A Waxwing Winter
By Lewis Hooper, ecologist at Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust
Waxwings are perhaps one of the most beautiful birds imaginable.
Their buff colouration with flashes of yellow and red on the wings, elegant ‘eyeliner’ and silky large crest really make them stand out from the crowd.
Part of a family of three species, the Bohemian waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus) is the species native to northern Europe. The bird’s English name refers to how they travel in large nomadic groups (bohemian) and the red tips to their secondary wing feathers that look like seal wax droplets (waxwing).
But it’s not all about the looks. Their trilling ‘sirrrrr’ call sounds like a small ringing bell – perhaps akin to Santa’s sleigh dashing overhead – as flocks of up to 100 birds move from tree to tree.
Bohemian waxwings breed within the northern parts of Europe’s coniferous belt, often in remote, damp, mossy mature forests nesting high in pines. In winter, they escape the numbing temperatures of north-eastern Europe and western Russia and head west in search of more temperate conditions, feeding on fruit-rich trees including apple, rowan and hawthorn. During winter, a relatively small number of these starling-sized birds travel to UK shores; first seen on the east coast before spreading west and south from there.
Waxwings are referred to as irruptive, which means on occasion large numbers of the birds migrate beyond their typical range. Some years, hundreds of thousands of waxwings will land in the UK, often labelled as a ‘waxwing winter’. But why does this happen?
Waxwings are pushed away from their breeding grounds in search of food, and it’s the yield of fruit trees that determines how far afield waxwings must travel. Most fruit trees of the same, and of similar, species bear fruit at the same time. This can result in a bounty of fruits in some years, and practically none in others. During years of bad yields, large numbers of waxwings will migrate large distances. Recent reports of poor berry crops in Finland and Sweden suggest an irruption is possible this year!
Waxwings in Hampshire
In Hampshire, waxwings are not seen every year – they are a rare visitor. However, when they do turn up, it might not be where you’d expect. The ASDA supermarket in Totton and Whiteley shopping centre in Fareham are common hotspots. These commercial areas often feature car parks planted with aesthetically pleasing, berry-laden fruit trees – and these always prove popular with waxwings. The last irruption in Hampshire was in the winter of 2010 when over 2,000 birds arrived.
So, keep your eyes and ears open for these punk rock-looking winter birds over Christmas and New Year and you might just get lucky enough to spot one!
To learn more about local wildlife, visit the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust at website https://www.hiwwt.org.uk