Waxwing winters

Discover the bird that’s a favourite amongst birdwatchers, despite the fact that most rarely see one.

It’s been a good year for Waxwings in the Tees Valley – have you seen any?

Every winter, millions of birds travel to the UK to escape the harsher weather that sets in at their breeding grounds. Families of whooper swans fly down from Iceland, thrushes and finches flee the forests of Northern Europe, and ducks from across the continent fill our wetlands. But there is one bird whose arrival is more eagerly anticipated than any other: the waxwing.

There are only three species of waxwing found around the world. Our regular visitor is the bohemian waxwing, but there is also the cedar waxwing (found in North America) and the Japanese waxwing (found in Northeast Asia). Every autumn, birdwatchers cross their fingers and hope that the coming winter will bring an influx of bohemian waxwings to our shores.

Bohemian beauties

Their enduring appeal is partly down to looks. The waxwing is an undeniably beautiful bird. It’s a touch smaller than a starling, with a pleasingly plump body. Its silky feathers are soft hues of grey, brown and apricot, with some stylish accessories. There’s a bright yellow band across the end of the tail, white and yellow dashes on the wings, and a black patch on the throat and above the beak, which sweeps back through the eye and up, like the perfect winged eyeliner. This unique look is topped off by a perfectly coiffed crest.

They take the name waxwing from the glossy red tips to some of their wing feathers, which look like drops of the wax you might use to seal a letter. But not all waxwings have these red tips. They develop as the bird ages, so young birds may not have any by their first winter.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder

Another big part of the appeal of waxwings is that their arrival is never guaranteed. They’re known as irruptive visitors. In some winters, we might only see a handful across the country. In others, there can be flocks across the UK, with some holding hundreds of birds. An influx like this is called an irruption. These years are known as ‘waxwing winters’ and they don’t come around very often.

It all comes down to berries. Waxwings love them. In summer they feed on insects, but as the days darken their diet switches to fruits. They wander from their breeding grounds in the boreal forests of Northern Europe, forming flocks that sweep through Fennoscandia in search of berry-bearing trees. If they find plenty there, they’ll stay put. But if berries are in short supply in Scandinavia, they’ll cross the North Sea to try their luck here instead.

The first flocks are usually seen in the north and east, from the Northern Isles of Scotland to the Northumberland coast. From there they filter through Scotland and England and can appear anywhere that berries are abundant. Even in winters where waxwings are rare, there are usually a few records from the north and east.

Coming to a supermarket near you

One of the waxwing’s endearing quirks is that they regularly turn up in urban areas, particularly the car parks of supermarkets and shopping centres. These places are often planted with ornamental trees, full of food for hungry waxwings.

But it seems not all berries are equal in the eyes of a waxwing. Red ones appear to be the most in-demand, including cotoneaster, viburnum, hawthorn and particularly rowan. As stocks of these are depleted, they’ll settle for orange or yellow berries, or white berries like mistletoe.

In flight, a flock of waxwings could easily be dismissed as starlings. They both have plump silhouettes and short tails. One of the first giveaways is often their call. Waxwings are chatty, with birds regularly calling to each other in pleasant, high-pitched trills. Fittingly for a winter visitor, the sound is often likened to soft, jingling sleigh bells.

On your next walk around your neighbourhood, keep an eye out for trees full of berries. You never know, one day they might attract a flock of wondrous waxwings!