Sunday, 11 November 2012

Wandering Waxwings

ResearchBlogging.orgI have litte interest in watching birds swept away from their native grounds by a tropical storm, or inexplicably lost and found far away from their usual migratory routes. Waxwings are different, and I have been wanting to see them for years. They might be rare, or not present in great numbers every year, but the UK is part of their distribution range. The last couple of days, I have been popping in a local supermarket carpark to watch a large flock of these amazing birds. Bohemian Waxwings, Bombycilla garrulus, as other boreal bird species - like Crosbills, Siskins and Redpolls - do not fit into a regular migratory pattern, they are instead irruptive migrants. It is thought that the species common name, Bohemian, comes from these wandering habits. In irruption years, many thousands of individuals flock and wander well south of their summer grounds in the the Russian and northern Scandinavian taiga making it to the UK. Flocks then move nomadically in search of food, as it is not cold winters what prompts their movement, but unpredictable food resources. Irruption years in Waxwings correlate with poor crops on fruit and berries in their northern grounds following a good fruiting year. Waxwings are highly frugivorous birds, their exclusive diet in the winter consists of berries and fruits: Rowan, Hawthorn, Cotoneaster, Mistletoe, Rose Hips and many others both wild and cultivated. The main resource, Rowan berries, fluctuates erratically across years in their summer grounds, as Rowan is a masting species, as fruit production is synchronised in the population and totally fails some years. During these poor fruit years, Waxwings initiate their movements earlier in the year, and therefore earlier arrivals of waxwings indicate that it will be an irruption year.
 During irruptions, waxwings carry on moving through the winter as they deplete their food resources locally, and they are wanderers all year round, with little chance that they will return to the same areas where they were born in the following summer. This winter is going to be one of those irruption years, and the Waxwing invasion is well underway.
 Waxwings are surprisingly small birds, similar in size to Starlings, to which they also resemble in flight, as they flock and have pointy, triangular wings. At close range there is no mistaking them, with their soft plumage, characteristic crest and 'zorro' mask. At even closer range, you might get to see the striking bright scarlet waxy drops and yellow streaks adorning their wings. They do look smart.
 As most fruit eaters, Waxwings need to eat a large number of berries to survive - an estimation was double their body weight in berries. A flock can quickly strip down a tree. When not feeding, they like to sit atop trees, preening and just looking around, while constantly chattering, a pleasing cricket-like and jingly call.

A large flock of Waxwings resting and preening.
The top of this Rowan has already been stripped, but there are still plenty of berries at the bottom of the tree, which are harder to reach 
A circling flock of Waxwings deciding where to stop
 These three were looking up nervously, might well have been keeping an eye on the Sparrowhawk soaring above them.
The flock I was watching was resting on a Rowan tree and the birds were not quite daring to do to the bottom of the tree to start eating. They increased the rhythm of they calls like they were agreeing on something, and took to the wing. I am so pleased I finally managed to catch up with them. Bon voyage!

More information

Barbara and David Snow (1988) Birds and Berries. T & AD Poyser. 268 pp.

Ian Newton (2006) Advances in the study of irruptive migration. Ardea 94, 433-460.

Koenig, W., & Knops, J. (2001). Seed-crop size and eruptions of North American boreal seed-eating birds Journal of Animal Ecology, 70 (4), 609-620 DOI: 10.1046/j.1365-2656.2001.00516.x


  1. fascinating! you communicate this so well

  2. I have still never seen any! What a lucky chance you had there, I am envious.

    1. Thank you conall. I am glad you enjoy the post. And Toffeeapple, I hope you have your chance to watch them this year too. They are addictive. I have been watching them for three days in a row now, and they are appearing all over Britain so good luck!