GOB 87 Waxwing Winter Wonders

(This article first appeared in the February 2017 edition of 'Birdwatching' magazine)

This winter waxwings were far enough south for me to see some on an outing that took just forty-five minutes, including thirty minutes watching time! Half a dozen of these beauties surprisingly, were not gorging on hips and haws, but actually catching flies. That was a new observation for me, but obviously, these birds can only eat fruit when there are fruit to eat, so eat insects when raising a family at their spring and summer homes before there are any fruit about.  Moreover, I happened to be reviewing some really top flight binoculars so got incredible views. With the birds close by and in full sharp focus I could practically count the number of feathers in their erect quiffs.  

It struck me how convenient the birds were, perhaps only 500 yards from where I had last seen waxwings a few seasons ago. Then something more awesome struck me… they were less than three hundred yards from where I first saw waxwings decades ago, way before I moved to the area. Clearly not the same birds, so there could be no true site loyalty, (such as is seen in winter swans that use the same isolated ponds to rest on their long migrations and suffer losses when such ponds are filled in).

So why have I so often seen waxwings there, when better berry sites have never produced waxwing sightings by me or others? I’ve pondered this mystery deeply, but not come up with a satisfactory answer; I can see nothing special about the location. Waxwings do not fear man, so winter invasions often favour city centre ornamental plantings. I imagine the added warmth of cities keeps food more available to them, but my site is nothing out of the ordinary.

It begs the question, why are birds where they are, when they are?

There are plenty of good solid reasons, such as the right habitat, the right weather, migration routes, food abundance, roosts sites et al., but there are plenty of times when it seems completely random and sometimes desperately annoying.

Try taking a visiting birder to your ‘guarantied’ spots for particular species… that will be the day when you might as well be at the north pole or in the middle of the Kalahari Desert… not a bird will show. Never, ever, say ‘I always see (add the species of your choice) here’… as it will work like black magic to conjure them elsewhere.

Big days and bird races are another way to charm the birds out of the trees before you turn up. You can prepare your route for weeks in checking sites daily and finding your targets happily munching seeds, but on race day several of those easy peasy lemon squeezy ‘bankers’ will have decided to temporarily migrate.

Try perfectly timing a trip to a part of the country where you can see some special birds too. I went up to Scotland in one May and loved the trip, the only disappointment being missing out on Osprey… we got home to find out that no less than two ospreys had spent that week fishing in our local reservoir!

Of course, if you really want prime examples of birds at the wrong place at the wrong time then consult my old twitching diary… my year of chasing rarities. It wasn’t too full on, but as much as a more than full time job allowed. I lost count of the number of times I arrived in the nick of time, exactly that moment when the bird had just disappeared over the horizon!