Waxwings are charismatic birds that even non-birdwatchers are often aware of. In winters when large numbers reach these shores, like this year, newspapers, radio and television will feature the event.
Mainly shades of brown and fawn, although such a description would totally fail to indicate the beauty, charm and 'wow' factorf these birds possess. Enlivening the silky, neutral base colours are splashes of white and red in the wings and a strong yellow band at the base of the tail. Black mask like markings on the head are crowned by that distinctive crest, which can be raised and lowered and gives the birds their characteristic outline. Adding to their appeal are the trilling calls, often given in flight. Waxwings are social birds and where suitable food supplies are found, flocks of several hundred birds have been recorded here.
The Waxwing (also know as Bohemian Waxwing in north America ), is one of three species worldwide. It breeds in high latitudes from Scandinavia, across northern Russia and again in north-west Canada and Alaska. The other species, quite similar in appearance, are Cedar Waxwing*, found in north America and Japanese Waxwing from north-east Asia.
Birds that arrive in the UK are most likely to be from Scandinavia or arctic Russia where they breed in spruce and pine trees of the Taiga. In winter, when their summer food of insects has gone, they rely on berries, and their winter distribution depends largely on the berry crops close to their breeding areas. In most years when local crops are good, they will move south and west, but not too far from the breeding areas, and only a small number will be seen in Britain. In poor berry years, large numbers of birds may move considerable distances and this is when we receive an influx in Britain. Some previous notable 'eruption' years are 1995/6, 1990/1, 1970/1 and 1965/6.
With the birds arriving from the Scandinavia, it is the east coasts of Scotland and England that see the highest numbers of birds. Small groups or larger flocks may start off in coastal areas, moving inland as they exhaust local berry crops. Birds are normally present in Britain from October or November through to March or early April and rarely later.
The search for berries often brings Waxwings close to people as berry bearing trees and bushes are frequently found in gardens, parks and even as decorative features around supermarkets and other buildings. They are not shy birds and may allow close views as they busily feed. Favourite fruits include rowan, cotoneaster, pyracantha, dog-rose and crab apple.
Bombycilla cedrorum, has been recorded in the UK but is a very rare vagrant.
Waxwing Photos © Nick Plumb. Nick took these excellent photographs on 30th November 2004 at Martelsham Heath near Ipswich, Suffolk, using a Nikon D70 and Sigma 400mm lens. Our thanks for his permission to use them here.