny and with a crest - a Waxwing!

Where had it come from? 

It must have just flown in as it certainly was not there when I checked that tree earlier. I looked harder and found a scatter of another eight perched high in the branches with a small flock of Starlings just to confuse matters, although the Waxwings kept to themselves in a small discrete group.

I went through a gap in the fence on the other side of the road and walked a hundred yards to stand below the Poplar tree.

The Waxwings were feeding on emerging catkins high up on the outer branches but gradually dropped lower down. 

Being in a housing estate on a sunny Sunday morning and near an Aldi superstore, the footpath below the tree was being used regularly by various passers by but the Waxwings didn't mind. 

The Poplar tree favoured by the Waxwings and the rosa bush they fed from
by the lamp post

It always strikes me as such a contradiction that these confiding birds coming from the vast forests of Scandinavia and Russia where quite possibly they have never encountered human beings choose to frequent the most suburban and populated of areas when they arrive here. 

The other question that I always find myself speculating on is how do they decide which berry source to favour and how do they find it? Do they see a particular tree as they fly past in the sky and descend to investigate or do they perch somewhere on high to scan the surrounding landscape? Do they decide in unison to descend to one tree or is there a leader, maybe an adult in the flock that the others follow or do different individuals make the decision on separate occasions?

Also what prompts them to fly off for no reason from an adequate berry source and again is this the decision of one particular adult bird in the flock or not and how do they communicate the decision, by a certain call or stimulating an instantaneous response from the others as one bird decides to depart?

So many questions that remain unanswered.

For twenty minutes I watched as they nibbled at the catkins and then three birds dropped down even lower to a small dog rose bush with a few very tired looking, unappetising berries clinging to it. The bare bush was so inconsequential and the berries so sparse I had hardly noticed it but the Waxwings had.

Here was an unexpected and welcome opportunity to photograph the Waxwings as they gobbled the berries in their customary frenzied fashion.There is no subtlety about their feeding but rather a hasty scramble amongst the thin twigs to wrench a berry off its stalk, hold it triumphantly for a moment between their mandibles before swallowing it whole.

I can only suppose the haste is because they feel both vulnerable near the ground and do not want one of their companions to beat them to that particular berry they have chosen.

Five minutes more or less was all the time they granted before they ascended back into the Poplar to perch quietly and wait before making another sortie.

It was unfortunate the footpath below the tree was being regularly used by people passing, mums with prams or kids, dog walkers, shoppers, men on bikes, you name it, as annoyingly the birds would fly out of the bush back up into the tree whenever someone approached resulting in another frustrating wait  but it was a residential estate and one had to accept this situation. Most of the people passing did show an  interest in what was happening so I told them about the Waxwings.

I stood, for a final time, waiting for the birds to make another descent to the bush. A small flock of Starlings flew into the top of the Poplar and after a few minutes left and the Waxwings went with them, in a compact and separate group, flying at great speed, rising high in the sky and away over the surrounding rooftops. I spent another hour hoping they might return but my wait was in vain.

I think I am done with Waxwings now although I can hardly believe I am saying this about such a charismatic bird. This winter that has witnessed their exceptional irruption into Britain has resulted in my seeing in excess of a hundred, ranging from locations in Norfolk see here  to Gloucestershire see here.

Those that have survived the winter in Britain will soon be on their way north to their true home in Scandinavia and western Russia and reports of them are now much less than when they first arrived here.We are fortunate to currently still have these birds in Abingdon and maybe they will remain for a few more days yet but for me it is time to move on.

No comments:

Post a Comment