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Wildlife in Winter: Waxwings at Christmas

Although they are not native birds, I often associate flocks of waxwings with the run up to Christmas. These colourful birds flock in from Scandinavia each year to escape the icy winters or poor rowan berry harvests there. They reach the East coast first before spreading west in search of food.

Waxwings are renowned for invading city parks, shopping centre car parks and gardens after plundering the sources of berries in the countryside. So watch out as you come out of the shops laden with your Christmas shopping. Meadowhall is a favourite spot. Once found, they are surprisingly tame and readily approachable. This year I’ve heard that there are quite a few about. I haven’t the time to go and look for them now but I’m reminded of the year I heard on the grapevine that a certain street in Huddersfield lined with rowan trees was a hotspot for these gregarious birds. I wanted some good photographs for a painting I was planning at the time, now pictured above, so I decided to drive over there.
I am good at navigating through the countryside, but I’ll admit to being something of a fish out of water in a city and before too long I was totally lost. It took me some time to find the right street, but when I did
so I noticed that it was thankfully still lined with berry laden trees. There was not a bird in sight but I positioned my car at the best angle for photographing. I opened up the sun roof and ventured out through
the top.  I was perfectly camouflaged for wildlife-watching in the deepest countryside, wearing top to toe forest green with a 2ft long camera lens. But I felt utterly out of place in this urban backdrop so I decided to leave my camouflage netting in my car.

Enjoying this story? Click here to see the incredible photographs I took when I saw a huge flock of waxwings in Kirbymoorside

An old boy with his flat cap and whippet came walking along the street and looked me up and down. “What’s tha’ doing lad, are you one of those there paparazzi?”  I explained that I was a wildlife artist and that I was waiting for the waxwings to reappear and eat the berries.“What –Wings?”
“Waxwings” I repeated and went on to explain that it was a bird that migrates to England to escape the harsh winters in Scandinavia. Having said that it was a pretty harsh day in Huddersfield, to say the least. I was explaining how beautiful they were with a black, yellow and white striped wing and black tail hemmed with a perfect yellow band, but was cut short by: “Ney lad there’s nought like that round ‘ere, I think you’ve got the wrong spot. Round ‘ere we just got magpies, starlings and pigeons’
Just then, with impeccable timing, a seagull flew overhead. I pointed it out. “’Aye lad there’s them and all”. There was a long pause and I looked at his shivering whippet. “I’d bist be off and t’k her for her walk” Nearly two hours passed and not a single waxwing appeared. I looked behind me to see the old boy returning. As he came alongside the car, he said “Has thee seen ‘out yit?
I shook my head. ‘just magpies, starlings, pigeons… and seagulls.’
His eyes glinted, ‘I told you so lad.’ I was beginning to think that he was right. Then I spotted a flock of birds fast approaching. They looked like a squadron of starlings in flight at first. As they landed on top of a nearby tree, it was clear that these were the birds I had been waiting for – a museum of waxwings. Silhouetted against the grey clouds we could both see their sweeping crests, but it was difficult to distinguish their beautiful colouring.
As they flew down into the laden rowan trees to plunder the berries, a pair of mistle thrushes appeared to guard these precious food stores. This pair of mistle thrushes tried in vain to chase the waxwings off the tree. But the waxwings were too nimble and too numerous for their clumsy rivals and they carried on feeding regardless. The old boy said: “Well, I ‘ave never seen ‘ought like that rand ‘ere.” And he set off home with his quivering whippet. He was an endearing chap, but I was quite relieved when he had gone as he clearly thought I was totally mad.
It had been a long day and although I’d got some good shots, the greyness of the day meant that the photographs weren’t the best. I spent the next couple of weeks touring South and West Yorkshire for a better sighting. But waxwings are truly nomadic. Once a food source is depleted they will move on to find the next. You need to act immediately on any tip off and I was always following them in vain.
Christmas day came round and I set off to spend the day with my in-laws in  Pocklington. Crackers were cracked, hats were donned, the turkey was carved and we were just tucking into a real Christmas feast in the conservatory when I heard the unmistakable trilling call of a waxwing. I looked outside and six landed in the cherry tree at the bottom of the garden. Knives and forks were put to one side and were swiftly replaced with a pair of binoculars to confirm the sighting. This was a present too good to be true and one designed by nature. With that they swooped into the berry laden rowan tree which was just a few metres from where we were sitting. The reason for the name ‘waxwing’ became clear. Each of the secondary flight feathers bore a tear-shaped red droplet which matched the dripping candle wax on our table.
Waxwings, painted by Robert E Fuller
A pair of mistle thrushes swooped in to guard their berries that they had kept safe up until now to add to the drama. It was a sight to behold. It really did make my Christmas.


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