It’s that time of year when reports flood in of a bird that looks like it was painted by a Japanese printmaker, and birdwatchers rush to local hotspots in the hope of grabbing a glimpse of something that can be rare or ubiquitous in a winter depending on the conditions. We are of course talking about Waxwings.
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, but stay till they’ve finished!
2016/17 seems to be a pretty good winter for them with good numbers being recorded across the UK. But as I write this I’m yet to see one this winter myself. 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. 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! Someone once said to me “they don’t look real, they’re too perfect”, and I know what they mean.
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 winter’s 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. It was worth the risk of detention though, and remains so today!