The above images © Tim Lawson
Photo of Waxwings in Aston village taken by Barry Hudson;
note that the red-wax patches are just visible on the wings, but this is unusual.
I was walking through the village on Christmas Eve delivering some late Christmas cards when I set eyes on a bird that I had never seen before in my life. Since I have been interested in birds since the age of about five and have travelled around many parts of the world working as a professional ornithologist, or simply looking at birds for pleasure, this was quite a momentous occasion. And a home-grown one too.
The bird in question was a Waxwing Bombycilla garrulus - see the photo. It is starling-sized with a sort of beigey-brown plumage but what is striking is its punk-rocker style crest which it raises when the mood takes it. It gets its name from the waxy red patches on the tips of its inner flight feathers but in the field one does not see these easily and it just looks as though the wings have nicely scalloped black and white edges. The bird I saw was in the hedge along Chapel Road on the right going towards Witney. And it was doing what waxwings habitually do in winter, which is eating berries.
I had been hoping to see a waxwing this winter because the birding networks were full of reports of them around Oxfordshire, but somehow they were always being reported from somewhere other than where I was. The weather at that time with about a foot of snow was not exactly conducive to driving around looking for waxwings. I had asked various friends to call me if they saw one but that had not produced any leads except to places I was not sure I could get to in the snow.
It turns out that this winter, according to the Oxford Ornithological Society, has proved to be a bumper year for waxwings with a 'spectacular invasion of this species'. They invade from Scandinavia and Russia when the berry crop fails in those areas, moving into Britain from the East. It happens only every few years and in the books it mentions another large-scale invasion in 1965/6. This winter (2010/11) there were one or two records in Oxford in November, but they really moved in big-time in December with 'a peak around the third week when multiple flocks were discovered on a daily basis'. It was roughly estimated that there may have been 700 to 800 birds in Oxfordshire. Reading those details in the OOS Bulletin, made my one bird in Chapel Road seem like small beer, but for me it was still exciting to see just one having never seen it before.
As I write this on 3rd February, waxwings are still around in Oxfordshire and several small flocks have been seen today around Abingdon. In winter waxwings love berries, so if you have some rowan berry crops in your garden, some rose hips or some crab apples, look out for that sandy coloured bird with a puffy crest and black and white markings on its wings. They often occur in small flocks of ten or less. The number of birds tends gradually to tail off during January to March with a few stragglers around until April or May. They nest in pine trees by preference, in northern Scandinavia laying their eggs in mid-June, quite late in the year by British standards. It may be many years before they invade Oxfordshire on the scale they did this year.