The sight of a Waxwing can brighten up any winter day, no matter how dull the weather. Not only do these Starling-sized birds have rather smart plumage, but they also have bags of personality and are usually confiding in habit. Small numbers reach our shores most winters but every few years we see a large influx, an arrival triggered by poor berry crops closer to their breeding range.
Waxwings breed within the substantial belt of boreal forest, that extends from Scandinavia, through Russia and across to the Pacific coast. Although the birds breed at relatively low densities, a good berry crop in one autumn can deliver a sizeable population through to the following year. Since a poor berry crop usually follows a particularly good one, this increased population of birds is likely to find itself short of berries the following autumn, and this is when these birds are forced to move long distances in search of food.
Observations from birdwatchers, coupled with the efforts of bird ringers – many of whom fit individual Waxwings with unique colour-ring combinations for resighting, show that initial arrivals fall along Britain’s east coast, with Scotland and Northern England receiving the bulk of the birds early during the winter. Over the following weeks, often with arrivals continuing, these individuals move inland and begin to move further south and west. The birds are often seen in small flocks, perhaps of a dozen or more individuals, but much larger groups are a feature of those winters when large numbers of birds arrive.
Outside of the breeding season, the favoured food is the berries of Rowan, but they will also take berries from other plants in the genus Sorbus, as well as those of Cotoneaster and the hawthorns. Many urban areas contain suitable berry-producing bushes and shrubs, with supermarket car parks, industrial estates and new housing development often favoured by the birds because of the amount of ‘amenity’ planting present, which is rich in berries. Red berries seem to be preferred over orange berries, which are in turn favoured over yellow and white berries – a pattern seen in the preferences of many other berry-eating garden birds.
Waxwings prefer to feed within bushes and shrubs, taking the berries directly from the plant, and you rarely see them feeding on the ground. Individuals may be seen plucking small berries before flicking them up in the air with a quick toss of the head, before swallowing them. Birds may occasionally be seen taking small insects and flower or leaf buds. A downside of eating berries in such numbers is that the birds sometimes become slightly intoxicated by fermenting fruit.
A casual glance, which takes in a flock of Waxwings, often suggests Starlings instead – the two species are similar in size and, to an extent, profile. However, look more closely and you should spot the characteristic crest and the soft, peach-brown tones to the plumage. A closer view will reveal the black throat and the black eye mask, the yellow-tipped tail and the delicate-looking ‘wax-drops’ that end some of the wing feathers (certain of the secondary feathers).
Being confiding in their habits – they probably don’t encounter humans within their breeding habitats – means that Waxwings tend to be quite approachable, providing a great opportunity to try your photographic skills and capture an image of this rather smart little bird.