Walking home this afternoon, I heard the unmistakable high-pitched trill of a waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus). I looked around and, sure enough, there were 10 of the starling-sized birds perched in a tree next to Walkley Working Men’s Club.
Photo by Dave Appleton
The arrival of the first waxwings of winter always causes a brief frisson of excitement. These exotic-looking birds nest in the conifer forests of northern Scandinavia, but head for the British Isles in the autumn. Their visits used to be very infrequent. Between the 1950s and the 1980s large flocks would only appear every five years or so, when the birds were forced across the North Sea by a shortage of food. In the 1990s their visits became more frequent and now waxwings can be seen every year between November and May.
In winter waxwings feed mainly on berries. They scour the shrubberies of Sheffield for rowans, pyracanthas and cotoneasters, sometimes descending on them in noisy flocks several hundred strong. What a bizarre contrast: they nest in the boreal wilderness where they hardly ever see a human, then spend the winter foraging around supermarket car parks!
Thanks to John M. for drawing my attention to this excellent website, which tells you everything you could ever want to know about waxwings.