On the eighth day of Christmas my true love sent to me, eight waxwings trilling ……

I’ve had bird books for many years: pocket-sized books with pictures and descriptions of the common British birds.   Not that I am a bird enthusiast.  I just want to be able to identify the birds around me.  If I am honest, though, I have always found the books slightly frustrating.  There seem to be so many small brown birds that I could not hope to distinguish in the field and an irritating sprinkling of exotic species that feels like it is included to show how clever the author is.  In mostly monochrome Britain how can I expect to see brightly coloured rarities like Hoopoes and Golden Orioles?

Over the years, as I predicted, I didn’t see any of the “exotics” but I’ve found that with bird watching, the more you look the more you see.  I can still remember where and when I saw, for the first time, the striking red bib of a male linnet.   Another strong memory is a green woodpecker systematically gorging itself on the ants in our front lawn.  And once you have seen the brash pinkish-red breast of a male bullfinch with his neat black cap, you never forget and never fail to be struck by the colours.  But this was still only an occasional pastime until, a few years ago, my teenage daughter became interested in birds.

She started by disappearing to her room with all the bird books we have in the house.  She studied the books in great detail comparing the different entries.  She can now identify most birds visually and tell us about the minute differences between species.  She was particularly thrilled to find out that several female birds of prey are bigger than their male counterparts!  Eventually she asked for some good binoculars for a present and we all found that we could see so much more.   It sounds obvious but it was a surprise and we were all drawn in.

Around the same time, we were visiting Lyme Regis in Dorset on a cold Saturday in December 2010.  The car park above the town is surrounded by trees that have berries in winter and we saw, on one of these trees, a bird with an odd profile.  Getting a bit closer, we were able to see the unmistakable crest of a waxwing.  The bird stayed long enough for us to get some photos and the experience of seeing, for the first time, an “exotic” was thrilling.

 

Bombycilla garrulusII

Waxwing (Andreas Trepte/Wikimedia Commons)

Why the fuss?  I think it’s because waxwings are unlike any other bird I have seen and they are rare, at least in this country.  They are plump, reddish-brown birds about the size of a starling and with their jaunty quiff of a crest they are unmistakable.   They also have a black mask around their eyes and it is the combination of crest and mask that gives them a pugnacious swagger rather like bank robbers in a silent movie.  The wing feathers have small yellow and white details and distinctive red tips that resemble drops of sealing wax, hence the bird’s name.

 

Sidensvans Bombycilla garrulus 03

Wing patterns and “sealing wax” tips (Amphis/Wikimedia Commons)

 

Waxwings (or more properly Bohemian Waxwings) are found in the northern forests of Europe, Asia and North America where they breed, feeding on fruits, berries and insects.  The European birds breed in northern Sweden and Finland and in the winter they head south in search of food.  If breeding has been very successful or if there is a shortage of winter berries in Scandinavia they move further afield.  Sometimes this means they come to the UK and we experience an “irruption” or “waxwing winter”.  2010 was one of these years and many of the birds were seen in the UK.  2011 was a poor year and 2012 is looking good.

Let’s now turn to my silly title.  There are many good birding sites on the internet and I have been following the arrival of waxwings in the UK as 2012 comes to a close.  The birds were spotted in Fair Isle, Shetland in early November and some outstanding pictures of the birds eating fruit have been posted.  They were also reported in good numbers elsewhere in Scotland and in other parts of the UK.

Some waxwings were seen, mostly in small groups, in the South West, near where I live and there were sporadic sightings throughout November and December.  In late December a small group had been seen on consecutive days in one street in Torquay, feeding on berries.  We had to go to Torquay for another reason and I persuaded my family that we should also search for these exotic visitors.  This part of Torquay was developed about 40 years ago and consists of pleasant residential streets with mature trees and many mature shrubs with copious red berries at this time of year.  Parking some way away from the place where the waxwings had been spotted we walked quietly up the road.  Approaching the prescribed place we saw a small group of birds fly from a berry-laden hedge to a nearby tree.  With binoculars we could see the signature crests of the waxwings and were able to count eight in total.  The birds stayed in the tree, moving about and “talking” to one another with their pretty and distinctive trill.  We went home, well pleased with our luck.

So it’s no longer “eight maids a milking” and here is a picture of our “eight waxwings trilling”.

waxwings 2012,1

Eight waxwings trilling (Hazel Strange)

About Philip Strange

After more than 30 years as an experimental scientist, I decided to have a complete change and moved to the West Country. I now write about science for several magazines and web sites and blog at http://philipstrange.wordpress.com/.
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14 Responses to On the eighth day of Christmas my true love sent to me, eight waxwings trilling ……

  1. I love Waxwings. We get Cedar Waxwings here in Southern Ontario as spring/fall migrants passing through – usually just for a week or two, stuffing themselves at feeders and on berries. Once in a very long while we will get winter invasions of your Bohemian Waxwings, when the weather is very cold and they come down from the north, but that’s rare.

    Your story of the Green Woodpecker eating ants from the ground is reminiscent of the Northern (Yellow-Shafted) Flickers we get here – also woodpecker family, but completely adapted to eating ants on the ground. There’s a pretty poor photo of one on an old post of mine here:
    http://ricardipus.blogspot.ca/2007/04/easter-weekend-with-birds.html

    And your Bullfinch is a handsome chap – we don’t get those at all unfortunately.

    • Thanks Richard, I notice that Bohemian Waxwings have been spotted this winter in Vancouver and Toronto.
      The Flicker is a beautiful bird, I wasn’t aware of them.

  2. cromercrox says:

    Thank you for this, Philip. I shall consider myself informed.

  3. Wawings have been seen in Cambridge this winter too, although I regret to say I haven’t encountered any yet. I always loved seeing their American cousins when I lived in Ithaca (NY), where regularly you could find a crowd stripping a tree of its berries.

    In your list of brightly coloured birds I’m surprised you omitted kingfishers. Unmistakable, brilliant blue: stunning when the sun shines on their plumage. These too I have (rarely) seen close in to the centre of Cambridge (even once on Jesus Greeen as well as in the Botanic Gardens) and you don’t need binoculars to identify them

    • Thanks Athene, the eastern side of the country is typically the better part to see them so you might still be lucky.
      You are right, I should have mentioned kingfishers. I can count on the fingers of one hand the times I have seen that unmistakable flash of iridescent blue near water but the memory lingers.

  4. Another familiar one… the Belted Kingfisher, which I think (without looking it up, due to laziness) is probably not the same species as you have in the UK. Gorgeous things nonetheless, and their noisy and brash attitude is fun. 🙂

  5. I used to be much better at bird identification than I am now. Sea birds were my speciality – we had some memorable family visits to the Farne Islands off the North Northumberland coast, where the nesting Arctic terns dive-bomb anyone who comes close and they won’t let you on the island without a hat.

    Just a few weeks ago, I heard a great commotion coming from my back garden and ran outside to find my cats being heckled by six or seven Steller’s Jays. I escorted the cats inside and then watched the birds with great delight for five minutes or so, when they flew off. I quickly went to Facebook to announce my great excitement over this, saying that I’d seen the jays in Colorado before but didn’t know they’re ever seen in Vancouver. Imagine my embarrassment when someone pointed out that they are, in fact, the official provincial bird of British Columbia…

    It might be time for me to dust off my own bird books…

    • I remember seeing the Steller’s Jays when I lived in Northern California, quite a shock to an impressionable Brit!
      I have not seen the cats being attacked here but I regularly see the predatory gulls bombing birds of prey to frighten them away. The gulls also attacked one of my neighbours as he walked down the street.

  6. Grant says:

    I can’t recall seeing any waxwings when I was in Cambridge, but then as a student my mind was probably elsewhere…! Like Cathy I used to know the New Zealand birdlife fairly well as a kid, but I guess I moved on to other things as I grew older. Besides, I have my own Christmas bird story: Thieves in gold-mining era campsites:

    http://sciblogs.co.nz/code-for-life/2013/01/13/thieves-in-gold-mining-era-campsites/

  7. Finally, I am delighted to say, the Cambridge waxwings did turn up in my garden at the weekend – or at least 4 of them did. I didn’t manage to get a photo, but I did manage to show them to my husband before they flew away – he has been proudly telling the rest of the neighbourhood ever since. The rest of my family are gnashing their teeth. And I can confirm, the thrill of seeing them is as great as I thought it would. A real rarity and a gorgeous item to see.

    • You were very lucky to see them in your garden! I agree, they are thrilling, it’s something to do with their exoticism and, in the UK, their rarity. I haven’t seen any more down here myself but they are still about. They seem to like trees by busy roads and motorway services in Devon but I think it’s purely a matter of where the berries are.

  8. Pingback: She laments, sir,….. her husband goes this morning a-birding | The Occam's Typewriter Irregulars