Focus On Waxwing: coming to a car park near you


This page contains 7 reader comments. Click here to view (latest Fri 26/11/10 22:26).

With the first snow and frost of the autumn in some parts of the country this week, it certainly felt like winter for many people. Perhaps a taste of things to come, the wintry weather was accompanied by the biggest arrival in years of Waxwing, one of our most distinctive and popular winter visitors.

Following a few reports along the coast of East Anglia last week, birds flooded in on Sunday and Monday. On those two days alone, over 2,700 birds were reported in Scotland, with many smaller flocks along the English east coast. The biggest flocks were reported on Tuesday, with 480 in Pitlochry and 320 in Aberfeldy. Many of these have been reported directly to the BirdGuides news service, which is painting an impressive picture of the scale of the arrival.

Waxwing, Partick, Clyde (Photo: Jim Duncan)

These Nordic nomads are an 'irruptive' species, only arriving in numbers in certain winters, dictated by food availability in Scandinavia. The last big invasion years were in 2008 and 2004.

Winter period Number of sites
So far this winter365

Table 1. Number of individual locations reporting Waxwings over the last 10 winters, demonstrating the irruption years of 2004 and 2008.

Normally birds arrive in the north and slowly filter through the country, but this winter they all seem to have arrived en masse. However, there are remarkably few birds south or west of a line between the Isle of Man and London; so many observers will still need to wait a bit longer for their first Waxwings.

The BirdGuides BirdMap showing the spread of Waxwing records over the last week.

Waxwings can be very confiding, allowing a great view of their eponymous waxy wings. These waxy tips are actually the extended shafts of the feathers, and the number seen will identify the age and sex of the bird, ranging from none on young females to eight on adult males. Listen out for their distinctive trilling call too, sounding oddly reminiscent of "sid-little".

These delightful birds also have a penchant for bright red and orange berries on ornamental trees, and turn up in the strangest of places. So keep an eye out for them in a supermarket car park near you, and to find out why you'd be 10 times better off shopping at Morrisons than Lidl, check out Julian Hughes' hilarious article.

If you are lucky enough to see any of these pink punks, you can help track the invasion by submitting them via our online form or by reporting them to BirdTrack. The BirdTrack animated maps for Waxwing allow you to see both your own records and those of other observers and will provide captivating viewing over the next few weeks. In particular the timing and direction of any dispersal of the birds that have already arrived will be fascinating to follow.

Waxwing, Dundalk, Louth (Photo: Gerry O Neill)

Due to their catholic habitat tastes, Waxwings have a tendency to turn up at 'unbirdy' locations, as opposed to more familiar birding spots. However if you do encounter Waxwings during a visit to a birding site and can add your sighting to BirdTrack as part of a complete list of species seen, such records can then to contribute to the reporting rate graphs. These graphs provide accurate arrival/departure dates for migrants and are likely to prove crucial in the monitoring of changes to migration timing over the coming years.

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The information in this article was believed correct at the time of writing. BirdGuides accepts no responsibility for errors, or for any consequences of acting on information in the article. The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily shared by BirdGuides Ltd.

hide section Reader comments (7)

When is an irruption not an irruption? Whoever wrote the excellent Waxwing article obviously didn't experience the 'dry' years during the 1970s and '80s. Despite being an active birdwatcher in the greater Glasgow area since 1963, I didn't see a single Waxwing between 1973 and 1988 - sixteen consecutive years! By any medium or long term comparison there have been significant Waxwing irruptions in six of the last ten years, not two as suggested under the table. Even taking account of increased reporting, both total numbers and flock sizes of Waxwings recorded in most irruptions since 1988 have been significantly larger than previously, even the 'great invasions' of 1956 and 1965. Enjoy while it lasts!
   Iain Gibson, 28/10/10 04:15Report inappropriate post Report 
Fair point, Iain. As co-author of the article, I must confess that my own experience with Waxwings didn't start until my dad took me to see a flock of 20 on the outskirts of York as a 12-year-old (7/1/89 per my BirdTrack records). Worth noting that the Atlas of Wintering Birds in Britain and Ireland took place during your 'dry years' and recorded Waxwings in 156 10-km squares (admittedly over 3 winters). I wonder if this figure is broadly comparable with the BirdGuides' number of sites in winters 01-02, 06-07, 07-08 and 09-10, particularly given the undoubted effect of the increase in reporting that you rightly mention?
   Nick Moran, 28/10/10 17:35Report inappropriate post Report 
That seems likely Nick, although it is difficult to convert the Winter Atlas number of squares to number of sites. If anything I suspect the total number of birds was lower on average over the Atlas years, taking into account the fact that the pioneering Winter Atlas itself probably generated a significant upsurge in reporting levels. Analysis of the long term record in local bird reports could be revealing. The SOC has a good record of writing up Waxwing invasions in Scotland as a whole, providing a valuable long term dataset. Distant memories are fallible of course, but my memory of the earlier invasions recalls the birds being tamer and less flighty. This may simply be correlated with the bigger flocks we're seeing in recent winters, which in modern parlance are often described as 'mobile'. Flocks of over a hundred were a very rare sight prior to 1988.
   Iain Gibson, 29/10/10 01:18Report inappropriate post Report 
A single Bird in Beccles Grove Road Suffolk for three days. a 1st win female. Most seem to be 1st winter birds.
   Colin Jacobs, 03/11/10 17:16Report inappropriate post Report 
I'm wondering how long the waxwings will stay around here. Maybe it's new groups passing through. Certainly not the 300 plus flocks which arrived in October now 60+ and all thoughts of climbing into our Bramley apple tree to collect fruit for winter have been abandoned! Having eaten all the rowan berries they are having a good feast on the apples. So far they have ignored the many holly berries near their regular roost in our large silver birch. New to this site so I may be in ignorance of where to leave reports. Such fun watching them and they let me get real close to take pics.
   David Downie, 12/11/10 19:09Report inappropriate post Report 
I think you also have to take in to account that a lot of sightings even now go unreported. The winter of 08/09 was my first experience of Waxwings, the sightings of which were reported here on Birdguides. However after my first sighting I subsequently saw flocks on 5 separate occasions in Norwich up until May 2009, all of which went unreported by myself and I did not see reports of these sightings by anyone else (no other birders were around!). I also know several other birders who never report their sightings anywhere.
   Keith Bilverstone, 16/11/10 16:01Report inappropriate post Report 
I was intrigued by these fascinating guests. From start of this week they had been flying around my area and yesterday was the chance to get close up view at them. Waxwings are an amazing bird especially 80 of them on the roof tops, what a sight, never to forget. I've never seen them before in my area but how blessed I was. :o)
   Mr Ilyas Patel, 26/11/10 22:26Report inappropriate post Report 

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