Country & Coast: Tracing the path of the waxwing

Some weeks ago, my friend, Kirsty Swinburn, reported a waxwing in Sheffield. Perhaps our most stunning bird, waxwings combine exotic appearance with approachability, and tantalising unpredictability in their annual visitations.

The scientific name, Bombycilla garrulous, means chattering, and "waxwing" refers to the distinctive red waxy blobs on the secondary wing-feather tips.

The hat-like crest sweeps back cavalier-style to complete the dramatic persona. Their old German name of Bohemian Waxwing referred to erratic and unpredictable occurrence and exotic nature. After breeding in high northern Arctic and sub-Arctic taiga, in winter the birds sweep southwards in vast numbers. They feast on Scandinavian berry crops, mainly rowan or mountain ash. If they exhaust these, the flocks continue south-west to Britain.

In normal winters, we get small flocks or individual birds, but in "waxwing winters", the numbers soar to thousands as they "irrupt" across northern Europe.

Flocks of 10,000 or more have been recorded, but smaller groups of 30 to 40, up to 100 are more usual.

Native berry bushes, like hawthorn and rowan, are favoured, but plantings of exotic cotoneasters, pyracanthas, sea buckthorn, and whitebeams, in gardens and in public spaces like roadsides and car parks, are waxwing magnets.

When the heavy shroud of winter snow enveloped Yorkshire, flocks of Scandinavian waxwings descended like Vikings of old.

As in history, the waves of invaders followed each other from Europe to Britain and so, too, with the birds.

Redwings arrived first to gobble up the rowanberries; fieldfares followed in loud flocks searching for berries and especially fruit, and then came the waxwings.

Across the region, expect these wonderfully exotic visitors, the odd one or two in gardens, but bigger flocks in planted shrubberies and in other places with berry bushes. They will turn up in any suitable habitat, so watch out. Distant flocks look like starlings, but up close, they are unmistakeable.

They consume huge numbers of berries – 500 cotoneaster berries in six hours recorded near Moray Firth in 1946, about three times their own body weight, and 600 to 1,000 berries in six hours in Carmarthenshire.

In 1957, seven waxwings stripped a hundred square feet of cotoneaster in just two days.

Of course, the berries come out at the other end, too, and if we have more snow, then expect a good covering of waxwing droppings, but only in localised showers.

Ian Rotherham is a writer, broadcaster, Professor of Environmental Geography, and Reader in Tourism and Environmental Change.

CW 29/1/11