Championed by Steph Harris
On a crisp, cold day last November, I stood at a roadside near Attenborough Nature Reserve, Nottingham, watching a commotion of activity take place across the road. Their audible chatterings reached me over the noise of the traffic; flurries of excitement swept through the group like a Mexican wave. It was fascinating to watch. And these were just the birders.
The creatures I’d really come to see were the reason for the gaggle of fleece-clad, telescope-wielding twitchers I was about to join: eyes scanning the treetops and the faces of the other birdwatchers, we waited with baited breath for any sign of the bird we’d all come to see. And then they came.
A flock of waxwings is a sight to behold for anyone, from the most accomplished birdwatcher to the amateur nature admirer. The Bohemian waxwing is a winter visitor to the UK, but we aren’t blessed with them in large numbers every year. Years when they do arrive in bulk are known irruptions: last year was a particularly good winter for waxwing-lovers; this year, I’m yet to hear much in the way of news of their arrival.
From afar, you could be forgiven for mistaking the birds for starlings. They aggregate in flocks similarly, flitting from treetop to treetop, emitting a constant babble (although a softer, more trilling sound than the whistles of starlings). Close up, these exotic-looking birds appear out of place in a bleak British winter: their plump bodies are a grey-pink-buff colour, and their faces are decorated with smart black-and-white contouring and a pink blush beneath a bolshie Mohican. Just the tip of the tail is bright yellow, as though it were accidentally dipped in paint, and the wings bear streaks of white and yellow and that eponymous red patch: the birds earn their name from the red sealing wax which these feather tips were thought to resemble.
If their fantastic plumage weren’t enough to make these birds incredibly photogenic, their feeding habits are: the berry-laden trees these birds hang off for food make excellent backdrops, and I can never get enough of the photos of waxwings with fat, red berries poised cheekily between the mandibles of their beaks, or even better – tossed in the air mid-catch.
Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest waxwing irruptions are becoming more frequent in recent years – great news for birders, but not so great for waxwings. Irruption years are an indication that feeding conditions in the birds’ summering grounds of Scandinavia are not adequate for that year, forcing them to migrate south in search of the berries that form their diet.
Next time you hear the rumours of waxwings in your area, I strongly advise you grab your camera and head out. They famously don’t play by the rules regarding where to see them – my best sightings to date have been along roadsides and in rowan trees surrounding an industrial park. Of all of Britain’s winter visitors, the waxwing is probably the most eagerly anticipated, and as I’m sure the birders I stood waiting with last year would agree, the waxwing is a bird worth waiting for.