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Wildlife in Winter: Why Yorkshire is a Great Place to see Waxwings

Waxwings on Rowan Berries, by Robert E Fuller

I always associate them with the run up to Christmas, when they arrive to escape the icy winters further north. So when I heard that they had begun arriving in record numbers one November along a few first flurries of snow, the news put me in seasonal mood. Waxwings migrate to the UK to take feed on our rowan berries when stocks in their native Scandinavia begin to run out. The first waxwings always land in flocks on the north east coast before they disperse further west. This means we are ideally placed to see them here. They are renowned for invading towns and cities first, including city parks, shopping centre car parks and municipal gardens.

And, for those who live there, this invasion is also often accompanied by an influx of camera-toting camouflage-wearing birdwatchers like me. In fact some years the waxwings are the only thing to draw me from the countryside and my lack of knowledge about the etiquette of suburbia often lands me in trouble – much to the amusement of those who know me. Waxwings usually target the rowan trees first, as this is their favourite food in Scandinavia. After this year’s stunning autumn show of berries, it has become a real waxwing year.

 

But their arrival is not always guaranteed – last year very few waxwings made the journey south. For an artist like myself, this was a huge disappointment. These birds are very colourful and make ideal subjects to paint, but last year I was unable to get any photographs to use as studies for my paintings. But when a friend and fellow birdwatcher who lives in Bridlington called me to tell me of a sighting, I was keen to get out and photograph them. My contact had heard of a flock of 50 waxwings in Kirkbymoorside. It was too late for me to set off that day, but the next morning I was off first thing: cameras charged and flask and sandwiches packed.

As I arrived at the junction of Shore Drive and Tinley Garth I could see the berries on the rowan trees. About two thirds of the trees had already been stripped clean but the lower branches still had a few berries on, which were ideal for photographing. But there were no waxwings to be seen. It is always worth waiting a little while if you know that waxwings have been spotted in an area and if there are still some berries left on the rowans. Often they are simply taking a break to digest the berries they have gorged and will soon return to finish off. Sure enough, no sooner had I stopped the car when I saw some flying directly overhead.

I parked up and as I was getting my cameras and tripod out more and more birds arrived until there were over 120 – more than I have ever seen at one time. They landed on top of an ash tree at first, as if they were checking that the coast was clear, before they then flew down into the rowans and began to plunder the berries. They were so preoccupied they didn’t seem to mind me photographing them but occasionally they were spooked by a car driving by and would fly off back to the taller tree. There was cloud cover in the morning so I decided to wait until the afternoon when it was due to brighten up. Their colours look so much better in bright sunlight. There were fewer birds around by then, but I did get some fantastic shots.

As I stood photographing the birds, people kept passing me by – I suppose I did look a bit conspicuous with my two foot camera lens – and asking me what I was up to. There are no longer any waxwings in that particular spot in Kirkbymoorside but I have seen them since in the rowan trees by the public car park opposite Yates Garden Centre in Malton.

Next read:

Enjoying this story and photographs? Click here to read about the time when waxwings interrupted my meal on Christmas day.

 


My next exhibition at my gallery in Thixendale will be a focus on British wildlife in winter. Opening on November 4th-26th, the event will include all my latest paintings as well as my photographic and video studies of animals and birds in wintertime. Click on the link below for more information.

My Christmas Exhibition will Focus on Wildlife in Winter

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