At this time of year a look at the ‘What’s About‘ blog page of the Cambridgeshire Bird Club (CBC) website to see if there are any interesting avian visitors in the locale is well worth while. On Monday this week (29th November 2010) there was a posting on the CBC site recording a sighting of waxwing in Brimley Road, Arbury, north Cambridge. They were spotted feeding on the berries of the many rowan trees in this street. Having never seen a waxwing and having marvelled at the spectacular pictures I’d seen of them I went there at lunchtime to have a look for myself. Alas, there were no waxwing to be seen but I persevered and went there again on Wednesday lunchtime with my friend and fellow wildlife enthusiast, Joe. Again to no avail. So we decided to make an early morning trip on Thursday, reasoning that the waxwing would be more likely to be there at breakfast time.
Thursday morning was snowy and absolutely freezing cold but I set off at 7.45 with my camera. On this occasion it was third time lucky:
Five of the seven waxwing frequenting Brimley
Road last Thursday
The trip was definitely worthwhile! It was a murky, grey, cold morning and until I got within around 30m of the birds I thought they were starlings. But as I got closer the crest became evident and then the colours… and they were absolutely stunning. A blaze of colour brightening up an otherwise grim morning.
The scientific name for waxwing is ‘Bombycilla garrulus‘ which means ‘chattering silk tail’. They are predominantly resident in conifer forests in Scandinavia and are partial winter migrants to the UK. I.e. some of the population head south in winter – known as an ‘irruption‘ – when food supplies in the north which consist of a variety of fruit and berries including crab apple, rowan, cotoneaster and mistletoe, are insufficient to support the whole population. An article in todays edition of the ‘Chronicle and Echo‘, the local newpaper in Northampton, reported that that current weather conditions in Scandinavia are really atrocious so record numbers of waxwing are migrating south giving rise to a ‘waxwing winter‘.
Waxwing feed in flocks, perching in the top of a tree and making occasional forays en masse to nearby fruit trees where they go into a ‘feeding frenzy’ for a few minutes before returning to their perch. This behaviour was observed on Brimley Road, the 7 birds there were sitting in the top of a crab apple tree and moving to an adjacent tree which looked like a rowan with white berries, to feed. There are species of rowan from China which have white berries so I guess this tree was a Chinese variety. We watched them for approximately 45 minutes during which time they appeared almost completely unfazed by our presence or the constant hubbub prevailing in a suburban street just before the school bell.
They are approximately the size of starling and at a distance can be mistaken for starling, as I did. They are 18cm long with a 34cm wingspan and they make a call like someone quietly ringing a small porcelain bell. There are up to approximately 200,000 pairs in Europe and it’s conservation status is green.
I don’t normally go twitching, especially in places as public as this, and I thought people would think we were a tad bonkers. But it was a pleasant surprise how many people stopped to ask us what we were looking at and showed a real interest in the birds. One chap even stopped his van in the middle of the road for a chat, only moving when the traffic behind honked the horn.
A great way to spend an hour before work, despite the freezing weather!