NATURE NOTES - Wigan’s waxwing winter

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IT looks like the UK is set for another ‘waxwing winter’ this year.

There have been reports of literally thousands of them hitting our shores and then moving inland from their usual home in Scandinavia. It’s only a couple of years ago that we went dashing over to Horwich in search of the colourful but incredibly elusive waxing. After a quick search and a couple of phone calls we found the flock of over a hundred birds slap bang in the middle of a large housing estate feeding on rowan berries like they were going out of fashion. There was no mistaking them with their pinkish-buff bodies and their little swept-back crests, giving them an Elvisesque type of ‘cool’ look!!!. They seemed just to be chilling when suddenly off they all flew, looking like a rather overweight, slightly tipsy flock of starlings. After a couple of circuits they all landed again in the same trees – much to the delight of the dozens of birders and photographers that were loitering about.

Every so often we have a ‘waxwing winter’ when very large numbers of waxwings turn up for a winter holiday from Scandinavia. They travel thousands of miles – some visitors originating from Siberia or Eastern Europe. Waxwings are annual winter visitors to Britain in small numbers, and always attract considerable interest when they occur. Occasionally, though, many more arrive on our shores, and this year has been one of the best years on record, with flocks of several hundred in Scotland, and similar flocks appearing throughout England. The total birds must be in the many thousands.

In summer, waxwings breed in Scandinavia and feed mainly on insects. In winter, waxwings switch to feeding on berries, especially the soft juicy berries of rowan trees. If the berry crop is poor in Scandinavia, they are forced to travel farther south and west in search of food, and it is in these years that large numbers invade Britain. This looks like it’s going to be one of those years!

Perhaps one of the easiest birds to identify, waxwings have dark salmon-pink and grey plumage topped off by an impressive crest (Elvis!). They have a black mask and bib, yellow and white wings bars and yellow tip to the tail. They get their name from the waxy red tips to some of their wing feathers, although you need a really good view to see these.

During a waxwing invasion, like this year, they are frequently found in the most unlikely places. Retail parks and supermarket car parks, usually because these areas are increasingly planted with bushes such as firethorn, cotoneaster, rowan and guelder rose. Waxwings can be relatively tame, and very approachable. However, they never stay in one place very long, when the berries have been gobbled down, the waxwings will soon do a very quick vanishing act.

So far this year – even with the numbers of waxwings – I’ve not been lucky enough to find any despite checking all the places you’d expect them to be but nothing yet although there has been a couple of reports from local birders seeing them in flight here in Wigan. Fingers crossed that they arrive in Haigh soon!