Waxwing Winter

December 8th 2012

Article originally published in the Assynt News during November 2012

Waxwing Winter

If you remember this time last year we had no rowan berries to speak of but it was, at least, a bit drier and definitely warmer. Bird wise we had the first ever Bean Geese recorded in Assynt at Raffin, hundreds of Blackbirds and the first arrivals of the ‘white-winged’ gulls – we ended up with dozens of them right through the winter.

This year we have rowan trees heavy with berries but very few geese of any species around. There are a few Blackbirds but, as yet, no Iceland or Glaucous gulls; what we do have, however, is a great influx of Waxwings which are irregular winter visitors to the UK from Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia where they breed in varying numbers.

During the breeding season these stunning starling-sized birds feed on mosquitoes and midges (we must get them to stay!) but come the autumn they gradually switch their diet to fruit – with a huge preference for rowan berries. This switch often confronts them with a choice between finding sufficient berries in their native forests and making an eruptive movement to more temperate zones in the hope of a better food supply being found. Such movements can be triggered by a poor or failed food crop ‘at home’ or a very successful breeding year resulting in not enough food to go round.

Whilst clearly risky for the birds, these irruptions into the UK often give us the chance to see hundreds of Waxwing feeding quite happily close at hand.
Males are the easiest to identify in a flock as they have the red ‘waxy’ appendages on their secondary wing feathers (hence the common name waxwing) along with the bright yellow and white edges to their primary wing feathers. The males also have a broad yellow band at the end of their tail. The females and 1st winter birds are more difficult to separate but only have a narrow yellow band on their tail and varying amounts of white/pale yellow on their wings compared with the males.

Their species name is Bombycilla garrulus; Bombycilla meaning ‘silk-tail’ and garrulus being chattering or noisy. There is no doubt they chatter and they do look silky smooth all over, not just their tails!

So, last year no berries and no Waxwings, this year more berries than you can make jam with and hundreds of Waxwing. The other interesting thing with this irruption is that the north east coast of Scotland usually gets these birds first in massive numbers but this year significant flocks have come straight to the west. They have also turned up on the Outer Hebrides and around 400 arrived in Ireland. How did they know about our rowans?

As the food supply dwindles the flocks move across and down the country searching out berries of many varieties hence the sight of Waxwings feeding in supermarket car parks where shrubs are often planted.

So keep looking and enjoy them while you can as once they clear our trees they will move away and give others the pleasure of their company.

D and A Haines

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