Had a first at the weekend: a friend and I and the car got covered in waxwing poo.
The Waxwing: An Exotic Winter Visitor
Waxwings are one of the most stunning birds we get in Britain, usually as a winter visitor from Scandinavia. There is currently a flock of over one hundred busily stripping rowan berries around Aviemore and Inverdruie, plus other smaller flocks in Grantown, Nethybridge and Dulnain. Some years we seem to get precious few, yet I remember one year when the village of Forres had around 4000 of the things!
Being related to starlings, waxwings are social and often like to travel and rest in groups. Like starlings, they also tend to be quite vocal and their high-pitched, crystal clear trilling is one of those rare sounds I hope to hear each winter. They are noticeably bigger than starlings, with a more plump silhouette. There would seem to be good reasons for this. Firstly, their larger size may allow them to carry a more heavy duty digestive system, to cope with gorging on large amounts of fruit, which might not be available all season. Secondly, a slightly larger size means they have slightly more body mass, but slightly less surface area compared to their size. Being a migratory bird of northern latitudes, energy efficiency and heat retention is an obvious priority. Therefore having bigger mass means you can eat, process and store more food, whilst staying a little warmer because you’re not losing heat quite so fast.
Finally, their plumage is, quite frankly, outrageous. But I find you often don’t appreciate it unless you see them up close. At longer range, in typical poor winter light, they just look like a flock of fat starlings. To illustrate: I was deep in the heart of the Abernethy pine forest reserve one winter with a couple of clients, when one of them said they had just seen a bunch of ‘brown birds’ feeding in a juniper tree. Straight away, an alarm bell went off in my mind. There just aren’t that many options at that time of year, for groups of birds eating much of anything in the middle of ancient pinewoods, especially ‘brown’ ones and especially in a juniper tree. That pretty much ruled out crossbills (which eat pinecones mainly) and redwings and fieldfares tend to be a bit more recognisable as such. But something in the way he said it, got me intrigued. And sure enough, he had found a group of about a dozen waxwings. And the wonderful thing, for me, at the time was that they were feasting on one of the few berries they could find in that area – juniper. And we were the only people for miles around to witness it.
‘Zorro in drag, on a fruit-eating binge’
When you get a better look, you see silky-smooth pinkish/buff feathers covering most of the body, with black and white wing markings and a dashing black eye stripe. Sort of ‘Zorro in drag, on a fruit-eating binge’ effect. They have a chestnut colour underneath and conspicuous yellow trim on the tail and wings. But the best bit, in my opinion, is the ‘wax wings’ that give them their common name. The tips of their secondary flight feathers are slightly elongated, enlarged and coloured bright red. This gives them the appearance of having wee blobs of old fashioned red manuscript sealing wax dotted along their wings. And whilst we are on the subject of names (which also fascinates me), their latin name Bombycilla garrulous roughly translates as ‘silky-tailed chatterer’. Those of you who might happen to be moth fans will note the ‘Bombyx’ connection there – the genus name for the famous and lucrative silk moth. Oh, and they have a crest too, just to make the point. As a good friend of mine once said: ‘You never see a scruffy waxwing!’. I remember, the first waxwings I ever saw were stuffing themselves silly with white rowan berries, oblivious to the hungry (and incredulous) looking sparrowhawk watching them from a hidden, elevated position, right above them. I reckon that peckish local sparrowhawk was thinking ‘Wow, this should be easy!’
‘You never see a scruffy waxwing!’.
Following the food
If their population expands dramatically beyond the supply of winter berries in their home territory, they are likely to travel big distances in search of food. They are hungry beasts and absolute fruit fans. I’ve also seen them go for chunks of apple and cotoneaster berries, but I’ve never had an encounter like the lad in this recent video from Fair Isle.
Try and get a view of some waxwings this winter. I’m sure they’ll leave an impression on you. And maybe something else too.