Thursday, 28 March 2013

Colourful winter visitor

The Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus) is a plump, colourful, starling-sized bird that breeds in the coniferous woodlands of northern Scandinavia. In most winters a few migrate to the east coast of Scotland and northern England but occasionally they arrive in huge numbers and spread out across the country. In 2011-12 and 2012-13 Britain saw two of its biggest ever Waxwing irruptions.

You do not have to be a birder to get excited when Waxwings turn up in your garden. They quickly attract attention with their distinctive sandy-pink plumage, a large punkish crest, a black bib, yellow tips to the tail feathers and white markings in the wings. 

Their name derives from the bright red tips to the secondary flight feathers. These resemble a splash of the red sealing wax that ancient pharmacists (like me) will remember using to seal the white demy paper in which they once wrapped prescription medicines.

In winter Waxwings feed mainly on berries. They are fond of rowan and hawthorn but are also partial to cotoneaster and other garden shrubs. They are often seen in tight flocks that spend much of their time calling loudly from the tops of tall trees but then suddenly drop into a bush full of berries. After feeding frantically for a few minutes, sometimes completely stripping the bush, they return to their treetop vantage points. In January 2012, near my London home, I watched a flock of about 250 feeding in this way — until an urban Sparrowhawk swooped in and scattered them. 

Although they have a nervous manner, Waxwings can be remarkably approachable. They will usually let you sidle up to within a few feet of them before they fly. With patience, you may even be able to tempt them to feed from your hand.

In Britain, Waxwings have a reputation for frequenting supermarket car parks, feeding from the berry-bearing trees that are often planted in such places. I suspect that our commoner berry-eating birds, being more timid, are deterred by the dawn-to-dusk presence of shoppers and so leave the fruit on the bushes for the bolder visitors from the north. 

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