Waxwings in Cumbria

(April 25, 2019)

There are scattered records of Waxings Bombycilla garrulous in Cumbria in most years, most frequently from town areas, with large numbers seen in irruption winters such as 1995-6 and 2004/5.

In 2004, several flocks of over 1000 had been sighted by early November in eastern Scotland, making it probably the largest irruption for over 50 years. Flocks appeared in Cumbria soon after; around 30 were seen in Ulverston and around 200 in a car park in Kendal on the 14th November.

These unusually colourful, starling-like birds have travelled from Scandinavia and western Siberia to spend the winter here in search of berries. Their favourite food in their homeland is rowan; if warm conditions exist when rowans flower, it produces a heavy crop and the survival rate of waxwings increases through the following winter, so the waxwing population is high in the next breeding season. Since a poor berry crop usually follows a heavy one, there are then far more waxwings searching for fewer berries and they are forced to move south and west.

The Waxwing is an elegant bird, a well-dressed, but not too gaudy, Georgian gentleman, as the image alongside demonstrates. His sleek and sheeny plumage has softly blended shades of grey, brown, and russet and is neatly trimmed with white, yellow, black and a touch of red. The whole is topped off with a delightful, silky, reddish-brown crest that flutters in the breeze. The amazing red tips of the secondary wing feathers, looking like blobs of sealing wax, give the bird its name. Their purpose is something of a mystery. I am indebted to Martin Ridley (see www.wildlife-art-paintings.co.uk) for providing the photograph from which the image was taken.

It is sometimes said that Waxwings “feed like a parrot and fly like a Starling”. I watched a flock of 30 settle into the upper branches of a tall tree near my home. Several birds would shuttle down to the source of berries in a nearby garden and when they returned another group followed, and so on. This typical behaviour is quite different to the chaotic competition so common in other bird species. Whilst waiting their turn, the birds in the tree adopted many different postures, often with wing tips held away from the body. The odd one even flew up to take an insect, flycatcher style, which is characteristic of their summer feeding routine. When taking berries they were surprisingly acrobatic, hanging like a tit, stretching with elongated body to reach out of the way berries or dropping their head below the body with tail spread for balance like a small parrot. The flock keeps in contact with a constant garrulous chatter – a distinctive but subdued bell-like trill.

Waxwings have a voracious appetite, sometimes eating until they can no longer move, and it takes just a few hours for a small flock to strip several bushes. Increasingly, Waxwings are being spotted in supermarket car parks, as many of these are landscaped with berry bearing shrubs, such as cotoneaster, pyrancantha and rose. Sometimes they stay to devour all the berries or they may leave quite suddenly and unpredictably. When the flock moves on, the flight is undulating with frequent changes of direction (with all the birds in unison, like a flock of starlings).

The Waxwings’ social behaviour makes them relatively tame birds and they can be easily approached until you are standing beneath the tree in which they are resting.