Although the snow has been sparse, this has still been a great winter for these strikingly plumaged birds. There have been lots of sightings all over the Highlands and some pretty big flocks seen, the biggest numbering 300. The numbers have tailed off now, but still flocks of up to 20 have been still been seen. So, what is the story behind this intermittent arrival to our shores?
Firstly, we should start with its name….. Waxwing, why? When the wings are closed, you can see a line of red dots that look very much like old-fashioned sealing wax. These dots are the exposed red tips of shaft of the secondary feathers. No one is quite sure what their purpose is.
The birds are about the size and giss of a Starling and fly about in a similar fashion. The big difference in giss is the shorter bill giving them a blunter appearance than the Starlings. Their call is a high-pitched trilling, which is a giveaway if you don’t get a good view of them. When you do get a good look at them then you can see the crest, the peach-brown plumage, black tail with a yellow terminal band, chestnut undertail coverts and the narrow black eye mask and chin. They really are spectacularly beautiful birds.
Looking at the Highland records for this year they started appearing first on the west coast in mid-October and the large numbers built up in Inverness and Speyside in November with a peak flock size of 300 in Inverness on the 19 November. The numbers have declined with smaller flocks still being seen. It is thought that in a good year around 12,000 Waxwings will arrive in the UK, though sometimes the numbers can be as low as the tens.
Waxwings breed in the boreal forest of the northern hemisphere, there are three species; the Bohemian (Scandinavia to Asia), Japanese and Cedar (North American). The harsh winters up there mean that they will move southwards for food. But why do they appear in large numbers in the UK in some years and not in others? It is down to two main factors, the success of breeding in that year and the availability of berries. If you get a good breeding year with lots of juveniles and a poor berry crop in the south of their usual winter range they will head further afield in search of food.
The birds from Fennoscandia move south-westerly and arrive in Scotland often Shetland, first. They can appear on the west or east coast, last year the first sightings were over in Wester Ross on the 19 October and a week later the birds were sighted in Speyside. After the berry trees and bushes are exhausted the birds move on further south and west. The Grampian Ringing Group has a fascinating blog on the results of their colour ringing over the years, with birds heading over to Ireland and Wales. In the Spring, in common with many species, Waxwings will fly directly back to their breeding grounds having provisioned themselves over the winter.
Waxwings specialise in eating fruit and in winter consume huge numbers of berries, sometimes 1000 or twice their bodyweight a day! There is also a side effect to eating semi-fermented fruit namely coping with alcohol! To deal with it the Waxwing has a liver that is 5% of their body weight to break down all the alcohol they may be ingesting. However all this boozing can lead to drunkenness and even death. The fruit eating does give them a thirst and they are often seen drinking and have even been seen flycatching snowflakes.
In the summer, they eat lots of insects and behave like a flycatcher when capturing prey. Once the summer ends they switch over to berries, they will also eat buds and seeds. They have been observed eating tree bark but it is thought that this is to provide roughage for their fruit-heavy diet. In the UK, they feed mainly on Rowan, Hawthorn and Cotoneaster, but just about all berries are fair game.
To come and see these birds at their best why not plan a long weekend in the winter and hire one of our expert guides to take you to where the birds are. It wasn’t just Waxwings that appeared this year but over ten Hawfinch were seen near Grantown-on-Spey over several weeks, so you never know what will turn up.