The first reports are coming in from Scotland (via WaxwingsUK on Twitter) of Waxwings arriving in the country. This is great news, always a highlight of the year, and a chance to catch one of the most beautiful birds you will see anywhere.
The Waxwing, Bombycilla garrulus, is what’s known as an “irruptive migrant” in the UK. This means that the size of the population varies immensely. You get years with few Waxwings, only staying briefly. You also get years like 2010/11 where tens of thousands arrive, and stay for ages (I was still seeing them in May, having first seen them in October). This is basically down to available food supplies. They leave when there’s no food left. and stay till they’ve finished!
The good news is, these beautiful little birds are easy to see in towns and cities, as they love exactly the type of fruiting trees we tend to plant decoratively. While the winter of 2011/12 wasn’t great for them, I was fortunate enough to spot half-a-dozen on The Headrow, Leeds while coming out of the cinema (I’d been at the cinema, not the birds).
It’s always worth checking the trees through winter as you walk along. they’re quite obliging, you can stand close enough that you don’t need binoculars, and you get a real treat!
They are a delicate beauty, like a fine caligrapher has decorated them, and have a lovely jangly call (you can here a recording HERE). Someone once said to me “they don’t look real, they’re too perfect”, and I know what they mean. Fingers crossed that with trees groaning with fruit, this will be a good year.
My first experience with Waxwings happened when I was about 12. I grew up in York, and used to walk the City Walls from the bus stop to my school. One winters day, I was passing near to Mickelgate Bar, and suddenly realised there were a flock of 20-30 Waxwings in the tree right next to me. I’d never seen them before, and stood there enraptured, getting such great close views that I ended up late for school.
I was delighted to get home and brag about this to my Dad, as he’d never seen them either. But, as has so often been the case in our respective birding careers, he quickly surpassed me. They’d been on the fruit trees where he worked too. One had flown into a window, leading to my Dad picking it up and holding it till it recovered! There’ll be other stories I tell through this blog where a similar pattern emerges. He’s always one-step ahead, and whenever I see something unusual, he always seems to see it somewhere else soon afterwards!